El Salvador Returns Its Attention To 1989 Jesuit Massacre

October 5, 2011

A San Francisco, CA mural depicting scenes from El Salvador's bloody civil war (credit - pagedesign/flickr)

For the past 18 years, an amnesty law has kept a tight legal lid on the numerous massacres and other human rights violations committed during El Salvador’s dozen-year civil war (1980-1992). Thanks to the legal maneuverings of a judge in Spain, however, one of those cases – the infamous Jesuit massacre of 1989 – is now putting the country’s ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ policy to the test.

In late May, Judge Eloy Velsaco of Spain’s Audiencia Nacional court placed the 22-year-old murder case back in the international spotlight by filing charges against 20 former Salvadoran military officials allegedly linked to the killings. The massacre, one of the civil war’s most iconic, took the lives of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish citizens.

Among those included on the indictment list is Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, who allegedly ordered the killing. Ponce died of a heart attack earlier this year, just weeks before Velasco filed the charges. Two of the other indicted men – Inocente Orlando Montano and Hector Ulises Cuenca Ocampo – are thought to be living in the US.

Velasco’s indictments drew widespread – albeit brief – media attention, but were largely viewed as having more symbolic than substantive value given the protection the accused military men enjoy under El Salvador’s amnesty law.

That law has since been reinforced. On June 2 – just three days after the indictments went public – rumors that the five-judge Sala Constitucional of El Salvador’s Corte Supreme de Justicia (CSJ) was considering a vote to repeal the amnesty law provoked the unicameral Asamablea Legislativa to rush through a controversial bill (Decree 743) that ups from four to five the number of votes the Sala needs to overturn existing legislation.

Three months later, however, the Jesuit massacre case is suddenly back in the news, raising the possibility that Velasco’s indictments – hailed initially as all bark – may have a bit of legal bite after all.

On Aug. 7, nine of the men on the Spanish judge’s original list turned themselves in to Salvadoran military authorities, reportedly to avoid pending arrest on INTERPOL warrants. The group includes generals Rafael Humberto Larios, a former defense minister; Orlando Zepeda, an ex-vice minster of defense; and Rafael Bustillo, an ex-air force commander.

To the surprise of many observers, El Salvador’s Ministerio de Defensa turned the case – but not the defendants themselves – over to the civilian justice system, where the matter is now being considered by the CSJ. The high court is expected to take upwards of a month to decide what to do with the nine men. Assuming Spain makes an eventual extradition request, the CSJ could have the defendants sent abroad. The court could also free the men, or demand they be tried in El Salvador.

Legal Insulation

Working under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction – which holds that certain very serious crimes can be prosecuted anywhere – Judge Velasco is pushing to try the men on charges of murder, terrorism and crimes against humanity. He alleges that a core group of military personnel known as “Tandona” planned and executed the Nov. 16, 1989 massacre to silence the Jesuit priests, who were pushing for negotiations between the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) guerillas and the government.

“That was the fundamental motive for the killing,” Judge Velasco wrote in a report dated May 30. “The key leaders of the Tandona, especially Vice Minster of Defense Juan Orlando Zepeda, General Chief of Staff Emilio Ponce and his ally, Air Force General Juan Bustillo, supported a return to total war, opposing the negotiations.”

El Salvador’s 1993 Comisión de la Verdad Para El Salvador (CVES), which released its findings the year after the UN-brokered peace accords, reached many of the same conclusions. The CVES determined that Gen. Ponce ordered soldiers from a unit called the Atlacatl Battalion to kill Priest Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), a leave no witnesses. Generals Orlando Zepeda and Bustillo were among those present during the Nov. 15, 2009 meeting, the Commission found.

Orlando Zepeda, Bustillo and the other defendants currently holed up in the Brigada de Seguridad Militar in San Salvador refuse to acknowledge Spanish jurisdiction in the case.

In a statement published Aug. 9 by El Salvador’s Diario de Hoy they said they “categorically oppose the accusations.”

Their attorneys note that a Salvadoran court already tried the Jesuit massacre case – in 1991 – convicting 20 military men for war crimes. Only two of the men were sentenced to jail time. They were released two years later, after the Asamblea – at the behest of then President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) – passed the Ley de Amnistía General para la Consolidación de la Paz. Cristiani, himself a target of rights groups, continues to lead El Salvador’s main opposition party, the hard-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA).

