Sep 11, 2020 Update
Washington D.C., September 11, 2020 – In a highly-anticipated, and long-awaited ruling, the National Court of Spain today convicted a retired Salvadoran military colonel for acts of state terrorism and murder in the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenaged daughter more than thirty years ago. The tribunal, presided by lead judge José Antonio Mora Alarcón, found retired Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano “guilty … of five counts of murder of a terrorist nature.”
The historic judgement marks the culmination of decades of work by the families of the victims, the Jesuit community, lawyers, experts, scholars, eyewitnesses, and human rights organizations in the United States and in El Salvador to bring to justice those responsible for the shocking crimes committed on the morning of November 16, 1989.
And it represents another milestone for the unique legal concept of “Universal Jurisdiction” as applied in the Spanish courts. “Without justice there is no peace, no reconciliation and no forgiveness,” observes Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, the human rights legal advocacy firm which represented victims in the Jesuit case. “Universal justice is not only justice, it is solidarity and hope for the victims.”
The ruling in Madrid also validates the work of the National Security Archive, which supplied hundreds of declassified documents as evidence in the case against Montano. Since its founding in 1985, the Archive has fought to open the secret U.S. archives on El Salvador, amassing a vast collection of records through the Freedom of Information Act and discretionary declassifications. Exhuming the buried secrets of the U.S. role in Salvador’s bloody civil war has been “trabajo de hormiga,” as they say in Spanish--ant’s work, tiny step by tiny step. But over the years it has led to the accumulation of an extraordinary trove of official reporting, new details, context, and corroborative evidence that has proven crucial in the prosecution of human rights violators.
Almudena Bernabeu, the Spanish human rights attorney who originally filed the case against the Salvadoran high command for killing the Jesuits, and co-founder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers, high-lighted the value of the records in a videotaped statement she posted in August. The prosecution team chose to draw on testimonies, expert analysis, and documentary evidence, she explained, so that they could tell “not only the story of how the crime happened but also to establish the political context in which El Salvador was living in 1989.” According to Bernabeu, “that is the most important aspect of these trials: not to have only legal rigor but a historical rigor as well.”
While witnesses in the Jesuit case detailed the massacre, the declassified documents provided the historical context in which it occurred, as well as clear evidence of the military’s culpability despite a massive coverup. Embassy cables, CIA reports and Defense Intelligence Agency accounts described how US officials reluctantly arrived at the realization that it was their own allies in the El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF) who ordered and implemented the plot to kill the priests.
“Despite advancements in other areas,” cabled then-Ambassador William Walker in bitter frustration in 1991, “on the Jesuit case the ESAF remains committed to a hermetic conspiracy to protect its own at whatever cost.”
“In the 12 months since ESAF responsibility for the murders was revealed,” he continued, “the military’s leadership has resisted all appeal for an honest accounting of what it must have possessed from the beginning – the truth.”
This document, titled, "The ESAF and the Jesuit Case: Reaching the End of the Rope," among so many others, was provided to the Spanish authorities as evidence in the case.
As director of the National Security Archive’s El Salvador Documentation Project, in 2009, I flew to Madrid to testify before the National Court of Spain and authenticate the hundreds of documents the Archive turned over to prosecutors. Stanford University specialist Professor Terry L. Karl drew on the declassified records for her expert analysis of the Jesuit case; the investigating magistrate, Judge Eloy Velasco, cited the U.S. records in his 77-page decision to indict 20 military officers for the assassinations and order a trial of the defendants.
The Salvadoran government refused to cooperate with the Spanish court, delaying the legal proceedings for years. But in 2017, the United States took the unusual step of extraditing Montano to Madrid, six years after he had been arrested while living outside of Boston and convicted on charges of immigration fraud. (He had been living quietly in the United States since 2001 and when he was arrested he worked in a candy factory.)
Although Montano is only one of 19 senior officers indicted for planning the murders, ordering a special death squad of soldiers from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion to execute the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, and orchestrating a cover up of the military’s actions, Montano’s conviction is larger than one man and one crime. His conviction stands as a historic victory for accountability over impunity for the thousands of human rights atrocities committed under his command.
“These acts were not an aberration,” as Terry Karl concluded in her expert report:
“Throughout his 30-year military career, Colonel Montano demonstrated a pattern of ordering, abetting and assisting, and/or commanding troops that participated in state terror against civilians. Documented human rights abuses include extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearance and arbitrary detention, the toleration of military-led death squads operating inside units under his command, rural massacres of hundreds civilian non-combatants at a time, and the forced disappearance of children.”
In the Madrid courtroom today, Montano was sentenced to 133 years in prison: 26 years and 8 months for each of the five victims represented in the case.
I have participated in a dozen historic human rights trials throughout the Americas. I have witnessed convictions of perpetrators who enjoyed ten, twenty, even thirty years of impunity before justice caught up with them. These cases send a universal message to the torturers, the murderers in repressive regimes that the world is watching. Montano’s conviction demonstrates anew that there are countries, lawyers, organizations, and victims who make up a community of human rights advocates who are going to find them and bring them to justice.
