Salvadoran Colonel Convicted and Sentenced for Murder of Priests

Monumento a las victimas de la masacre de El Mozote. Memorial to the victims of the El Mozote massacre.


In Central America, justice comes slowly, if it comes at all. Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano (retired) was sentenced to 133 years in prison in a Madrid court on September 11 for his role in the 1989 assassinations of 8 people in San Salvador. The eight included 6 Jesuit priests (five of whom were Spanish citizens), their housekeeper and her 15 year-old daughter. 

Montano served as Minister of Public Security during the 1979-1992 civil war in El Salvador. Now 77, Montano was extradited from the U.S. in 2017, where he had been living. The Salvadoran government refused to extradite the other soldiers responsible for the crimes. At the end of the Salvadoran Civil War, the Salvadoran government passed an amnesty law making it difficult to investigate and prosecute human rights cases. This law was declared unconstitutional by the Salvadoran Supreme Court in 2016, thus opening the way for the prosecution of war crimes but Salvadoran courts have been slow to take up war crime cases. Montano, however, was tried and convicted in Spain under the principle of universal jurisdiction for human rights crimes. The principle of universal jurisdiction states that war crimes or crimes against humanity may be tried by other countries, even when they happen outside of the borders of that country. Under this principle, Montano was extradited from the U.S. in 2017. Spain found him guilty of killing all 8 victims, but he could only be sentenced, under Spanish law, for the killing of the five who were Spanish citizens. Partial justice came 31 years after the murders.

Crucial to the conviction was the testimony of Lieutenant Rene Yusshy Mendoza (retired) who was part of the killing team commanded by Montano. Mendoza was one of the soldiers who actually shot some of the priests. Also crucial to the conviction was the use of declassified U.S. government documents made available to the Spanish government by the National Security Archives. These documents, written by firsthand observers from the CIA, Pentagon, and U.S. Embassy, show that the Salvadoran military was behind the massacre.

The killings of the priests in 1989 was part of a decades-long pattern in El Salvador. The pattern started in 1979 when a violent civil war erupted between guerilla groups united in the FMLN (Faribundo Martí National Liberation Front) and the Salvadoran oligarchy supported by the military. One of the first killed was Archbishop Oscar Romero, a vocal critic of injustice. Romero, now a saint in the Catholic Church, was killed while saying mass on March 24, 1980. That same year, three Maryknoll nuns and a lay missionary were kidnapped, beaten, raped, and murdered on December 2. Later investigations showed that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered and planned the Romero assassination. D’Aubuisson trained at the School of the Americas, a notorious U.S.-run military training camp for Latin American death squads and terrorists at Fort Benning in Georgia now re-named WHINSEC, and founded and led one of El Salvador’s most notorious death squads. He worked in military intelligence and later founded the far-right political party ARENA. He was never charged and never convicted of the crimes and is now dead.

The most horrific example of the pattern is the El Mozote Massacre in which almost 1,000 innocent Salvador campesinos were killed in December 1981. The nightmarish story of the massacre, who did what to whom, and the human aftermath, is chronicled brilliantly by Mark Danner in his 1993 exposé The Massacre at El Mozote. In spite of the widespread knowledge of the case, no one was prosecuted until recently. In a case that rivals the recent verdict in Madrid, seventeen high ranking military officers are being tried in El Salvador for the massacre. The case began after the amnesty law was declared unconstitutional in 2016. Initiated by survivors and relatives of the victims. The defendants are still at liberty but must report to the court once a month and cannot leave El Salvador without permission. 

In November 2019, the case took a significant step forward when two soldiers who participated in the massacre testified from behind a screen with their voices distorted. They are in a witness protection program in exchange for their testimony. The two confirmed the victims’ accounts of beatings, rape, and murder of innocent campesinos, including children, accounts long known to be true but never before acknowledged by any of the soldiers involved or by the courts.

In a second important development, General Juan Rafael Bustillo (retired), former commander of the air force, acknowledged the responsibility of the Salvadoran military for the massacre. Bustillo testified that he himself was not responsible for the massacre, which was carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion under its commander Colonel Domingo Monterrosa.

The Atlacatl Battalion was trained by the U.S. Monterrosa, like D’Aubuisson was trained in the U.S. at the School of the Americas. It was considered the elite, and most brutal, of all the Salvadoran military units, akin to the U.S. Rangers or special forces. Col. Monterrosa was assassinated by the FMLN in October 1984. Monterrosa is a convenient scapegoat for the Salvadoran military and Oligarchy. He is no longer around to tell his side of the story, having been assassinated by the FMLN in retaliation for the massacre. This strategy was used by General Bustillo in his testimony. Not only did Bustillo claim that Monterrosa acted alone, he stated “I almost feel like a moment, some instance of madness on the part of Colonel Monterrosa to have committed this offense” and “it was on his initiative that he gave the order to kill the people of El Mozote” (quoted in Al Jazeera, 1/25/2020).

While the pattern of violence is plain and some of those responsible are now being prosecuted, we must ask who stood behind the oligarchs, military, and death squads. Who trained them, gave them money and arms, supported them internationally and gave them political and public relations cover? The answer is the U.S. 

A small monument stands near the site of the massacre, a cross with the four figures standing by it, a man, a woman, and two children. The inscription reads “They did not die, they are with us, with you, and with all of humanity.” Revolutionaries should never forget the innocent victims, nor should we ever forget who was responsible, and why.

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