I. The FMLN Offensive November 11, 1989
The FMLN launched an offensive on November 11, 1989, which surprised the Salvadoran Army with its effectiveness. The guerrillas gained control of several areas in and around San Salvador. They attacked the residences of the President of the Republic and the President of the Legislative Assembly. They also attacked the barracks of the First, Third and Sixth Infantry Brigades and those of the National Police. On November 12, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
At a meeting of the General Staff on November 13, security commands were created to deal with the offensive. Each command was headed by an officer under the operational control of then, Colonel Ponce. Colonel Benavides was designated to head the military complex security command, a zone which included the Military College, the Ministry of Defense, the National Intelligence Department (DNI), the residence of the U.S. Ambassador and the UCA campus. A national military radio channel was also established.
After guerrillas blew up one of the main gates of the UCA and crossed into the campus on November 11, a military detachment was stationed to watch who went in and out of the UCA. Starting on November 13, no one was permitted onto the campus without authorization.
Also on November 13, Colonel Ponce ordered Colonel Joaquin Arnoldo Cerna Flores to arrange for a search of the UCA premises. According to Colonel Ponce, he ordered the search because he had been informed that there were over 200 guerrillas on the UCA campus.
The night of November 15, between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., Colonel Benavides met with the officers under his command, including Major Hernández Barahona. Benavides explained that he had just come from a meeting at the General Staff where special measures had been adopted to combat the FMLN offensive. Those present at the General Staff meeting had been informed that the situation was critical and that all known subversive elements must be eliminated. Benavides said that he had received orders to eliminate Father Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. Benavides asked for any officers who objected to the order to raise their hands. No one did.
Minister of Defense Humberto Larios, also a defendant in the case, testified to the UN Truth Commission to El Salvador that early on November 16, just a few hours before the massacre, he met at the office of the Joint General Stuff with the chief Emilio Ponce and former president Alfredo Cristiani where they discussed troop levels in the area surrounding UCA.
Benavides then ordered Hernández Barahona to organize and plan the operation. It was decided that troops from the Atlacatl Battalion would be used, under the command of Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra.
Later in the evening after the main meeting, Hernández Barahona met with Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Guevara Cerritos of the Atlacatl Battalion. In an attempt to deflect attention from their role in the deaths, Hernández Barahona ordered them to use an AK-47 rifle that had belonged to the FMLN to kill Father Ellacuría. He also instructed them to leave a sign and propaganda making it look like it was an FMLN operation. The AK-47 was given to Private Amaya Grimaldi.
III. The Massacre
In order to reach the UCA, it was necessary to pass through the defense cordons of the military complex. Lieutenant Martínez Marroquin arranged for the Atlacatl soldiers to pass. By then it was in the early hours of November 16, 1989. The soldiers made their way to the Pastoral Center, which was the residence of Ellacuría and the other priests. The soldiers first tried to force their way into the Pastoral Center. When the priests realized what was happening, they actually let the soldiers in. The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into the back garden and lie face down on the ground.
Espinoza Guerra, who was in charge of the unit, gave the soldiers the order to kill the priests. Fathers Ellacuría, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by Private Amaya Grimaldi, and Fathers López and Moreno by Deputy Sergeant Avalos Vargas. Shortly afterwards, the soldiers, including Corporal Pérez Vásquez, found Father López y López inside the residence and killed him. Deputy Sergeant Zárpate Castillo shot Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina. Private Sierra Ascencio shot Julia and Celina again to make sure that they were dead. All of the deceased were unarmed and defenseless. No casualties or injuries were suffered by the military.
The soldiers took a small suitcase belonging to the priests, with photographs, documents and $5000. They fired a machine gun at the façade of the residence and launched rockets and grenades. Before leaving, they wrote on a piece of cardboard, “FMLN executed those who informed on it. “Victory or death, FMLN.”
IV. The Cover Up
On November 16, 1989, after the operation, Hernández Barahona went to Colonel Ponce’s office to report on what had happened at the UCA. He reported that he had a small suitcase with photographs, documents and money which the soldiers had stolen from the Jesuits a few hours earlier. Colonel Ponce ordered it destroyed because it was evidence of the Army’s responsibility. They destroyed the suitcase at the Military College.
