Justice for the Jesuits

A Transnational Legal Battle Cracks the Wall of Immunity for Former Salvadoran Military Leaders

Written by Peter Kornbluh
Jesuit Story 675(Top row left to right) Amando López, S.J.; Joaquín López y López, S.J.; Celina Ramos; and Julia Elba Ramos (Bottom row) Segundo Montes, S.J.; Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.; Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J.; and Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.

On Aug. 7, 2011, nine former senior Salvadoran military officers turned themselves in at an army base outside San Salvador, rather than face the humiliating prospect of being arrested in public. They did so after Interpol, acting at the behest of a Spanish court, issued an international warrant for their arrest as alleged perpetrators of one of the most shocking human rights atrocities ever committed in Latin America: the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter in November 1989.

The officers expected that their former military institution would protect them. But instead they were kept in custody at the garrison for 20 days while civilian authorities processed their case. The Salvadoran Supreme Court eventually ordered the officers to be released pending a formal extradition request from Spain. But even their temporary detention marks a major milestone in the continuing pursuit of justice for this crime against humanity—as well as countless other atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military during the civil war between 1980 and 1992.

The crime, the cover-up, and the pursuit of justice extend as far away as the Spanish court in Madrid that indicted the alleged perpetrators and as close to home as San Francisco, where a legal advocacy group is building the case against them and where one of the accused, until recently, had worked for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The Jesuits and the two women were among the 70,000 victims of a brutal era of repression, during which the military government, backed by billions in U.S. monetary and military aid, waged a deadly counterinsurgency campaign against a leftist guerrilla movement, known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Thousands, mostly the poor and activists pressing for economic and political justice, lost their lives at the hands of paramilitary death squads and in military massacres.

But in the two decades since the U.N. brokered a peace agreement, almost no one has been prosecuted for the military’s rampant human rights violations, which included the rape and execution of four American nuns and the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero. Behind the courageous effort to break through that wall of immunity is a San Francisco-based legal rights organization called the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and the Jesuit order itself, led by priests with close ties to the University of San Francisco, among them, the late Dean Brackley, S.J., who served on USF’s Board of Trustees, and Stephen A. Privett, S.J., president of the university.

Recent progress in the case has been “quite remarkable,” says Fr. Privett, “given the history of impunity in El Salvador, and the military being a power unto itself.” There is “historical justice and judicial justice” in this case, he observes. And the present time “is the best shot” for both to move forward.

The Crime

The Jesuits and the two women were murdered in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 1989. The decision to eliminate them came amidst a forceful offensive in San Salvador by the FMLN. Embarrassed by the strength of the insurgency, senior Salvadoran military officers decided to kill as many activists, labor leaders, and “subversive elements” as they could find, according to a U.N. investigation.

Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., a Spaniard who had gone to El Salvador at age 19 and risen to become rector of the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, topped the Salvadoran military’s enemies list. With his fellow Jesuits at UCA, Fr. Ellacuría had established himself and the university as a leading voice of the poor, advocate of social justice, and mediator for civil peace. Indeed, in 1989 he was quietly meeting with right-wing Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani and leaders of the FMLN in an attempt to broker an end to the bloody civil strife.

Often denounced by the Salvadoran right as a Marxist-Leninist, Fr. Ellacuría was fond of pointing out, “I’m a Christian, and a Christian is much more radical than any communist.”

According to the report of the U.N. Truth Commission, “From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador,” the order to kill Fr. Ellacuría “and leave no witnesses” came from the chief of staff of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, Col. René Emilio Ponce, during a meeting of the high command on Nov. 15, 1989.

Ponce ordered Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno to use a military unit from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion for the assassinations, the Truth Commission found. At 2:30 a.m., some 30 soldiers forced their way into UCA’s Jesuit residence. “The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into the back garden and lie face down on the ground,” according to the Truth Commission report. There, five of them were executed, one by one, with a shot to the head; another was shot inside. Their cook and her daughter were killed lying with their arms around each other in their bedroom.

Besides Fr. Ellacuría, the Jesuit community lost Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., head of UCA’s psychology department and polling institute; Segundo Montes, S.J., head of UCA’s sociology department and human rights institute; Amando López, S.J., and Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., both theology professors; Joaquín López y López, S.J., the director of UCA’s low-income children’s education project; Julia Elba Ramos, the cook; and Celina Ramos, Julia’s 16-year-old daughter.

The Cover-Up

Almost immediately, the military initiated a cover-up, destroying weapons, shredding meeting log books, intimidating legal authorities, and killing potential witnesses. “All these officers…took steps to conceal the truth,” states the U.N. report, “in order to conceal the responsibility of senior officers for the murders.”

Their obstruction forestalled any real legal accounting. But international outrage prompted a U.N. investigation. In addition, congressional demands for answers about how the George H.W. Bush administration could use U.S. tax dollars to support such cold-blooded killers forced the U.S. Embassy to reluctantly file almost daily cables on the fallout from the assassinations. Years later, those cables would become evidence against the accused.

But the U.S. defense and state departments withheld explosive, damaging evidence from Congress—including videotaped testimony by a U.S. military officer implicating senior members of the Salvadoran military.

