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The Jesuits Massacre Case

El Salvador: Justice for the Murders of November 16, 1989

The Jesuits Massacre Case

El Salvador: Justice for the Murders of November 16, 1989

Before the Spanish National Court (Audiencia Nacional)



In 2008, CJA filed a criminal case in Madrid against former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani Burkard and 14 former military officers and soldiers for their role in the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16 year-old daughter in 1989.

The defendants included the leadership of the military High Command.  The High Command defendants named in the criminal complaint were General Rafael Humberto Larios, the Minister of Defense, Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Vice Minister of Defense, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, Vice Minister of Defense for Public Safety, and Colonel René Emilio Ponce, Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff.  General Rafael Bustillo, the head of the Salvadoran Air Force, and Colonel Elena Fuentes, commander of the First Infantry Brigade, also were named, as high level military defendants.

On January 13, 2009, the Spanish National Court charged all 14 of the Salvadoran ex-officers and soldiers with crimes against humanity and state terrorism.  After CJA presented extensive documentary and testimonial evidence in Madrid in 2009 and 2010, the Court added six defendants and issued a detailed indictment and international arrest warrants in May 2011.  Thereafter, the Spanish Court issued extradition requests which were transmitted via proper channels to the home country governments of each of the defendants.  CJA is working with the national authorities of several governments to ensure that the defendants are extradited to stand trial.

CJA faced some roadblocks in this case when, earlier in 2014, the ruling Popular Party of Spain enacted a law restricting Spain’s universal jurisdiction. Thereafter, Judge Eloy Velasco, who had previously indicted 20 Salvadoran military officials for murder, terrorism, and crimes against humanity, rejected the crimes against humanity claim and decided to continue only with murder and terrorism charges against Spanish citizens.

On April 8, 2015, the U.S. government filed a request seeking the extradition to Spain of Col. Montano for his role in the 1989 Jesuit massacre.  On February 5, 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank approved Montano's extradition.


On the morning of November 16, 1989, El Salvador and the world woke up to the news that six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter had been brutally murdered. The Salvadoran military opportunistically committed the crime during the offensive launched by the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN). The military sought to cover up their role in the killings by spray painting FMLN slogans at the crime scene which falsely accused the priests of having collaborated with the government. As summarized in the United Nations Truth Commission report, a feature of the post-conflict peace accords, on the night of November 15, 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of General Juan Rafael Bustillo, Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, ordered Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides to kill Jesuit Father Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. Later that night, Benavides in turn ordered Lt. Espinoza Guerra, a member of the elite Atlacatl Battalion, to carry out this order.

Espinoza Guerra and his platoon of Atlacatl troops arrived at the Universidad Centroamericana ¨José Simeon Cañas¨ (UCA) in San Salvador in the early hours of November 16, 1989 and made their way to the Pastoral Center. When the priests came out to see what the commotion was about, they were ordered to go into the garden and lie face down on the ground, while the soldiers searched the building. At this point, Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra gave the order to kill the priests. By the end of the massacre, six priests, their housekeeper and the housekeeper's daughter were brutally murdered.

Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra and his troops attempted to cover up their role in the massacre by making it look as if the killings had been carried out by members of the FMLN. They did this by leaving a sign on cardboard attributing the crime to the FMLN and using a rifle associated with the FMLN in the killings.  The cover up, including the destruction of relevant evidence, continued for a number of weeks until a U.S. military advisor, aware that the Salvadoran military had executed the victims, revealed this information and forced the Salvadoran military’s hand.

Under international pressure, El Salvador tried six of the military men who “confessed” to carrying out the murders, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, the head of the Military Academy, who ordered the operation, and  Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza, who was Benavides’ point man at the scene of the crime (although not a trigger man).  Those who confessed were not convicted.  Only Benavides and Mendoza were found guilty. Multiple international observer teams at the trial wrote detailed reports highly critical of the proceedings, and evidence indicated that the role of higher ups in the crime deliberately had been suppressed In 1993, an Amnesty Law -- pushed through the legislature by the controlling conservative political party, ARENA, days after the issuance of the damning UN Truth Commission report on the decade of violence - meant that the two convicted men too would be freed.

In response to a petition filed by Americas Watch (now a division of Human Rights Watch),  the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in 1999, found that El Salvador had violated the victims’ rights to life, judicial guarantees and effective prosecution. The IACHR recommended that El Salvador conduct a complete, impartial and effective investigation in accordance with international standards to identify, prosecute and sentence all the responsible parties. The Commission also called for El Salvador to indemnify the affected parties and to adjust its internal laws to comply with the American Convention on Human Rights, which included revoking the Amnesty Law.

