El Salvador ex-president and others face charges for 1989 murders of Jesuits

A memorial to Father Ignacio Ellacuría and his companions at the site of their killings at the Central American University in San Salvador. A memorial to Father Ignacio Ellacuría and his companions at the site of their killings at the Central American University in San Salvador. | Johan Bergström-Allen/Archbishop Romero Trust via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Former El Salvador president Alfredo Cristiani and a dozen others, including former military officers, now face charges related to the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador, prosecutors announced Friday.

Cristiani served as president from 1989 to 1994. He has denied any involvement or knowledge of the plan. During the country’s civil war, an elite commando unit killed the eight people and tried to frame left-wing guerillas for the killings.

Prosecutors in El Salvador announced charges including murder, terrorism, and conspiracy, the AP reports. Attorney general Rodolfo Delgado said on Twitter Feb. 25 that his office is “determined to go after those accused of ordering this regrettable and tragic event.”

The Salvadoran Civil War was fought from 1979 to 1992 between the country's right-wing military government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a left-wing revolutionary group also known by its Spanish acronym FMLN.

The Jesuits in El Salvador were active proponents of peace talks and negotiation between the government and the FMLN.

On Nov. 16, 1989 a unit of the Salvadoran Army dragged six Jesuits from their beds on the campus of the Central American University and shot them.

The priests killed were Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the university; Ignacio Martín-Baró; Segundo Montes; Amando López; Joaquín López y López; and Juan Ramón Moreno Pardo. All were Spaniards except for López y López, a Salvadoran.

The priest's housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Celina were also killed.

It is believed that the order to execute the Jesuits came from officials who believed them to be supporters of the FMLN. The Atlacatl Battalion, which killed Fr. Ellacuría and his companions, was trained by American advisers.

The Salvadoran government was supported by the United States during the twelve-year conflict, which killed 75,000 people and resulted in the disappearances of 8,000 more. The United Nations has estimated that 85% of civilians killed during the conflict died at the hands of government forces.

A 1993 amnesty was established after the war, but El Salvador’s high court ruled this unconstitutional in 2016. A legal probe was delayed pending military officers’ appeal of the case, but the high court ordered the investigation reopened in January.

In September 2020, a Spanish court convicted former Salvadoran colonel Inocente Orlando Montano Morales for his participation in the murder of the five Spanish Jesuits. He was sentenced to more than 133 years in prison for planning and ordering the killing of the priests. He had been El Salvador's vice-minister for public security during the civil war.

Montano maintained his innocence, though witnesses testified that he believed the Jesuits were collaborators of the FMLN.

The Spanish court said the massacre was “state terrorism” carried out by powerful interests, including Cristiani, who wanted to maintain “their positions of privilege within the power structures,” the Guardian reports.

Before the 1993 amnesty, nine members of the military were put on trial but a court absolved seven. Two officers served short prison sentences but were released under the amnesty. When the high court threw out the amnesty, a judge ordered one of the convicted officers, Guillermo Benavides, to return to prison.

In January 2020, the U.S. Department of State censured 13 former Salvadoran military officials for their involvement in the November 1989 extrajudicial killing of six Jesuit priests and two others. The 13 former soldiers were barred from entering the U.S.

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