Faced with growing pressure to hold someone accountable, the Salvadoran military hierarchy offered up some scapegoats: Benavides, as well as 13 soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion. In what was widely perceived as a sham trial in 1991, all of the soldiers were acquitted because they had just been following orders. In late January 1992, Benavides and one other military officer were convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. They served only 15 months, however. In April 1993, the Cristiani government pushed an amnesty law through the right-wing National Assembly; the only two mid-level officers judged accountable for the Jesuit massacre were then released.

Remembering Dean Brackley, S.J.

Moved to El Salvador After 1989 Massacre to Sustain UCA’s Mission

Dean Brackley, S.J., had been teaching theology at Fordham University and working at a community center in the Bronx in 1989 when the six priests and two women were killed at the University of Central America (UCA).

The murders sent shock waves throughout the Jesuit community, but the atrocity also strengthened Jesuit resolve around the world to continue the moral mission of the murdered brother Jesuits, says University of San Francisco President Stephen A. Privett, S.J.

“It really heightened our sensitivity to our responsibility to educate our students about the realities of our world, to tell them the truth, and to challenge them to inform themselves about the prevalence of injustice at home and abroad.”

Fr. Brackley felt called to continue his slain colleagues’ work at UCA: educating students by opening their eyes to the economic, political, and social injustices around them, and serving as a voice for the marginalized in civil war-ridden El Salvador.

In early 1990, he moved to San Salvador and joined the faculty at UCA.

“They wanted a Jesuit. They wanted someone who had a PhD in theology. They wanted someone who spoke Spanish,” The New York Times quoted Fr. Brackley telling a friend. “I started looking around and realized there weren’t that many of us.”

Although he promised his colleagues in New York that he would return in a few years, Fr. Brackley spent the final two decades of his life in El Salvador, where he died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 16, 2011, at the age of 65.

“El Salvador did for him what he hoped it would do for his students,” Fr. Privett says. “It broke his heart and put it back together.”

Fr. Brackley did continue to travel to the United States. In 2003, he became a USF trustee. “He was the conscience of the board,” Fr. Privett remembers. “His was a gentle, persistent, strong voice on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.”

Fr. Brackley was also a champion of what he called “higher standards” in Jesuit education, marrying rigorous scholarship, social analysis, and service. In a widely read article published in America magazine in February 2006, Fr. Brackley argued that speaking uncomfortable truths to persons of influence and pursuing justice were critical for Catholic colleges and universities. He wrote that UCA’s slain rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., “used to insist that reality is the primary object of study.” Promoting justice for those deprived of it, Fr. Brackley wrote, was a central component of the heritage of Catholic higher education.

His legacy remains a powerful reminder of the central mission of Jesuit universities like USF, which established a scholarship in Fr. Brackley’s name last year.

Fr. Brackley “really did walk the talk,” says Fr. Privett. “There was an absolute congruity between what he said, what he wrote, and who he was. He stood with the poor and listened to the poor. That is why his was such a powerfully persuasive voice.”

Pursuing Justice

“Their situation is not ours,” Fr. Privett noted in a poignant eulogy for his colleagues the day after they were killed. “But the mission is the same.” One American Jesuit to go to UCA to sustain that mission was Fr. Brackley, then a professor of theology at Fordham University in the Bronx. The late Charles Bierne, S.J., of Santa Clara University became academic vice-president. The new leadership at UCA renewed the commiment of the murdered priests to speak the truth in the face of economic and political injustices and human rights violations.

Fr. Privett, along with Fr. Brackley and Fr. Bierne, also began to focus on the mission of justice for the Jesuits and the two women. They quietly helped to relocate two witnesses to the crime, the Jesuits’ housekeeper and her husband, to San Jose. They worked closely with a U.S. congressional task force and with U.N. Truth Commission investigators. Along with their fellow Jesuit members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, they pressured the first Bush administration to change U.S. policy in El Salvador, and the Clinton administration to investigate the U.S. role in supporting atrocities there.

But no real progress was made in prosecuting the killers until a tenacious Spanish lawyer named Almudena Bernabeu began traveling to El Salvador in 2004. There she met repeatedly with Fr. Brackley about the case; she also made contact with Fr. Privett at USF—which is located not far from CJA, her office in San Francisco.

CJA is a unique human rights legal organization; its litigation team, led by Bernabeu, specializes in identifying and locating human rights violators who have managed to make it into the United States and filing civil suits against them on behalf of their victims.

As a Spaniard, Bernabeu also has established close ties to prosecutors and judges in Madrid, which, in the wake of the famous case against Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the late 1990s, has emerged as ground zero for international human rights litigation. In 2006, Bernabeu filed briefs in Madrid to indict Guatemala’s former military dictator, Efraím Ríos Montt, for crimes of genocide—proceedings abroad that recently led to a stunning decision by a Guatemalan judge to charge Ríos Montt in his own country. At age 39, Bernabeu has emerged as arguably the most dynamic international human rights lawyer of the 21st century.

