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US Judge To Sentence Salvadoran ‘Jesuit Massacre’ Suspect

May 10, 2013

Inocente Orlando Montano is by no means the only former Salvadoran military official implicated in the infamous 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. But the 70-year-old retired colonel is the only one currently awaiting sentencing – albeit not for human rights abuses.

During a court hearing last month in the US city of Boston, Montano pled guilty to several counts of immigration fraud and perjury, admitting he willingly and repeatedly lied when applying over the years for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). US immigration offers TPS to foreign nationals who, because of extraordinary circumstances such as armed conflict or natural disasters in their countries of origin, are deemed unable to safely return home. US authorities began offering TPS visas to some Salvadoran immigrants following a pair of devastating earthquakes in early 2001.

Montano’s next court appearance – a sentence hearing – is set for Dec. 18. Before issuing a final pronouncement, Douglas Woodlock, the US district judge handling the case, will consider new evidence. Woodlock told attorneys in September he is keen to learn more about the ex-soldier’s “motive” for wanting to stay in the US. Montano, El Salvador’s vice-minister of public security (1989-1992) at the time of the massacre, claims he applied for TPS so he could “stay here to work.”

Montano could end up doing a stint in US federal prison. Deportation to El Salvador is another possibility. There is also an outside chance the Salvadoran immigrant could eventually be extradited to Spain, where he is being sought in connection with a far more serious crime: the infamous ‘Jesuit Massacre’ at San Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana (UCA). Five of the six priests murdered that fateful morning – Nov. 16, 1989 – were Spanish citizens.

“The search for accountability”

Montano’s legal woes are drawing close attention from human rights groups in all three countries. Senior Legal Advisor Carolyn Patty Blum of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), an organization based in the US city of San Francisco, described the immigration proceedings as “one part of the search for accountability for his participation in the conspiracy to kill the Jesuits.”

Montano insists he had nothing to do with the massacre, which made international headlines at the time and remains one of the signature human rights atrocities of El Salvador’s dozen-year civil war (1980-1992). “It’s all based on lines,” he told the online Salvadoran news site El Faro in a telephone interview last year. “I participated in a meeting in which we talk about defending [San Salvador], which was being assaulted by terrorists… But there was no order to attack.”

The Comisión de la Verdad Para El Salvador (CVES), a U.N.-sponsored truth commission convened at the end of the war, suggested otherwise. In its final report, published in 1993, the CVES named Montano as one of several high-ranking officers present during a Nov. 15, 1989 meeting in which then Col. René Emilio Ponce ordered one of his underlings, Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, to kill Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuría. The Spanish-born theologian and professor was the UCA’s rector at the time. According to the Comisión, Ponce told Benavides not to leave any witnesses.

“We believe [Montano] was involved in all the meetings in which the assassination was discussed, planned and ordered,” Carolyn Patty Bloom told the Associated Press last month.

Ponce, the man who ordered the assassinations, was later given the top job in El Salvador’s Defense Ministry. The man who received the orders, Col. Benavides, went to jail – briefly. Benavides was charged with murder, convicted and, in early 1992, sentenced to 30 years in prison. He was released less than a year-and-a-half later, however, thanks to an Amnesty Law that – at the behest of then President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) – was implemented just five days after the CVES report went public.

Human rights activists suspect Cristiani may also have had prior knowledge of the massacre. The CVES report noted that Cristiani called Ellacuría in Spain just days before the killings, urging him to return to El Salvador. As president of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), El Salvador’s powerful right-wing opposition party, Cristiani continues to play a prominent role in national politics.

“Another chapter in the farce”

For Inocente Orlando Montano and many of the other ex-military officials implicated in the massacre, the Amnesty Law has helped keep them not only out of the courts, but also out of the public eye. Montano’s move to the US more than a decade ago went basically unnoticed. For years he lived “a quiet life in a modest apartment building in Everett [Massachusetts],” the Boston Globe reported in August, 2011, shortly before his arrest on immigration violation changes. Montano told reporters he was working at the time in a candy factory.

The candy maker’s splendid isolation came to an abrupt end, however, starting in May, 2011, when a Spanish judge named Eloy Velasco issued indictments and international arrest warrants against Moreno and 19 other Salvadoran officials allegedly involved in the Jesuit killings. Also included on the list were René Emilio Ponce, who died less than a month before the indictments went public, and Rafael Humberto Larios, who also served a stint as defense minister.

