State Department sanctions 13 suspected in 1989 slaying of Jesuits in El Salvador. Why now?
A State Department decision to bar 13 former Salvadoran military officers and soldiers, and their family members, from entry into the United States has been described by some regional analysts as a symbolic gesture—none of the men named are likely to risk an international arrest warrant by attempting to travel outside of El Salvador. But others see a possible opening toward justice for victims of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses perpetrated during El Salvador’s brutal, 12-year civil war.
In a statement released on Jan. 29, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that U.S. officials have “credible information” of the involvement of the 13 military personnel in gross violations of human rights or significant corruption. According to the State Department release, the “former Salvadoran military personnel, ranging in rank from general to private, were involved in the planning and execution of the extrajudicial killings of six Jesuit priests and two others taking refuge at the Jesuit pastoral center on November 16, 1989, on the campus of [the José Simeón Cañas] Central American University [U.C.A.]in El Salvador.”
Almudena Bernabeu is the co-founder of the Guernica Group, an international campaign to bring perpetrators of international crimes and human rights violations to justice. The group has campaigned for the prosecution in Spain of those behind the attack—five of the murdered Jesuits were Spanish citizens. In a voice message left in response to queries from America, she speculated that Spanish arrest warrants may have figured in the State Department decision after one of the men named in the warrants applied for a U.S. visa.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed by email that the visa sanctions were triggered by a routine investigation after “an individual connected to this incident sought to travel to the United States.” He explained that under U.S. law, officials of foreign governments who can be credibly connected to corruption or gross violations of human rights are ineligible for entry into the United States. He added that public designations of such decisions “allow the United States to promote accountability for government officials who perpetrate human rights violations and abuses and to disrupt or deter future abuse.”
A step toward justice?
“We welcome this development and hope that it may prove to be a step towards finally bringing these men to justice,” said Ted Penton, S.J., secretary for Justice and Ecology, Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, commenting on the decision by email.
The United States designates senior military officers as being directly responsible for the murders of six Jesuits and two others on the grounds of the University of Central America in 1989, a historic moment for justice in El Salvador.
“For the United States to designate senior military officers as being directly responsible marks a historic moment for justice in El Salvador,” said Geoff Thale, interim president of the Washington Office on Latin America, a longtime advocacy group for human rights and peace in El Salvador. “It should strengthen efforts for truth and reconciliation in a country that is still living with the ghosts of the past.”
At the same time, he said in an online statement, “the full extent of the military command’s involvement in massive human rights violations during the war, including the Jesuit massacre, needs to be investigated further.” He added, “Whether the Salvadoran justice system is capable of fairly handling these cases will be a true test of how much rule of law has progressed in the country.”
José María Tojeira, S.J., former U.C.A. rector and director of the university’s human rights commission, told El Salvador’s Diario Co Latino that he was not satisfied with the State Department’s efforts. “They leave out some who were involved in the murder,” he said.
He suggested a better list would have focused on “high-level military personalities who were probably involved,” not on the soldiers who would have been killed themselves for not following orders. Father Tojeira added that the State Department should have consulted knowledgeable organizations in El Salvador.
On Twitter, he added, “[U.S.] visas are a sign of status for a certain Salvadoran elite. That is why it is taken as punishment to suppress the military. Great news. But Americans know that there are many more involved in crimes against humanity and that they trained them.”
“Americans know that there are many more involved in crimes against humanity and that they trained them.”
U.S. Representative Jim McGovern offered measured praise to the State Department in a statement released on Jan. 29. “Thirty years after these murders took place, [the State Department] designation recognizes that the search for justice in this case and others continues in El Salvador,” Mr. McGovern said. “It recognizes that these heinous crimes are not forgotten and remain high priorities for the people of El Salvador and the United States.”
Mr. McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, helped lead a congressional investigation of the murders at Central American University (U.C.A.) in 1990, while on the staff of U.S. Rep. Joe Moakley, also a Democrat from Massachusetts. Mr. McGovern discovered then not only that members of the high command of the Salvadoran military had ordered the killing of the Jesuits, but that 19 of the 26 members of the unit that raided the campus had received military training at the School of the Americas—now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, at Fort Benning in Georgia.
The Salvadoran civil war between the country’s right-wing, quasi-military government and a coalition of leftist rebel forces known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front raged from 1979 until 1992. An estimated 75,000 people, mostly non-combatants, were killed during the conflict, and 8,000 more remain missing.
Among those victims late in the conflict were the U.C.A. Jesuits who were pulled from their beds and executed on the grounds of the university—Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López and Amando López. They had been targeted because of their persistent efforts to encourage a negotiated peace and their criticism of the government’s part in the war’s ongoing brutality. Killed with them were Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter, Celina Ramos.
