Sunrise over the Gulf of Fonseca, El Salvador

On the 25th Anniversary of the El Salvador Jesuit Murders, Justice Inches Closer

Twenty-five years ago today US-armed and trained security forces in El Salvador murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter during a grisly rampage on the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador. It’s been inching forward at a painful pace, but justice is a few (small) steps closer.

From the National Security Archive:

Although the perpetrators have yet to be brought to trial for their role in planning and ordering the crime, human rights lawyers at the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) believe they are closer than ever to achieving some measure of justice. A case that CJA opened in 2008 before the Spanish National Court under the principle of universal jurisdiction is inching forward, with presiding Judge Eloy Velásquez ruling just over a month ago to continue prosecuting the Jesuit killings , despite the reluctance of the Spanish Parliament to allow Spain to pursue international human rights cases. Velásquez has indicted twenty senior members of El Salvador’s military for planning, ordering, or participating in the crime .

To commemorate the anniversary, the Archive posted ten declassified documents written by US officials on the day and the few immediately following the murders. According to the Archive:

Taken together, the documents indicate the striking initial unwillingness on the part of the United States to acknowledge the possibility that its closest Central American ally — the Salvadoran armed forces — may have been behind the atrocity. Despite overwhelming evidence of the Army’s bitter hostility toward the Jesuits — as documented by the UN Truth Commission report — the first reaction of United States officials on the day of the murders was the imprecise speculation that often served as a default US setting whenever political violence struck in El Salvador: that “extremists on either the right or the left may be responsible,” as Ambassador William G. Walker wrote in his earliest cable to Washington about the crime.

A CIA memorandum sent the next day, the Archive notes, focused and dwelled solely on an unsubstantiated theory that leftist guerrilla forces of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) could have been responsible.  “Nowhere in the CIA’s analysis,” the Archive notes, “was the military mentioned as a possible perpetrator.”

To the contrary, officials went out of their way to defend Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani.

In addition to ignoring signs that members of the armed forces had carried out the crime, US officials sought to bolster Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani as he prepared to face the possibility that his own party’s leadership was responsible for what Walker called “a barbarous and incredibly stupid action.” On November 19, Ambassador Walker sent an impassioned (and profoundly wrong) telegram to the State Department focusing on the alleged responsibility of ARENA extremists and proposing that he tell Cristiani that “with the USG [US Government], the leadership and majority of the armed forces officer corps, and the decent forces of Salvadoran society on his side, he can and must once and for all separate himself from those responsible for this barbarism.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State James Baker asked his ambassador in Madrid to urge Spain not to cut aid to El Salvador, which it had announced it would do in response to the murder of the Spanish-born priests.


As evidence began to emerge pointing to the Army’s role in the killings, the US documents reflected the alarm felt in Washington about its implications. Secretary Baker wrote directly to the Director of the CIA William Webster to request his agency’s assistance. “We would appreciate on an urgent basis information regarding the military units present in the area at the time of the killings, and the orders issued to such units.” US Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson warned Ambassador Walker to hurry the investigations, arguing that allowing them to become drawn out would likely lead to stonewalling on the part of the Salvadoran government and impunity for the killers. Aronson evidently feared the consequences of publicly airing US suspicions about military responsibility for the killings, pressing Walker to keep his findings secret.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of building as solid a case as possible and then working closely with Cristiani on a strategy. We may be asking Cristiani to do what has never been done, actions which may involve moving against elements of his own party and perhaps even divide the Army. Please hold this information very closely.”

And finally

By the following year, in 1990, the US could no longer hide what its own investigation had uncovered: that the Salvadoran armed forces “at the highest levels” made the decision to kill the Jesuits.

The US can act to assist the Spanish case in bringing at least some semblance of justice.

Retired Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, one of the indicted officers, is currently serving a 21 month term in US federal prison after he pled guilty in 2012 to charges of immigration fraud and perjury in Boston. Thus far the Salvadoran government has refused Spain’s extradition requests of the indicted suspects. The US could help move the case along by ruling in favor of the extradition request.

Check out the documents here.

Today’s Pic du Jour, the 307th straight, was taken just before sunrise over the Gulf of Fonseca near La Union, El Salvador in June 1992. I wrote more about this photo, and the bout of cholera that roused me from bed that morning at a few minutes past four in the morning, here.


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