Washington D.C., July 10, 2020 - More than three decades after the shocking execution of six Jesuit priests by the Salvadoran military, National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle testified today at the historic legal proceedings in Spain to hold senior officials accountable for the November 1989 atrocity. Acting as an expert witness, Doyle authenticated hundreds of declassified U.S. records that have been submitted as evidence to the Spanish tribunal in the case of the Jesuits.
“The U.S. documents provide a strong credibility, and a clear relevance to clarifying the crimes that were committed,” as Doyle, who directs the El Salvador Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, informed the court.
The legal proceedings against former Vice Minister of Public Security Col. Inocente Orlando Montano began in June 2020. Montano, who quietly left El Salvador in 2001 was discovered by human rights investigators living outside Boston in 2011. He was convicted of immigration fraud and, in November 2017, extradited to Spain to stand trial for his role in the murder of the Jesuits, five of whom held Spanish citizenship.
In the early morning hours of November 16, 1989, an elite unit of the Salvadoran armed forces entered the grounds of the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador and executed its rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, along with five other Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year old daughter. The murders became one of the most notorious human rights crimes of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992 after an estimated 75,000 civilian deaths.
Since 2008, when Spanish lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, then at the independent, San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), along with Spain’s Human Rights Association, first filed a 126-page legal complaint in Madrid against members of the Salvadoran high command, the National Security Archive has made hundreds of declassified U.S. records available to the proceedings. In late November 2009, Doyle traveled to Madrid to testify on the authenticity of the records as part of a set of evidentiary hearings. Spanish judge Eloy Velasco cited “an abundant amount of information, collected and carefully analyzed,” contained in “thousands of documents declassified by United States government agencies” in his May 2011 indictment of 20 high-level Salvadoran officers.
Gathered painstakingly over the course of decades, the documents contain what Doyle describes as “vital information about the military’s conspiracy to assassinate the Jesuits, how the kill operation unfolded, and the elaborate steps taken by senior officers – including the official on trial in Madrid, former army Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano – to hide what happened.”
As the evidence makes clear, these actions by El Salvador’s Armed Forces (ESAF) were apparent to U.S. officials at the time. As one embassy cable from San Salvador reported: “In the 12 months since ESAF responsibility for the murders was revealed, the military’s leadership has resisted all appeal for an honest accounting of what [it] must have possessed from the beginning—the truth.”
The National Security Archive has a long track record of supplying evidence in the form of once-secret CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI and State Department records for human rights trials. When prosecutors have sought assistance in a case, the Archive has searched its data-based collections of declassified U.S. documents amassed through years of research, archival sleuthing, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Archive collections can take three, five, ten, even twenty years to build because of the staggering delays in the federal classification and public access system.
Research on human rights violations in El Salvador dates back to the very founding of the National Security Archive in 1985. At that time, two journalists – Scott Armstrong, formerly of The Washington Post, and Raymond Bonner of The New York Times – each donated boxes of declassified records on El Salvador that they had independently accumulated during their careers as investigative reporters. Bonner was one of three American journalists to tell the world what happened in the village of El Mozote after soldiers had massacred hundreds of its residents in 1981. Armstrong was the founding director of the Archive. Their material became part of the Archive’s first published collection, El Salvador: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1984.
Since then, the Archive’s El Salvador Documentation Project has filed hundreds of FOIA requests and gathered tens of thousands of declassified documents on El Salvador’s bloody civil war, U.S. policy, Salvadoran security forces, the armed revolutionary groups of the FMLN, and notorious human rights crimes such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre, as well as the brutal slaying of the Jesuit priests. The records derive from the U.S. government national security and foreign policy agencies: the State Department and its embassy in San Salvador, the Pentagon and its intelligence division known as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America, the CIA, and the FBI.
The El Salvador Documentation Project provided many of these records to the United Nations Truth Commission when it was created in 1992 to investigate El Salvador’s human rights catastrophe. Truth Commission investigators eventually determined that the order to kill the Jesuits came from the military’s chief of staff, Col. Emilio Ponce, at a meeting of the high command on November 15, 1989. At that meeting, which Col. Montano attended, according to the Truth Commission report, “Colonel Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and, in front of the four other officers, ordered him to eliminate Father Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses.”
The Clinton administration responded to the Truth Commission by ordering the declassification of more than 12,000 documents, but too late for the Commission's proceedings. The Archive indexed and published this collection and it, along with the Archive's first published compilation on El Salvador mentioned above, is now part of the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) from ProQuest.
Since 2009, the Archive has collaborated with CJA’s former international lawyer Almudena Bernabeu – now the co-founder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers – along with human rights lawyer Patty Blum, El Salvador expert Professor Emeritus Terry Karl, and Spanish lawyer Manuel Ollé Sese to identify the most important documents pertinent to the Jesuit case and incorporate them into the prosecution’s strategy. The ongoing trial in the National Court in Madrid is the culmination of the decades of collective efforts by this team of human rights lawyers and advocates, as well as many others, among them colleagues of the Jesuits at the UCA and their families.