A United Nations–mandated Truth and Reconciliation commission described the attack as “the final outburst of the delirium that had infected the armed forces and the innermost recesses of certain government circles.” The commission, which concluded in 1993, attributed 85 percent of the acts of extrajudicial violence during the civil war to state security agents and five percent to the F.M.L.N. A controversial general amnesty, covering all crimes on both sides related to the civil war, was declared five days after the release of the report, allowing the release of low-level Salvadoran military who had been previously jailed for the assault on U.C.A.
A United Nations–mandated Truth and Reconciliation commission described the attack as “the final outburst of the delirium that had infected the armed forces and the innermost recesses of certain government circles.”
In 1999, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled that El Salvador’s amnesty violated international law by foreclosing further investigation into the U.C.A. murders and other criminal acts during the war. And in July 2016, the Salvadoran Supreme Court declared the 1993 amnesty unconstitutional, opening the door to what have proved to be slow-moving prosecutions of cases like massacres at El Mozote and El Calabozo and the Jesuit assassinations at U.C.A.
Losing amnesty protection?
According to the Washington Office on Latin America, the list released by the State Department is not comprehensive, but it does include all the living officers of the Salvadoran high command named in the Salvadoran Truth Commission report as among those responsible for ordering the assassinations at U.C.A.
In his statement, Mr. Pompeo said that “the United States supports the ongoing accountability, reconciliation and peace efforts in El Salvador.” He added, “We value our ongoing working relationship with the Salvadoran Armed Forces but will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them.”
The former military personnel identified by the State Department either planned or had an active role in the killings at the university, according to the Truth Commission. Protected by the amnesty, they have for years ignored the legal proceedings in Spain, but this latest U.S. sanction suggests, Ms. Bernabeu said, that “this is something that is going to be lingering in their lives, and obviously it is going to pop up every single time they try to travel or they try to do anything internationally.”
Officials from the State Department and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to identify which individual among the 13 named had applied for a visa or to describe the purpose of his intended travel to the United States, but in recent months efforts within El Salvador to bring human rights violators to justice have been rejuvenated by the 2016 court decision overturning the 1993 amnesty.
On Dec. 28 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the government to turn over records related to the country’s civil war to the courts and victims of alleged human rights abuses. The commission requested that missing or destroyed documents from the period be reconstructed. In January a group including surviving family members of victims of violence by the F.M.L.N. demanded investigations into crimes alleged on both sides in the conflict.
And just a few days after the State Department released its list, a former high-ranking Salvadoran military official acknowledged for the first time that it was indeed the Salvadoran military which carried out the slaughter of hundreds of mostly women and children at the village of El Mozote in December 1981. Juan Rafael Bustillo, a former commander of the Salvadoran Air Force and among those designated as ineligible for a U.S. visa by the State Department, told a court in El Salvador on Jan. 24 that the elite, U.S.-trained rapid response Atlacatl Battalion had, as long suspected, carried out the liquidation of the village. The same battalion was also responsible for the attack on the Jesuit compound at U.C.A.
Mr. Bustillo attributed the bloodshed at El Mozote to an “instance of madness” by the battalion’s commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa. Mr. Monterrosa died in 1984 in a helicopter crash, and Mr. Bustillo is wanted in Spain for the Jesuit murders and in France for ordering the rape, torture and murder of Madeleine Lagadec, a volunteer nurse for Doctors without Borders who was killed in 1989.
One of the men named on the State Department list, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, faces trial in Spain in June for the U.C.A. attack. Mr. Morales had been a resident of Everett, Mass., before his deportation to Spain for trial in 2017. His extradition followed a 21-month federal prison sentence after a conviction in 2013 for immigration fraud and perjury in connection with statements he made to immigration authorities to remain in the United States under Temporary Protected Status.
El Salvador’s new president, Nayib Bukele, was elected as an independent in May. Politicians from parties that represent both sides of the civil war—the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, and the party which emerged from the F.M.L.N. as it transitioned to its peacetime political role—allied to push a new amnesty law through the National Assembly before Mr. Bukele could be inaugurated in June. That effort, which had been opposed by the incoming president and officials from the United Nations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, failed.
But a revived effort to restore an amnesty that would block prosecution of individuals from both sides of the conflict is currently making its way through the Salvadoran national assembly, facing a Feb. 28 deadline. Salvadoran media report that local human rights groups continue to criticize the new amnesty proposal, noting conflicts of interest among the Arena, F.M.L.N. and other legislative parties negotiating the proposed law, whose deputies have been directly or indirectly complicit in war crimes. The new law could be approved by the assembly in March, according to Ms. Bernabeu, who described it as “another effort to shield the high command.”
As those efforts continue, the bishops’ conference of El Salvador has urged the passage of “an authentic ‘National Reconciliation Law,’ which effectively allows justice to be administered to the victims, that the truth of the crimes committed is known and that due damages are established.”