On Monday, a Spanish court indicted 20 Salvadoran soldiers for their involvement in the murders and subsequent cover-up of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America in November 1989. Among those indicted are former defense ministers General Humberto Larios and Colonel René Emilio Ponce (recently deceased), General Juan Rafael Bustillo, Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes.
These men were members of the military high command that ordered the massacre in the midst of a FMLN offensive. Judge Eloy Velasco Nunez accused these officials of murder, terrorism and crimes against humanity. While a 1991 trial convicted two military officers, the judge said that their trial was "flawed" and "failed to bring the perpetrators to justice" (CNN).
Several of those who admitted to having participated in the crime were found not guilty. From what I remember, of the two that were convicted, one was an officer. He was allegedly convicted because lower ranking military would have rebelled had they been the only ones to have taken the heat for the murders. The other soldier was found guilty because he shot and killed both Celina and Elba Ramos.
According to Judge Velasco, the military wanted to kill Ignacio Ellacuría, the UCA’s rector, in order to put a stop to the negotiation s between the FMLN and the president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani. Ellacuría had been pushing for a negotiated solution to the conflict for nearly ten years. This is interesting for several reasons.
First, the FMLN supposedly launched its final offensive because it was frustrated with the pace of negotiations. While there had been some progress immediately following Cristiani’s election, negotiations stalled in September and October. Had the military not carried out the murders of the Jesuits, it’s possible that the offensive would have undermined international and domestic support for the FMLN and derailed the peace process indefinitely. Even though the FMLN was unhappy with the negotiations, they persisted. Launching a nationwide offensive in the middle of the negotiations might have given the government and the military an opportunity to put an end to the peace process. The Salvadoran military might have gotten what it wanted had it not killed the Jesuits.
Second, the military leaders responsible for giving the order to kill Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses were driven primarily by self-interest. They had become politically and financially powerful throughout the war and feared that a negotiated solution would put an end to their privileged position in society especially if any agreement called for a total restructuring of the armed forces. In this sense, the military was not driven by a disagreement with Cristiani as to the wisdom of negotiating with the FMLN. Those communists, terrorists, and subversives could not be trusted. They would never accept democracy. Instead, they feared that negotiations might work and that they would lose control.
Third, there were several coup rumors in the late 1980s and early 1990s coming from the right. What happened within the Salvadoran high command that they launched an attack against Ellacuría and the UCA as well as other pro-democracy advocates, rather than Cristiani? Did they give equal consideration to removing Cristiani? Did they consider other means of squelching negotiations? Was murdering Ellacuría and the other Jesuits in the midst of chaos brought on by the FMLN offensive an opportunity too good to pass up?
The reactions to the indictments have been as expected. Abraham Abrego, deputy director of the Foundation for the Application and Study of Law (FESPAD), an independent human-rights organization, says that
"It is a powerful and symbolic message against impunity and sends a clear message to the military that were involved in human rights abuses and crimes against humanity...It restricts the possibility of these military officers fleeing to other countries, because if they try to escape, other countries that have judicial cooperation with Spain can arrest and send them to a tribunal in Spain.”(LA Times)
The Director of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES) Miguel Montenegro says that
The judge's decision "gives us encouragement to continue the fight against impunity." (AFP)
On the other hand, several individuals were not so happy to receive the court’s decision. ARENA member Donato Vaquerano said that
"We think it is disrespectful to the independence of each country, starting with that. The resolution is disrespecting the General Amnesty Law. That is part of a grand bargain that allowed Salvadorans to take a giant step, of being in an armed conflict to enter into a process of peace and coexistence in a democracy, that we allowed the law.” (Contrapunto)
What happens next? Lawyers involved in the case have three days to file a petition to amend the rulings and five days to begin an appeal. The Spanish indictment calls for the twenty officers to be found and brought before a Spanish court to be tried for the murders. The defendants have ten days to voluntarily appear before that court. After those ten days are up, international arrest warrants can be issued for those who do not voluntarily appear before the court. All states, including El Salvador, are required to act upon such warrants. If Spain asks El Salvador to extradite the accused, it will be up to the Salvadoran Supreme Court to decide.
In November 2009, I wrote
"While I am not convinced that the accused will ever see a Spanish courtroom, I am somewhat hopeful that the Spanish investigation as well as Funes' election will help to restart a movement in El Salvador to deal with the human rights violations committed during the 1970s and 1980s…
Pressure from the international community and civil society might provide Funes with political cover to backtrack on his campaign promise not to push the Legislative Assembly to revoke the amnesty law.”
I stand by what I said eighteen months ago. I think that it is unlikely that the nineteen surviving officers will see the inside of a Spanish courtroom. Today, the UCA remains opposed to trying the accused in Spain. They support justice as long as it is brought about by a genuinely Salvadoran process. I agree. However, I do hope that this indictment will continue what has been an excruciatingly slow movement towards revisiting the history of El Salvador’s civil war.
It’s not enough to say both sides committed human rights violations and that both sides agreed to an amnesty that would allow the country to move forward. Even if members of the FMLN, ARENA, the military and the US prefer to keep the amnesty in place, that not’s what the Salvadoran people deserve.
[See also Timand El Faro for additional coverage of the indictment. You can also read the judge’s ruling in Spanish here.]