“How would it be if we do the case?” Bernabeu recalls asking during her early conversations with Fr. Brackley and Fr. Privett. The Salvadoran military’s immunity, bolstered by the amnesty law, made it difficult to prosecute members of the high command in El Salvador. So why not bring the case in Spain?

Initially the Jesuits “were not positive about taking the litigation out of El Salvador,” she remembers. “They hoped the rule of law would someday prevail there.” But she soon persuaded them. Five of the slain Jesuits were Spaniards; that gave Spain legitimate grounds to hear the case under its “universal jurisdiction” statute—which allows Spain to prosecute crimes against humanity committed beyond its borders. Moreover, proceedings in Spain could influence the legal situation in El Salvador. “You have to do it the best way you can outside,” she argued, “with the hope that it will work inside.”

With the support of Fr. Brackley, Fr. Privett, and others, in 2005 Bernabeu began to compile a case for prosecuting the Salvadoran military high command. The first hurdle she had to overcome was the law against double jeopardy, which forbids defendants convicted or acquitted of a crime from being tried for that same crime again. In a gutsy move, Bernabeu used the original trial in El Salvador to her advantage: Rather than being a legitimate trial, it was part of the cover-up, she argued in court papers.

The Jesuits put Bernabeu in touch with the housekeeper, Lucia Barrera de Cerna, and her husband, Jorge Cerna, in San Jose and an additional “very important” witness whose identity continues to be protected. “They handed me three witnesses on a silver platter,” she recalls.

For additional evidence, she drew on the meticulous research of Stanford scholar Terry Karl, who has written widely about the Jesuit case, as well as thousands of pages of formerly top-secret U.S. intelligence records compiled by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group that specializes in obtaining declassified documents. “That treasure trove of information on the Jesuits was central to building the case,” said Kate Doyle, the archive analyst who has traveled to Madrid to authenticate the documents for the Spanish court.

On Nov. 13, 2008, CJA, in association with the Spanish Human Rights Association, filed a 126-page complaint with the Spanish National Court. It identified 14 former members of the Salvadoran Military Command and the Atlacatl Battalion as responsible for executing the Jesuits. The complaint also named former President Cristiani, in his capacity as civilian commander of the armed forces, as responsible.

Almudena Bernabeu

Attorney Almudena Bernabeu
©Ofelia de Pablo ofeliadepablo.com
©Javier Zurita javierzurita.com.

For the next 18 months, the CJA team continued its investigation, finding new evidence to bolster and expand the case. In June 2010, Bernabeu presented Spanish National Court Judge Eloy Velasco with a secret witness—later identified as Maj. Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, the former deputy director of El Salvador’s military academy and, according to the U.N. report, a lead operative in the murders—who named specific members of the high command as having participated in the conspiracy.

On May 30, 2011, Velasco issued a 77-page indictment—and arrest warrants for those indicted. His ruling excluded Cristiani, pending further evidence, but accepted six additional defendants, who, the new evidence presented by CJA suggested, had engaged in a conspiracy to murder the Jesuits that reached to the highest levels of the Salvadoran military.

The case took another dramatic step forward when Bernabeu’s sources in El Salvador gave her an important tip: Two of the defendants resided in the United States. One of them, Lt. Hector Ulises Cuenca Ocampo, was living in San Francisco and working for the TSA. In the wake of the court filing, he went underground. But Bernabeu’s investigators located the other, Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, in Everett, Mass.

Working quietly with a special team of lawyers and agents from the U.S. Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CJA determined that Montano had lied repeatedly on immigration documents, falsely claiming he had never served in the Salvadoran military. In fact, he had spent 31 years there. In February 2012, Montano was indicted in a federal court in Massachusetts on charges of perjury and falsifying immigration documents. It is possible that the U.S. could extradite him to Spain.

Historical and Judicial Justice

Whether the rest of the defendants will ever be extradited from El Salvador, where they are still protected from prosecution, remains to be seen. But their brief detention last year offers great hope and a degree of satisfaction that justice is moving forward, slowly but steadily. “The victims’ side of the story is getting told,” says Fr. Privett, referring to the “historical justice” being advanced by the case. “We have had a significant vindication of the truth. That is a major achievement.”

And more judicial achievements are expected. In the coming months, Bernabeu plans to produce a new witness for the judge who will bolster the evidence against the high command and conceivably implicate former President Cristiani as well. CJA is also working hard to press the United States to eventually extradite Montano to Spain, after his immigration fraud case runs its course, which would make a full trial on the Jesuit murders a reality.

And Bernabeu holds out the hope that the case in El Salvador itself “is still very much active” and could someday result in a trial there. Even if the Salvadoran Supreme Court denies Spain’s petition for extradition, she says, pressure from the Spanish proceedings could force the Salvadoran judiciary to indict the former high-ranking military officers in their home country.

“That would be a victory to me, to be honest,” Bernabeu says, even if in the end the defendants are not found guilty. Any form of legal proceedings would have a “transformative effect” on El Salvador. “There is never a way back after these cases go forward,” she notes. “There is a strength, a sense of freedom, that comes from overcoming the impunity of these crimes.”

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