The defense, in other words, argues that the accused are doubly protected – both by the amnesty law, and by the so-called “double jeopardy” principle, under which a person cannot be tried again for the same crime following a legitimate conviction or acquittal.

“The only correct thing here is that the accused not be locked up and not be extradited, because Salvadoran law, properly applied, doesn’t allow for either of these possibilities,” Antonio Alberca, a Spanish attorney contracted to defend the accused military officers, explained in a recent interview with El Salvador.com.

Opening Old Wounds?

Judge Velasco’s pursuit of the Jesuit massacre authors enjoys strong support from human rights group, in both El Salvador and abroad, which have long demanded the amnesty law be struck down. Groups like the Comisión de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador (CDHES) and others adamantly object to the oft-repeated government claim that lifting the amnesty law would reopen past wounds and thus threaten El Salvador’s gradual reconciliation.

“It’s not true that the opening of the Jesuits case and many others will open war wounds, because the truth is that a real reconciliation process never actually began,” said the CDHES’ Brenda Rodríguez. “Only with a real investigation of the truth will the civilian victims of El Salvador’s armed conflict be able to access justice, seek amends and restore their dignity.”

Events over the last week suggest that there’s likely some truth to both sides of the argument. The reopening of the Jesuit case has indeed rekindled old differences. But it’s also apparent that for the countless victims of the war, the reconciliation process is and will remain hollow as long as the legal lockout remains in place.

In recent days human rights groups have repeatedly demanded the CSJ use this case as an opportunity to put an end to decades of impunity. “We want a trial and punishment for all of the military people,” Patricia Guadalupe García of a group called the Comité de Madres Monseñor Romero (COMADRES) told reporters during a gathering last week at San Salvador’s Monumento a la Memoria y Verdad. “If Spain asks for them, they should be sent there so they can be judged. Here in El Salvador they weren’t duly processed.”

On the other side of the debate are groups like the conservative Asociacion Nacional de la Empresa Privada, a business organization that calls Judge Velasco’s maneuverings a “step backward” for Salvadoran democracy. “The business sector considers this a setback for our democracy and the reconciliation reached after the signing of peace accords, which says that attempts to prosecute acts that have already been judged are violating our own constitution by failing to respect an amnesty accord,” ANEP said in a statement.

The CSJ proceedings have also mobilized members of the “military family.” On Friday, Aug. 12, approximately 700 people involved in what they call a “Movement for Peace, Dignity and National Sovereignty,” marched to the Spanish embassy in San Salvador to demand an end to Judge Velasco’s “interference.”

“It’s not right that a foreign judge from another government, even if it’s an ally, comes here and mucks around in El Salvador’s affairs, especially when it’s an issue that the Salvadorans have already resolved,” ARENA Dep. Roberto D’Aubiusson, who supported the march, told the wire service EFE.

D’Aubiusson is the son of ARENA founder Roberto D’Aubiusson Sr., a powerful civil war-era army officer and political leader who is accused of masterminding the March 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero.

Limited Expectations

For now, this kind of verbal jostling may be as far as El Salvador is willing to go with the issue of civil war abuses. President Maurico Funes has been conspicuously quiet over the past week, as has the FMLN – now a left-wing political party – that supports him.

Funes – El Salvador’s first left-leaning president after two decades of ARENA leadership – has broken with tradition by making a series of symbolic overtures to the victims of the civil war atrocities. In January, 2010 he offered a powerful mea culpa on behalf of the state. And this past March he and US President Barack Obama visited the tomb of Archbishop Romero. But as his handling of the Decree 743 episode demonstrated, he supports his predecessors’ ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ approach when it comes to prosecuting the authors of those wartime abuses.

The CSJ may very well choose the same cautious approach. Universal jurisdiction cases don’t have much of a track record for success and the defense argument that the Jesuit case was already tried in El Salvador is a strong one – regardless of whether those proceedings were “deficient,” as Judge Velasco claims.

“There was a trial, but it was fraudulent in all senses. For example, there were soldiers who admitted they fired [their guns], but who were then absolved for lack of proof,” Benjamín Cuéllar, director of UCA’s Instituto de Derechos Humanos, told Dario Co Latino.

For Cuéllar, the CSJ has an opportunity now to really “do the right thing” after 20 years of government promises. “This is an opportunity that El Salvador doesn’t have the luxury to waste.” Yet the UCA rights advocate predicts the Supreme Court will do just that. “It’ll be many more years before people get justice as long as the powers that be don’t decide to end the impunity.”


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