El Salvador Arrests Ex-Military Officers in 1989 Jesuit Killings

February 11, 2016

Breaking years of inaction over one of the most emblematic cases from El Salvador’s brutal civil war, Salvadoran police have begun to arrest former military officers who are accused in the killings of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her teenage daughter.

Raids that began late Friday and continued into Saturday netted four of the 16 men who are being sought in El Salvador, according to the national police. Officials said they would continue to pursue the other suspects.

The murders in November 1989 shocked the United States, which was supporting El Salvador’s military- backed government in its war against a leftist insurgency. But the case was not fully prosecuted in El Salvador because of an amnesty that followed the 1992 peace agreement ending the conflict.

Barred from seeking justice in El Salvador, the families of the victims and human rights groups took their case to Spain, where a law of universal jurisdiction allows prosecutions for some crimes committed outside the country. Five of the six priests were Spanish.

In 2011, Judge Eloy Velasco Nuñez of the Spanish National Court issued an indictment accusing 20 former military men, including leaders of the Salvadoran high command in 1989, of planning, ordering and carrying out the murders. The court issued international arrest warrants as the first step toward extradition.

According to Judge Velasco, the killings were carried out on the high command’s orders by an elite military unit trained by the United States. Members of the unit entered the grounds of the Central American University in San Salvador and killed the rector, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, and five other priests in the garden in front of their house. The housekeeper and her daughter were reportedly killed to remove any potential witnesses.

At the time, Father Ellacuría was trying to broker a peace agreement, but many in the high command believed that he was too sympathetic to the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the F.M.L.N.

The government of El Salvador never acted on Judge Velasco’s 2011 arrest warrants, which were reissued in December. Salvadoran officials continued to stall, arguing that there were legal complications.

One of the accused, though, was in the United States, and the Justice Department supported Spain’s extradition request. A federal judge in North Carolina ruled on Thursday that the defendant, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, a retired colonel, should be extradited. Mr. Montano had been arrested in 2011, accused of immigration violations.

It was not clear on Saturday whether the American decision to hand over Mr. Montano spurred the Salvadoran police to conduct their raids.

The four men arrested on Saturday include a former colonel, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, who was accused of transmitting the order for the killing to the military unit, the Atlacatl Batallion. Mr. Benavides was convicted in El Salvador of murder and terrorism in 1991, along with a lieutenant; both were released under the amnesty in 1993.

The police also arrested a former sergeant, Antonio Ramiro Ávalos Vargas; a former corporal, Angel Pérez Vasquez; and a former deputy sergeant, Tomás Zárpate Castillo.

But none of the former high-command officers has yet been detained.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador called on the former officers to turn themselves in. “There are people in hiding,” said Mr. Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander. “My recommendation is that they give themselves up.”

“We need to have the truth told about what happened in the past,” he continued, speaking at a public event on Saturday. “But we also need forgiveness.”

In a statement sent to a television station earlier in the week, seven former members of the high command who were indicted by the Spanish court denied that they were involved in the Jesuit killings.

“We publicly reaffirm our innocence,” the former officers, including Rafael Humberto Larios, Juan Rafael Bustillo, and Juan Orlando Zepeda, all retired generals, said in the statement. “We remind the Salvadoran people that those who were truly responsible for the deeds were tried, convicted and amnestied.”