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Home Facts SOA/WHINSEC Graduates El Salvador: The Fight for Justice in 1989 Killings of Priests
El Salvador: The Fight for Justice in 1989 Killings of Priests PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 18 November 2002 00:00
By Jos Eduardo Mora

SAN JOSE - The Human Rights Ombudsman's Office?in El Salvador asked Congress to repeal an amnesty law protecting?those who ordered the army killings of six Jesuit priests, their?housekeeper and her teenage daughter 13 years ago.

Human Rights Ombudswoman Beatrice de Carrillo told IPS that her?office had the "moral imperative" to issue a statement on the case?because "the silence that has been kept is a grave problem."

The Human Rights Ombudsman's Office criticised the course of?action taken by the Attorney-General's Office and the?constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court, in a report based on?an investigation into the case carried out in 1993 by the National?Truth Commission, and on recommendations set forth by the Inter-?American Commission on Human Rights in 1999.

On Nov. 16, 1989, the rector of the Jesuit-run University of?Central America (UCA) Ignacio Ellacur a, professors Mart n Bar ,?Joaqu n L pez, Amando L pez, Segundo Montes and Juan Ram n Moreno,?their housekeeper Elba Julia Ramos, and her 15-year-old daughter?Celina Mariceth Ramos were murdered in the Jesuit residence on?campus by the Atlacatl army battalion.

On Saturday, the UCA organised cultural activities and religious?ceremonies on the San Salvador campus to mark the anniversary of?the killing of the six Jesuit priests and the two women.

The National Truth Commission was created by the peace accords?signed in Mexico in 1992 by the Salvadoran government and the?Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) leftist insurgency?-- now a political party -- as the result of peace talks held under?United Nations auspices.

The Truth Commission, which was set up to investigate the crimes?against humanity committed during the 1980-1992 civil war, found?that high-level officers ordered the killings.

According to the investigation, the murders were ordered by?General Ren Ponce, then head of the joint chiefs of staff and?later a minister of defence and public security; former air force?chief Juan Bustillo; Juan Zepeda, former deputy minister of?national defence; Inocente Montano, former deputy minister of?public security; and Colonel Francisco Fuentes, then head of the?first infantry brigade.

Colonel Guillermo Benavides and Lieutenant Yusshy Mendoza were?convicted of organising the killings and sentenced to 30 years in?prison. But both were amnestied by a law enacted in 1993 as part?of the peace agreement.

In a decision that human rights groups described as?inexplicable, the court that convicted Benavides and Mendoza?acquitted the soldiers who had originally confessed to actually?pulling the triggers -- members of the Atlacatl infantry battalion,?a notorious death squad armed and trained by the U.S.

The UCA also holds former president Alfredo Cristiani (1989-?1994) and his defence minister Gen. Rafael Humberto Larios?responsible by omission.

"It is a serious problem that for 10 years, the Human Rights?Ombudsman's Office has not dared to respond to the murders of?archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (killed in 1980) and the Spanish?priests. We believe it was an ethical obligation for us to speak?out," Carrillo told IPS.

The ombudswoman, whose independent government office was also?created as a result of the peace accords, said Salvadoran?authorities have no real interest in clarifying the killings of the?Jesuit priests.

The vice rector of the UCA, Rodolfo Cardenal, concurred with?Carrillo: "There is no political possibility that the amnesty law?will be overturned, because those who are in power today are the?same ones who backed the atrocities of the past."

Cardenal said the stance taken by the government can be?explained by "their fear of trying the people who were involved,?because they still hold power."

Carrillo, for her part, underlined that since the Oct 30?presentation of the report by her office, the responses from the?government, and from the Attorney General's Office in particular,?have been negative.

"There is no interest in bringing the intellectual authors of?the murders to justice, because that could put some famous?personages in an uncomfortable situation -- which does not mean,?however, that the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office must keep?silent."

She said the Human Rights Ombudman's Office had filed a?complaint with the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission?on Human Rights because she and other staff had received threats?to keep them silent.

"We expressed our concern and warned the international community?that serious problems could come of this," she explained.

The stance taken by the Attorney-General's Office, headed by?Belisario Artiga, is "very serious", said Carrillo, given that the?office has the obligation -- with or without an amnesty law -- to?investigate the priests' murders.

She categorically rejected the argument by the attorney?general's Office that the statute of limitations has already run?out on the murders of the priests and the two women.

"It is clear that the murders of the Jesuits were crimes against?humanity and war crimes, and in such cases, time is not a decisive?factor," she said, pointing out that the Inter-American Commission?on Human Rights holds the same view.

She lamented that the legal principles established in the?constitution are being trampled on to protect the intellectual?authors of the killings.

Human rights groups at home and abroad continue to protest the?impunity enjoyed by those who ordered the killings. On Sunday,?around 7,000 protesters gathered for the 13th annual demonstration?by School of the Americas Watch, a U.S. organisation.

In an act of civil disobedience, the demonstrators crossed the?boundary into Fort Benning, Ga., to protest the U.S. military?program that trains Latin American soldiers. Some of the killers?of the Jesuit priests had attended the School of the Americas,?which moved from Panama to Fort Benning in Georgia in 1984. Most?Latin American officers accused of rights offenses in the past have?been trained at the school.

The School of the Americas was renamed last year as a Department?of Defence school called the Western Hemisphere Institute for?Security Cooperation, which continues to train soldiers, while also?focusing on civilian and diplomatic affairs, and providing human?rights courses.

But Roy Bourgeois, the founder of School of the Americas Watch,?said the change was merely "cosmetic."

In March 2000, the UCA brought a lawsuit in El Salvador against?those who allegedly ordered the murders. But the Attorney General's?Office found it inadmissible, arguing that those implicated were?protected by the 1993 amnesty law.

The UCA then turned to the constitutional chamber of the Supreme?Court, which ruled that the amnesty did not apply in this case. But?in December 2000, the Attorney General's Office asked a judge to?declare the case closed.

Both Carrillo and Cardenal insist that until those responsible?for the assassinations of archbishop Romero -- who was shot while?celebrating mass on March 24, 1980 -- and the Spanish priests are?brought to justice, Salvadoran society will not achieve a true?sense of reconciliation.

Roughly 50,000 people -- mainly civilians -- were killed during?the 12-year civil war, including archbishop Romero -- an outspoken?human rights advocate and archbishop of San Salvador ! as well as?military vicar Joaqu n Ramos, 17 priests, five nuns, and thousands?of lay church workers.

On Nov. 1, the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador completed?the process for the canonisation of Romero, the victim of a death?squad headed by Roberto D'Aubuisson, later founder of the extreme?rightist ARENA party and a future president of the national?assembly. ARENA politicians continue to rule the country, enjoying?strong U.S. support.

A majority of El Salvador's 6.2 million people live in dire?poverty. The economy depends heavily on the over $ 1 billion in?remittances sent home by more than a million Salvadorans living and?working in the United States, which surpass the total revenue from?all exports.

Violent crime runs high here, and this Central American country?has one of the world's highest murder rates.
Last Updated on Friday, 22 November 2002 08:27

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