Upon returning to his unit, Espinoza Guerra informed the Commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Alberto León Linares, of what had happened and the fact that they had killed six priests and two women at UCA.
Once news of the killing became public, President Alfredo Cristiani assigned the investigation of the crime to a special police unit called the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal Acts (“CIHD”). With Cristiani’s knowledge, the unit began a process of covering up the crime and destroying the evidence.
Rivas Mejía also advised Benavides to make sure that no record remained of those entering and leaving the Military College that would link military personnel to the killings of the Jesuits. Subsequently, Benavides and Hernández Barahona ordered that all Military College arrival and departure logs for that year and the previous year be burned.
Shortly after the investigation began, Ponce arranged for Colonel Nelson Ivan López y López, head of unit I of the General Staff who had also been in charge of the General Staff Tactical Operations Centre on November 15 and 16, to join CIHD in the investigation of the case.
In November 1989, CIHD heard testimony from two witnesses: Deputy Sergeant Germán Orellana Vázquez and police officer Victor Manuel Orellana Hernández Barahona. Both witnesses testified that they had seen soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion near the UCA since 5:00pm that night. These witnesses both changed their statements.
CIHD did not take a statement from Benavides during the time frame immediately following the killings, even though the incident had occurred within his command zone. According to the court dossier, the first statement Benavides made was to a Special Honor Commission on January 11, 1990.
On January 2, 1990, a month and a half after the murders, Major Eric Warren Buckland, a U.S. military adviser, reported to his superior, Lieutenant Colonel William Hunter, a conversation he had a few days earlier with Colonel Carlos Armando Avilés Buitrago. During that conversation, Avilés had told Buckland that he learned, through Colonel Nelson Ivan López y López, that Benavides had arranged the murders and that a unit from the Atlacatl Battalion had carried them out. Avilés also said that Benavides had asked Rivas Mejía (the head of the investigations commission) for help. Hunter told the Chief of the U.S. Military Mission, Colonel Milton Menjivar, about the allegation that the military was involved in the killings. Colonel Menjivar arranged a meeting in Ponce’s office with both Buckland and Avilés where Avilés denied having told Buckland that Colonel Benavides was involved in the killings.
In January 1990, a few days after Buckland’s statements, Alfredo Cristiani established a Special Honor Commission, consisting of five officers and two civilians, to investigate the murders. The Honor Commission questioned 30 members of the Atlacatl Battalion, including Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Guevara Cerritos, and a number of officers of the Military College, including Colonel Benavides.
Espinoza Guerra and Guevara Cerritos, as well as the soldiers who had participated in the murders, confessed their roles in the crime to the Honor Commission. However, a civilian member of the Commission, Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto, the legal adviser to the General Staff, altered their statements in order to delete any reference to the existence of orders from superiors. He also deleted some references to other officers, including one to Hernández Barahona.
On January 12, 1990 the Commission submitted its report to President Cristiani. The report identified nine members of the military as being responsible for the murders, four officers and five soldiers. Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos were accused of murder, acts of terrorism, acts preparatory to terrorism and instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Deputy Sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Deputy Sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo, Corporal Angel Pérez Vásquez and Private Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi were accused of murder, acts of terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism. Private Jorge Alberto Sierra Ascencio was tried in absentia for murder and Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona was later accused of being an accessory.
The pre-trial proceedings took over eighteen months. During this time, Ponce, Zepeda, Montano and General Gilberto Rubio pressured lower-ranking officers not to mention orders from above in their testimony to the court.
The jury trial was held in September 1991. The trial proceeded with many irregularities. The Salvadoran Armed Forces and the Salvadoran Government did not respond to requests from the trial judge, Ricardo Zamora, to produce evidence and witnesses. The jury decided the verdicts on the charges of murder and terrorism. The other charges were left to the judge to decide. Only two of the ten defendants on trial, one of which was Benavides, were found guilty of murder, instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and were sentenced to the maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Espinoza Guerra and Guevara Cerritos were found guilty of instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and were sentenced to three years. Hernández Barahona was found to be an accessory to murder and was sentenced to three years. Except for Mendoza Vallecillos and Benavides, none of the defendants were sent to prison. Mendoza and Benavides were later released when the Amnesty Law was passed under Cristiani’s rule.