Judge Velasco has been looking into the Jesuit massacre for several years, operating under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which holds that certain very serious crimes can be prosecuted anywhere. The case was filed before Spain’s Audencia Nacional in 2008 by the the CJA and the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España (APDHE), a Spanish partner organization. In a 77-page report accompanying last year’s indictments, Velasco accused the Salvadorans of murder, terrorism and crimes against humanity.

The indictments and arrest warrants served as litmus test for the government of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, a moderate who represented the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) in the 2009 election. The victory was a first for the FMLN, a left-wing political party that began during the civil war as a coalition of anti-government guerilla forces. El Salvador’s four previous presidents, including Alfredo Cristiani, had all been members of ARENA.

Funes distinguished himself from his ARENA predecessors early on by apologizing “in the name of the state of El Salvador” for human rights abuses committed during the civil war. Funes, a former television reporter, cut his professional teeth reporting on the conflict. The war took the lives of an estimated 75,000 Salvadorans, including Funes’ brother, a student activist who was killed in 1980. The CVES report attributed 85% of the killings to state agents and 5% to the FMLN.

Nevertheless, the FMLN-backed president was conspicuously quiet, when – in August of 2011 – nine of the men on Judge Velasco’s indictment list turned themselves into military authorities, reportedly to avoid pending arrest on INTERPOL warrants (NotiCen, Aug. 18, 2011). The group included Gen. Humberto Larios; Orlando Zepeda, an ex-vice minister of defense; and Rafael Bustillo, an ex-air force commander.

Human rights groups hailed the incident as an opportunity for the Salvadoran legal system to finally act on behalf of the war’s many civilian victims. With the Amnesty Law still in place, few expected the courts to pursue the ex-military officials in El Salvador. But there was a chance – on paper at least – that the courts would honor Judge Velasco’s request and have the men sent to Spain for trial.

In the end, El Salvador’s Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) opted against extradition, allowing the nine men to leave the San Salvador military barracks in which they had been holed up for nearly three weeks. Impunity, as it has since the war’s end, once again prevailed. “This is another chapter in the farce,” Benjamin Cuellar, the director of the UCA’s Human Rights Institute, told reporters at the time. “It is a demonstration that those who commanded and murdered before continue commanding and murdering now.”

Little wonder that Col. Montano was apparently on his way back to El Salvador when, on Aug. 23, 2011, US immigration authorities stopped his southbound car in the US state of Virginia. The arrest came just three days before the CSJ cleared Montano’s former colleagues in El Salvador.

An “analogous” legal victory

What happens next for Montano is anybody’s guess. Lawyers with the CJA in San Francisco insist that extradition to Spain is a real possibility. During the Sept. 11 court session in which Montano pled guilty to immigration violations, “Judge Woodlock reminded [him] that there’s a pending extradition order… I think that’s very significant,” CJA attorney Almudena Bernabeu told El Faro.

Others say extradition is unlikely is this case. Accepting Spain’s request would set a dangerous precedent the US government may want to avoid given that some of its own officials – namely the “Bush Six” – have also attracted Judge Velasco’s attention. Critics of the so-called Bush Six, a group of officials from the administration of former US President George W. Bush (2000-2008), accuse the men of providing the “legal” basis by which terror suspects held at the US detention camp on Guantanamo Bay were tortured.

Rights groups say Montano’s legal woes vis-à-vis US immigration are reason alone to celebrate – whether or not he ends being extradited.  The retired-colonel’s immigration problems, after all, have everything to do with his background as a Salvadoran military operative. It was Judge Velasco’s indictment – plus some hands-on detective work by the CJA – that alerted US authorities to his presence in the country and exact whereabouts. And it was to hide his military past, prosecutor allege, that he lied on this TPS forms.

The Jesuit murders are still a major part of the case, “even if only in an analogous way,” said Bernabeu. “The US prosecutors argument is that [Montano] lied about these things specifically. There was nothing abstract about the lies. His lied to hide his participation in human rights violations.”

(This article originally appeared October, 2012 in LADB)

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