Four soldiers arrested in El Salvador in case of 1989 university campus massacre

Memorial to the victims of the 1989 UCA campus massacre. (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Four former soldiers are in an El Salvador jail, arrested Friday night in connection with the November 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The massacre, which took place on the grounds of the University of Central America, or UCA, marked a turning point in the country’s civil war. It drew swift international condemnation and sparked intense questioning of US support for the Salvadoran military.

Five of the six priests were Spanish nationals and attempts have been underway in Spain to extradite those suspected of carrying out the massacre. However, the Salvadoran Supreme Court has thwarted past extradition requests, citing a 1992 amnesty law.

For more, FSRN’s Shannon Young spoke with Jose Artiga, Executive Director of SHARE – El Salvador, a foundation with a 30 year history of human rights, solidarity and advocacy work in El Salvador.

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Shannon Young: Given the arrest of four former soldiers Friday night: Does it seem to you like a major obstacle has been removed to prosecuting civil war era crimes?

Jose Artiga: This is a long process, you know. I think this is a major step in that process, but there is a long way to go. But, I think it’s spectacular that the Salvadoran government decided, the very same day that Colonel Montano was ordered to, or there was a move to extradite him to Spain, that the Salvadoran government also moved in the same direction, which I assume that it might have some connection, or some blessing, from the United States.

SY: You mention retired Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano.  Can you explain who he is and his connection to the case?

JA: When Montano was a member of what was called La Tandona, the class of military that was ruling during the war, he, himself, would be in charge of a number of massacres that happened during the war. So, he was detained in the U.S. for something else. He was lying to immigration [about] temporary protective status and that’s how he was identified as somebody related to these massacres in El Salvador. And after he served his sentence of 21 months, he was detained, and Spain claimed him. Several months passed and then, last week, finally, the order was issued to extradite him to Spain.

SY: This case in particular, the massacre on the campus of the University of Central America, now spans three countries: Spain, where the legal proceedings are occurring; the US, where Montano has been living; and El Salvador, home the majority of those suspected of carrying out the massacre. Why hasn’t the case been prosecuted in El Salvador?

JA: Well, no cases have been brought to justice in El Salvador. El Salvador has maintained its powerful wall behind amnesty, even though amnesty doesn’t apply to cases of crimes against humanity. But, no judges or no part of the legal system has been willing to take any case.

The case of the Jesuits is just one of many. You know, we have over 264 massacres, including the largest massacre in Latin America, El Mozote, where military have not been brought to justice. You have the case of the Archbishop Romero, who is in the process to be canonized. But, no investigation has happened in El Salvador. You have the case of four U.S. church women, and then, you know, the hundreds of disappeared and assassinations.

The case of the Jesuits itself is an important one because this was not a death squad, which many incidents happened related to the death squads. This was the high command of the military, this was not, you know, three, four soldiers out of the control that went did the assassination. Four hundred people were involved.

We’re hoping that three things happen and this case is a violation of human rights. One is that the truth is known; two, that justice is made, and then the reparations happen to the victims. So, we hope that this will move things forward, not only for this case, but open up for other cases.

SY: Bringing it back to the present day. El Salvador now has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with homicides at a level unseen since the civil war. There’s also been a major exodus of people leaving El Salvador, citing the violence as a reason for leaving. How does the present-day violence connect to the past and is there a way to work towards a resolution accordingly?

JA: The situation is very complex, but one component will be the impunity of the ’80s. How can you go ahead in this case? The government – the state – goes ahead and kills six Jesuits and two women, and nothing happened to the perpetrators. That impunity is a signal that you can, you know, a young person can secure a weapon and kill people in his community, and nothing will happen to them.

Then there are other root causes of emigration, including these free trade agreements. We need to remember that before the free trade agreement with Mexico, there were only 2 million undocumented in the United States. Ten years after that agreement, over 10 million undocumented. So these policies, these very unfair policies, can displace people, especially in the countryside. You go to the city, you don’t find anything. And then, you know, many tend to go north.

So, we need to address also the economic policies, simple things like WalMart coming into El Salvador and displacing thousands of jobs, or Coca-Cola coming into a community and capturing all the water of that community and leaving people with no water. There are other injustices that go on to promote emigration.

SY: Jose Artiga, anything else you’d like to add?

JA: I would say, let’s follow these cases and express our support to justice. I think that we need to be fair and contribute to the healing of these cases that have been going on for, in the case of the Jesuits for 26 years. I have a very personal connection to this case because Elba, the woman that was killed, Elba and Celina, worked with my mother. They would come and help in the house. So, these were almost relatives of ours that were killed in that, on November 16 of 1989.

Jose Artiga is the Executive Director of the SHARE Foundation. He spoke with Shannon Young by phone from Berkeley, California.

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