On September 11, a high court in Madrid issued the verdict, more than thirty years in the making, in a remarkable criminal case: Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano was found guilty on five murder counts. Montano was El Salvador’s vice minister of public security on November 16, 1989, when six Jesuit priests and two women were murdered on the leafy campus of the country’s preeminent center of higher education. The audacious murders by the Salvadoran military would mark the beginning of the end of El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war. Also remarkable was the role of Congress, whose dogged pursuit of justice moved the murder investigation in El Salvador forward at critical junctures.
I happened to be in El Salvador at the time, sent by the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights to investigate alleged human-rights crimes and U.S.-funded efforts to promote judicial reform. A week before the murders, a U.S. embassy official told me the guerrillas were a small band in the hills, destined to dwindle away to irrelevance within months. And Congress—which had sent both military advisers and, between 1980 and 1991, nearly $6 billion in economic and military aid—had moved on to other matters. The prevailing view was that the U.S. strategy was working. A presentable conservative businessman had assumed the presidency, proving that there was nothing to fear from his far-right ARENA party. Or so the thinking went.
That analysis would be prove to be spectacularly wrong in two ways. First, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was far from contained. Instead, on November 11, 1989, its forces launched a major military offensive: a coordinated attack on the capital of San Salvador. Second, the human-rights situation was far from under control. The Jesuit university, where the priests from the order resided, was adjacent to the Salvadoran military’s high command headquarters and was surrounded by troops two days after the offensive commenced. An elite battalion, trained and funded by the United States, searched the Jesuit residence, where Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría lived with seven other men. The Spanish-born Ellacuría was a world-renowned philosopher and theologian who advocated for negotiating a solution to the conflict. He had even carried messages between the warring factions. Likely the killers’ primary target, Ellacuría was in Spain when the offensive broke out, and had hurried back to El Salvador to continue his quest for peace.
In the early hours of November 16, soldiers forced Ellacuría and four of his brother priests to lie facedown on the lawn, then sprayed them with machine-gun fire. Another priest was killed inside the residence, and a housekeeper named Julia Elba Ramos and her teenage daughter, Celina, were also shot to death. It was Julia’s husband who found the bodies the next morning, and made his way to the nearby residence of the Jesuit Provincial to report what he had seen.