US Censures 13 Former Salvadoran Soldiers for 1989 Killing of Jesuits

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Jan. 29 that the US “condemns all human rights abuses that took place on both sides of the brutal civil war in El Salvador, including those committed by governmental and non-governmental parties.”

The Plaza Libertad in San Salvador ,El Salvador.
The Plaza Libertad in San Salvador ,El Salvador. (photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The US Department of State announced Wednesday the designation of 13 former Salvadoran military officials for their involvement in the November 1989 extrajudicial killing of six Jesuit priests and two others.

The 13 former soldiers will be ineligible for entry into the US.

“The United States supports the ongoing accountability, reconciliation, and peace efforts in El Salvador,” Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, said Jan. 29. “We value our ongoing working relationship with the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them.”

“Today’s actions underscore our support for human rights and our commitment to promoting accountability for perpetrators and encouraging reconciliation and a just and lasting peace.”

The Salvadoran Civil War was fought from 1979 to 1992 between the country's right-wing military government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a left-wing revolutionary group.

The Jesuits in El Salvador were active proponents of peace talks and negotiation between the government and the FMLN.

On Nov. 16, 1989 a unit of the Salvadoran Army dragged from their beds six Jesuits at the Central American University in San Salvador and shot them. The priests' cook-housekeeper and her daughter were also shot.

It is believed that the Jesuits were ordered to be executed for their apparent support of the FMLN, who had recently launched an offensive.

The priests killed were Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of UCA; Ignacio Martín-Baró; Segundo Montes; Amando López; Joaquín López y López; and Juan Ramón Moreno Pardo. All were Spaniards except for López y López, a Salvadoran.

The priest's housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Celina were also killed.

The soldiers left a message at the site of the killings meant to implicate the FMLN.

The extrajudicial killings garnered international attention, and increased pressure for a peace settlement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Jan. 29 that the US “condemns all human rights abuses that took place on both sides of the brutal civil war in El Salvador, including those committed by governmental and non-governmental parties.”

The US was a supporter of the Salvadoran government during the war. The Atlacatl Battalion, which killed Fr. Ellacuría and his companions, was trained by American advisers.

The State Department said Jan. 29 it had credible information that the 13 former Salvadoran military personnel “were involved in the planning and execution of the extrajudicial killings” of November 1989.

It listed Juan Rafael Bustillo, Juan Orlando Zepeda, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, Francisco Elena Fuentes, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Pérez Vásquez, and José Alberto Sierra Ascencio, who it said ranged in rank from general to private.

The 13 were designated under the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act 2019, which bars them and their immediately family members from entering the US.

Montano was a colonel, and deputy minister for public security at the time of the killings. He was extradited from the US to Spain in 2017 to stand trial over the murders. He had been in US custody for six years, after being arrested for charges of immigration fraud.

In May 2019, Spanish prosecutors asked that Montano be given 150 years imprisonment for his role in the “terrorist assassinations”, saying he participated in the decision, design, and execution of the murders.

They believe that Montano was a witness when the head of the army's joint chiefs of staff René Emilio Ponce (who died in 2011) ordered Colonel Benavides, the head of the Salvadoran military academy, to assassinate Fr. Ellacuría, leaving no witnesses.

Benavides and Lieutenant Mendoza were convicted of the killings by a Salvadoran court, but were released in 1993 after an amnesty law was passed covering all crimes committed during the civil war.

That amnesty law was struck down by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 2016, and Benavides returned to prison, with the court declining to extradite him to Spain. The following year the Society of Jesus and the UCA asked that Benavides' sentence be commuted.

Spanish prosecutors have also asked for five years imprisonment for Mendoza.

Zepeda, the deputy defense minister, had claimed the priests were complicit in the murder of the Salvadoran attorney general, saying that “the enemy is among us. They must be identified and denounced. Therefore, therefore, we will make the final decision to resolve this situation.”