El Salvador still has not taken the necessary steps to comply with any of these recommendations. The Amnesty Law is still in effect, and none of the people responsible for the crime has been brought to justice. Instead, many of them continue to occupy important business positions in the country. This has all happened even though the Jesuits Massacre, along with the murders of Archbishop Romero, the U.S. churchwomen and the leadership of the democratic opposition, is one of the most emblematic cases of impunity from the civil war in El Salvador. It is our hope, that through the litigation in Spain, we may help the victims’ relatives as well as all Salvadoran victims find the justice they have been denied for the last 23 years.

»Read a full summary of the facts alleged in the case



On November 13, 2008, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a criminal case before the Spanish National Court in Madrid against former Salvadoran President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Alfredo Cristiani Burkard, and 14 former officers and soldiers of the Salvadoran Army for their role in the notorious “Jesuits Massacre” of November 16, 1989 at the UCA.

The case was filed in Spain using the country’s universal jurisdiction law. CJA and our colleagues at the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) jointly filed the case as popular prosecutors.  Unlike U.S. law, where criminal charges are initiated by the government, Spanish law allows ordinary citizens and non-government organizations to initiate criminal actions by filing criminal complaints as popular prosecutors.

The complaint alleges crimes against humanity, the cover up of crimes against humanity and state terrorism.

»Read a full summary of the legal issues in the case, including questions of jurisdiction and theories of liability.

The SNC Issues Formal Charges

On January 13, 2009, Judge Eloy Velasco, the Judge of the 6th Chamber of the Spanish National Court formally charged fourteen former officers, including then-Colonel Ponce, Head of the Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff,  General Rafael Humberto Larios, former Minister of Defense, Colonel  Juan Orlando Zepeda, Vice Minister of Defense, and Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, and Vice Minister of Defense for Public Safety, with murder, crimes against humanity and state terrorism for their role in the massacre.  Additionally the Judge reserved the right, during the course of the investigation, to charge former Salvadoran President and Commander of the Armed Forces Alfredo Cristiani for his role in covering up the crime.

Testimony Begins

Since the decision on admissibility, we have presented fact and expert witnesses to testify before Judge Velasco and prepared the documentary record of the crime, the criminal investigation, and the subsequent legal proceedings.  Judge Velasco has held four hearings in the case. 

In May 2009, Judge Velasco heard testimony from: José Luis Ruiz Navarro, a Spanish Senate Special Counsel, who traveled to El Salvador as a member of the first Spanish Parliamentary commission to report back on the crime; Enrique Arnaldo Alcubilla, a Spanish Senate Special Counsel who led the second Parliamentary commission to El Salvador to observe the Salvadoran trial; and Fernando Alvarez de Miranda, the Spanish Ambassador to El Salvador in 1989.  These witnesses prepared detailed reports on the failures of the investigation in El Salvador and the irregularities at the trial.  Their reports, like at least a half dozen others which have been presented to Judge Velasco, indicate how fatally flawed the trial in El Salvador was.  Not only did El Salvador fail to investigate or indict the real authors of the crime, but the trial itself was filled with legal errors and procedural irregularities.

Expert Witnesses

In November 2009, we presented the first expert witness, Professor Terry Karl.  Professor Karl, the Gildred Professor of Latin American Studies and a member of the faculty of the Political Science Department of Stanford University, is a world renowned expert on El Salvador.  Having made numerous trips to El Salvador during the contentious 1980s and having studied literally tens of thousands of pages of documents, including reams of U.S. government declassified documents, Professor Karl spoke with authority on the subject of the Jesuits’ killings.

Judge Velasco then heard the testimony of Henry Campos and Sidney Blanco.  Both men are former public prosecutors in El Salvador assigned to the Jesuit case.  They resigned publicly to protest governmental pressure to insulate the true authors of the crime from investigation and the military’s withholding of relevant information from the prosecution.  They became the lawyers for the Jesuit order and represented the Jesuits’ interests in the criminal proceedings in El Salvador as private prosecutors.  Campos and Blanco presented compelling evidence to the Spanish National Court that the defendants in this case were never investigated in El Salvador and that the proceedings there do not represent a prior restraint on the Spanish judge’s actions in the criminal case pending before him. 

Finally, Judge Velasco heard the testimony of expert witness Kate Doyle.  Doyle is a long-time researcher for the highly-respected NGO, the National Security Archive.  The Archive has been responsible for the declassification and organization of tens of millions of U.S. government documents, including a large collection of documents specifically related to the Jesuit massacre. 

