Inocente Montano Stands Trial for 1989 El Salvador Jesuit Massacre

Updated: Aug 17

The murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter on 16 November 1989 by the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Military ultimately led to the end of the civil war in El Salvador and catalyzed the victims’ quest for truth, justice, and accountability. After 30 years of seeking justice and 10 years of active litigation, the Spanish National Court will try former Colonel and Vice-Minister of Public Security, Inocente Orlando Montano, started on 8 June 2020. Montano is charged with murder and terrorism for his alleged involvement as one of the key decision-makers behind the Jesuit killing. The Guernica Centre for International Justice—part of The Guernica Group—and Spanish co-counsel Ollé & Sesé Abogados will lead the prosecution on behalf of the victims. This trial represents a key moment for universal jurisdiction, accountability as a crucial element of transitional justice for El Salvador and international criminal law.


Faouzia El Soudani, who will be starting with The Guernica Academy in December 2020, writes for Human Rights Pulse about the importance of the Jesuit Trial in the Spanish National Criminal Court in Madrid.


The original article published by Human Rights Pulse is available here.


In June 2020, the trial of Inocente Montano for the alleged 1989 murder of six Jesuits and two women in El Salvador began in Madrid. This case holds international significance as the Salvadoran government has never officially recognised the massacre.  Moreover, in the words of Spanish human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabé: “The people of El Salvador, who are extraordinarily strong and resilient, see this crime as the ultimate proof of what was done to them as a people.”  This case represents both individual accountability and also international recognition for war crimes committed by the Salvadoran state. 


EL SALVADOR CIVIL WAR


Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador was gripped by civil war, which saw multiple human rights violations. The war cost the lives of 75 million, with citizens also made victims of rape, kidnapping, and cruel and unusual punishment. The origins of the war lay in disputes within the coffee bean industry. The 1800s saw a boom in coffee bean plantations in El Salvador, and the main beneficiaries were the Catorce Familias’ dictatorship (“Fourteen Families”). The working class was brutally exploited and gained little economic reward for its work during this time. This disparity of wealth generated the first resentment by the oppressed and marginalised people.


In 1932, Augustin Farabundo Marti led the oppressed working class to revolt against the Cartorce Familias’ dictatorship. However, in a few weeks the Salvadoran military wiped out Marti’s group of revolutionaries. This horrific event became known as “matanza,” which means “aftermath massacre”. Although a large number of people who challenged the social inequality and class oppression were killed, the revolutionary values remained alive. Years later, the FMLN social party was created and named after Marti.  


In 1980, Civil War broke out, with the state focused on the elimination of the members and supporters of the FMLN, which was deemed a Marxist guerrilla organisation. The FMLN’s values challenged the government's far-right legitimacy and its oligarchy’s economic power. A human rights defender, Bishop Oscar Romero, led the protests and attempted to ask for aid from the US government, but was ignored and later killed. The US spent millions of dollars to train thousands of soldiers who targeted rebel groups, as the US was concerned that Salvadoran communist rebel groups could have undermined the legitimacy and economic interests of America during the Cold War. Therefore, the US supported the right-wing government and military forces rather than providing vital aid to oppressed rebels.


THE JESUIT MASSACRE AND SUBSEQUENT TRIAL


On 16 November 1989, six Jesuit priests and two other women were dragged out of bed and shot execution-style. The order was carried out by the elite Salvadoran Armed Forces, who aimed to kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría, a critic of the regime. This was an attempt to silence the priests from advocating for human rights on behalf of the poor and oppressed. American-based organization Center for Justice and Accountability, along with the Spanish Association for Human Rights, accused Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement as a key conspirator in the Jesuit Massacre case, filing a criminal case against Montano in Spain. Montano had fled to America after the massacre where he was working in a sweets factory. In 2011, he was arrested in the US for immigration fraud and perjury. While serving his sentence, Spain requested Montano’s extradition on the basis of Spain’s universal jurisdiction laws.


Although Montano denied any involvement in the “Jesuit Massacre,” a US federal judge ruled there is factual evidence that he took part in the plot. Hence, the judge approved his extradition to Spain where Montano is now facing trial.  Five of the priests were Spanish, hence why the case is heard in Spain.  


INTERNATIONAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TRIAL


The bereaved families impacted by the Jesuit Massacre have waited more than thirty years for their case to be heard, and this trial is a step toward justice. The trial also acknowledges the existence of the massacre, which the El Salvadoran government has never done. Furthermore, the trial demonstrates that the international community holds those who violate human rights accountable, the bedrock of international peace and order.


Bureaucratic obstacles have prevented a full recognition of transitional justice in El Salvador. For example, the abolition of an amnesty law that protected political and military members who were responsible for the human rights violations in El Salvador has been delayed. David Tobert, the president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, emphasises the importance of a criminal justice process that holds perpetrators accountable, and says that, without this, El Salvador cannot overcome its violent past, as there will be no foundation on which to build a reparative, transitional justice process. Most importantly, delayed justice is frustrating and upsetting for the victims and their families because they are entitled to the truth.


However, as the Guernica Centre for International Justice commented, “this trial represents a key moment for universal jurisdiction”. Despite the practical challenges in promoting a universal jurisdiction (UJ), this case marks a step towards its realisation. UJ is a fundamental doctrine in international law that promotes the inherent duty to prosecute international crimes despite borders. The fact that Montano’s case is  being heard in Spain shows the combined efforts from the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice, despite the fact the crime happened in El Salvador.


There remains much work to be done to achieve effective, ubiquitous universal jurisdiction committed to upholding international human rights and criminal law.  Montano’s trial is one example of the truth being heard and justice considered, not only for the victims of the Jesuit Massacre, but also in the international community as a whole. Overall, this case is an essential milestone in holding accountable perpetrators of mass human rights violations in El Salvador.


Faouzia El Soudani, who will be starting with The Guernica Academy in December 2020, writes for Human Rights Pulse about the importance of the Jesuit Trial in the Spanish National Criminal Court in Madrid.


Faouzia El Soudani, future Guernica Academy Intern.




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