Spain imprisons ex-colonel for Jesuit priests slain in El Salvador

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2013 file photo, former El Salvadoran military Col. Inocente Orlando Montano departs federal court, in Boston. Spain’s National Court on Friday Sept. 11, 2020, has condemned the former Salvadoran colonel to 133 years in prison for the slaying of five Spanish priests in El Salvador more than three decades ago. They ruled that Inocente Orlando Montano, a former colonel who served as El Salvador’s vice minister for public security during the country’s 1979-1992 civil war, was responsible for the 1989 “terrorist assassinations.” (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

A Spanish court has convicted a former Salvadoran colonel for the murders of five Jesuit priests in 1989 — a rare act of justice for an atrocity from El Salvador’s brutal civil war.

In a Sept. 11 ruling, former Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, 77, was found to have planned and ordered the murders of the five Jesuits priests — all Spanish nationals — Nov. 16, 1989, at their residence on the campus of Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador.

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The five Spaniards were Father Ignacio Ellacuria, university rector, along with Fathers Ignacio Martín-Baro, Juan Ramón Moreno, Amando López and Segundo Montes. Salvadoran Jesuit Father Joaquín López and Julia Elba Ramos, a housekeeper, and her teenage daughter Celina, also were killed in the attack.

The court could only rule on the cases of the five Spanish Jesuits as a condition of Montano’s 2017 extradition to Spain from the United States, where he resided prior to his extradition.

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Montano, who appeared at his Madrid trial in a wheelchair, was sentenced to 133 years, four months and five days in prison — 26 years, eight months and one day for each murder. He had pleaded not guilty and testified to not having any animus against the Jesuits or the Catholic Church and even spoke of Father Ellacuria as a friend.

Witnesses at the trial — held over nine days in June and July — said Montano considered the Jesuits to be “traitors” and saw, along with others in the army, the Central American University as infested with rebels from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

Father Ellacuria was involved in a peace process to end the civil war, which prosecutors say was seen as a threat by the military command.

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Yusshy Rene Mendoza, a former lieutenant and cooperating witness, testified that perceptions in the military were that Father Ellacuria supported the guerrilla cause. Mendoza also testified that the orders to kill Jesuits came from the “high command.”

The civil war in El Salvador claimed 75,000 lives and sent thousands more fleeing the Central American country. The conflict pitted right-wing death squads against left-wing rebels; human rights abuses were rife and claimed clergy and religious. It officially ended with a peace agreement in 1992.

This story has been updated.

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