Judge Velasco heard testimony from the only surviving non-military eye-witnesses to the massacre in his second hearing.  On the night of the killings, two civilian eyewitnesses saw the military on the campus and were among those who discovered the bodies.  Luciá Cerna, who worked on the campus, and her husband Jorge Cerna were interviewed soon after by the FBI and other U.S. and Salvadoran government officials.  Even these many years later, Luciá Cerna expressed great trepidation about testifying, but she agreed to participate in the case.  For the first time, the U.S. government cooperated with a Spanish National Court investigation of a human rights case, by facilitating the Cernas’ testimony through video-conference. 

A Participant Testifies

The third hearing included an extraordinary development: one of the participants in the killing came forward and approached CJA’s international attorney, asking to testify as a protected witness.  Judge Velasco was riveted by the protected witness’ testimony against his co-defendants, hearing from the witness his insider account of the way the military command functioned, the chronology of the murders, the way the order passed through the chain of command and the cover up.  Also testifying at this hearing in June 2011 was Benjamin Cuellar, Director of the Human Rights Institute at UCA, IDHUCA and Jose Luis Garcia, a retired colonel of the Argentine army, who is an expert in Latin American militaries and had participated in the investigation of the crime in 1990.

A few months later, CJA attorneys learned that a knowledgeable witness  agreed to testify. CJA met with him and after two and half days of interviews, it was determined that the defendant would be deposed by the Spanish National Court on April 13, 2012 testifying as a protected witness. In April 2012, this Protected Witness provided testimony on the conspiracy to kill the Jesuit priests including details unknown until this date.

A Fuller Picture

Through the course of the presentation of testimony and documentary evidence, CJA was committed to present as complete a picture of the background to, the ordering of, and the carrying out of the assassinations as possible.  This goal was not only to give Judge Velasco evidence of the involvement of high ranking officials but to create an accurate historical record of the crime.  At the time of previous investigations of the crime, such as that of the Truth Commission, the wealth of new information about the crimes was not available.  To this end, CJA was able to put before the court information regarding the participation of a number of other key military players in the conspiracy to kill the Jesuits.  

International Arrest Warrants Issued

On May 30, 2011, the SNC issued a 77-page indictment which added six new defendants to the original fourteen.  The Court also issued international arrest warrants through Interpol.  In the lengthy charging document, Judge Eloy Velasco describes the far reaching conspiracy to kill the Jesuit priests and explains how it was conceived as a military operation at the highest levels of the Salvadoran military and the National Intelligence Directorate (the Salvadoran equivalent of the CIA). As of today, a total of 19 former military men have been indicted and arrest warrants are outstanding against them. Defendant Ponce died of a heart attack during the pendency of these proceedings. 

In August 2011, nine of the twenty defendants in the case - all former Salvadoran military officials -- made a decision to self-surrender to Salvadoran military authorities. When it became clear that the Salvadoran National Police intended to honor the arrest warrants, nine of the defendants met on Sunday night (August 7) at a country club outside of San Salvador presumably to discuss next steps.  Later that night, at approximately 10:00 p.m., all nine turned themselves into a military facility also outside of San Salvador.  The decision to self-surrender to the military presumably was an attempt to defy the usual civilian process involving international arrest warrants and extradition treaties.  They erroneously believed that they could invoke military, as opposed to, civilian courts’ criminal jurisdiction. 

In an unprecedented development, the Minister of Defense of El Salvador accepted the validity of the international arrest warrants and turned the defendants over to civilian authorities where they were held in custody temporarily.  Unfortunately, the Salvadoran Supreme Court issued a problematic ruling that the arrest warrants were invalid because the Spanish judge had not yet issued an extradition request.  Even though these nine defendants are free in El Salvador, they cannot travel outside the country without risking arrest elsewhere.

In November 2011, Judge Velasco issued the extradition requests for the defendants.  This request is pursuant to the formal requirements of the El Salvador-Spanish extradition treaty. On May 9, as it was anticipated, the Salvadoran Supreme Court denied the extradition of the defendants to Spain. Such a blanket denial contradicts the bilateral Extradition Treaty between Spain and the Republic of El Salvador; we are, therefore, still working with our Salvadoran and Spanish partners exploring all options to reverse this decision. Similarly, a formal extradition request has been issued by Spain for Col. Inocente Orlando Montano, who is a resident of the U.S. and currently facing a 21-month prison sentence in the U.S. for immigration fraud.

On April 8, 2015, the U.S. government filed a request seeking the extradition to Spain of Col. Montano for his role in the 1989 Jesuit massacre.  On February 5, 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank approved Montano's extradition.

Download a full version of the case summary.