To provide a sense of the content and quality of the documentation submitted as evidence in the Jesuit case, the Archive today is posting a representative sampling of six declassified records:
Read the Documents
El Salvador Documentation Project (Digital National Security Archive Accession No. EL01050)
Immediately following the assassination of the Jesuits, U.S. theories of what had happened are confused. The State Department's Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, assumes "right-wing extremists" were behind the killings, as they had been behind Archbishop Romero's death, and urges U.S. Ambassador William Walker to gather information about rightist involvement. He also warns Walker to guard against leaks, which would make it "exceedingly more difficult for President Cristiani and the ESAF [El Salvador Armed Forces] leadership to respond effectively when the time comes."
El Salvador Documentation Project (Digital National Security Archive Accession No. EL01119)
This report is a chronological account of the Jesuit case compiled from interviews by a U.S. criminal investigator assigned to the embassy in San Salvador. The document summarizes the Atlacatl Battalion's reconnaissance missions on the University of Central America (UCA) campus several days before the killings to search the priests' private residential quarters; the order given the night before the assassination by Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides to three subordinates, including Lt. Yussy [sic] Mendoza Vallecillos (material witness in the Spanish trial), to kill the priests; gruesome details of the shooting itself on the early morning of November 16, 1989; and the subsequent cover-up. The investigator concludes that he cannot rule out a "conspiracy" beyond the small circle of military officers currently under suspicion for their role in the crime.
El Salvador Documentation Project (Digital National Security Archive Accession No. EL00322)
This CIA intelligence report implicates a wide group of senior military officers in the plot to kill the Jesuits. In it, a member of the Military Police on guard at the Military Academy on November 15 and 16 recounts watching more than a dozen high-ranking officers of the El Salvador Armed Forces - including chief of the Joint General Staff Col. Rene Emilio Ponce - arrive at the school for a meeting on the afternoon before the murders. The source describes seeing a unit of the Atlacatl Battalion leave the Military Academy that same night in new uniforms and camouflage paint in the back of a pick-up truck, and return, some six hours later, in the early morning of November 16. Although Inocente Montano is not named in the document, the U.N. Truth Commission would identify him as one of those officers who colluded in the plans to kill the Jesuits and the cover-up that followed.
El Salvador Documentation Project (Digital National Security Archive Accession No. EL00524)
In the wake of the Jesuit murders, this Defense Intelligence Agency cable describes a meeting of the country's top military leaders to discuss damage control. Warning that any army cooperation in the investigations "may be a mask for secret protective measures," a U.S. intelligence officer describes senior military men conspiring to avoid scrutiny in the case while holding on to U.S. financial support: "The members are said to have agreed that the US Congress would not cut off military security assistance because of the ongoing government-rebel negotiations and that US aid levels would have to be determined by October. Thus, they concluded that at least until October, they must maintain an appearance of effective judicial collaboration..."
El Salvador Documentation Project (Digital National Security Archive Accession No. EL01169)
In the aftermath of the Jesuit murders, Congressman Joe Moakley (D-MA) organizes a special task force to investigate the crime and expose those responsible. The task force uncovered the first clear evidence that the highest levels of the Salvadoran military had conspired to commit this atrocity. In August 1990, Moakley's lead investigator, Jim McGovern, traveled to San Salvador and obtained "breakthrough information on Jesuit slaying and coverup" from one of the military's "most senior and respected officers," according to this secret cable. "If the basic story is true," U.S. Ambassador William Walker reported in a panic to Washington, "...our policy is in peril since the difficult-to-dismiss implications would be that the decision to kill the Jesuits was a deliberate one made at the highest levels of the ESAF [El Salvador Armed Forces]."
El Salvador Documentation Project (Digital National Security Archive Accession No. EL01260)
In this secret cable recommending the U.S. withhold military assistance to the Salvadoran military, Ambassador William Walker vents his frustration with the army high command for refusing to divulge information on the Jesuit case. He advises Washington how ineffectual U.S. efforts to persuade the army to cooperate in the investigation have been: "USG pleas, threats, turning on and off the assistance spigot, and appeals to institutional honor have all had the same results - zilch." Walker also suggests that he has lost faith in Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, who has risen to be minister of defense, because of his lack of cooperation and recommends the U.S. government push him out of office. The U.S. ambassador appears not to realize that he is demanding cooperation from the actual intellectual author of the Jesuit massacre.
 Although Karl’s expert report for the Spanish case is under seal, the write-up she did for Montano’s extradition hearings was made public and the Salvadoran news site posted it online. Exhibit 1: Expert Report of Professor Terry Lynn Karl, Stanford University, in the Case of Inocente Orlando Montano, dated December 31, 2012, may be found by searching for “Case 1:12-cr-10044-DPW Document 53-1." See conclusions at p. 48.
 The Spanish legal system permitted the case to advance for the five Spanish-born priests killed in 1989. The sixth Jesuit, Elba and Celina Ramos were Salvadoran citizens.