On August 27, a federal court in Boston sentenced Inocente Orlando Montano, a retired Army Colonel of El Salvador, to serve 21-months in prison for immigration fraud (he provided false information in his visa application forms about having received military training). After his sentence is completed, he could be extradited to Spain to be trialed for participating in a 1989 massacre committed during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. Should Montano’s extradition and pending trial be successful, it would signify a huge success in ensuring accountability and delivering justice for crimes committed during that conflict.
A background of murder
Around 75,000 people died during El Salvador’s 12-year internal conflict (1980 – 1992), which pitted the Salvadoran government against left-wing guerrillas, namely the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The war coincided with other internal conflicts with in Central America, as part of the proxy wars Washington and Moscow carried out during the Cold War.
The conflict in El Salvador became notorious for its high-profile killings and massacres, such as the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the murders of 800 peasants by the Salvadoran Army in December 1981, known as the El Mozote Massacre. However a 1993 immunity law protects servicemen from being brought to justice for human right violations committed during this period.
Montano is implicated in another infamous atrocity of El Salvador’s internal conflict: the murder of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her daughter in the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. (click here for a comprehensive summary of the incident). On the night of November 16, 1989, a Salvadoran Army patrol entered the University’s campus and killed the aforementioned civilians. The operation was part of a counter offensive that the Salvadoran military launched to regain momentum in the civil war, after FMLN fighters had launched an offensive on November 11 in San Salvador (the country’s capital).
The military’s objective was to blame the FMLN for the murder of the priests and women. The soldiers of the Atlacatl Batallion that took part in the murder of the priests utilized an “AK-47 rifle that had belonged to the FMLN”; writing on a cardboard FMLN propaganda like “FMLN executed those who informed on it [...] Victory or death, FMLN.” The website of the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) has a list of 19 officers that are linked to this atrocity and which includes Inocente Orlando Montano; an Army colonel and Deputy Minister of Public Safety in El Salvador at the time of the Jesuits Massacre.
Justice (via Madrid) at last?
In August 2011, Montano was arrested for immigration fraud and was sentenced to 21 months two years later. This opportunity is being seized by the Spanish government to have him extradited to Spain to be put on trial for the Jesuits Massacre, in which five of the priests killed were Spanish citizens.
In 2011 a Spanish court indicted Montano, as well as another 19 military officers, with having taken part in the operation. (Two officers were convicted in a Salvadoran court of participating in the crime but they were eventually freed thanks to the aforementioned 1993 amnesty law). In May 2012, the Salvadoran Supreme Court of Justice denied the extradition of 13 out of the 20 officers, but Montano was not one of them.
There is renewed optimism among survivors of the Salvadoran civil war and human rights organizations that Montano’s arrest and sentence in Boston as well as a possible extradition to Spain would bring some long delayed justice. For example, after the Boston court dictated its sentence, the Center for Justice Accountability (CJA), a major NGO in California that has done extensive research on the massacre of the Jesuits, released a statement in which it stated that Montanos’ “sentence is an extraordinarily important step forward for the relatives of the victims of the massacre and sends a message to human rights abusers that they cannot seek safe haven in the U.S. and avoid accountability for their actions.”
Meanwhile, Almudena Bernabéu, the Spanish lawyer that represents the families of the Spanish Jesuits, declared to the Spanish daily El País that she hopes that President Obama “will fulfil the obligation of the U.S. to extradite Colonel Montano to Spain,” after his sentence is complete.
A successful extradition of Montano to Spain and trial for the Jesuits Massacre would mean that, at a snail’s pace, more individuals that carried out major human rights abuses during the Central American wars will finally pay for the abuses of power and human rights that were committed in this dark period of the region’s history.