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Decades After Atrocities During US-Backed Dirty Wars, Nations Take Promising Legal Steps

El Salvador says will make arrests over notorious massacre of Jesuit priests; Guatemala arrests over a dozen former officials for rights abuses

A memorial to the people who died in the civil war in El Salvador. (Photo: Celine Massa/flickr/cc)

In promising and long-awaited developments, Guatemala and El Salvador, where U.S.-backing and training helped the military forces commit crimes against humanity, this week took legal steps towards justice for victims.

In El Salvador, more than 25 years after members of the U.S. backed-Salvadoran military forces killed six Jesuit priests, the government has said it would arrest 17 former soldiers accused of the committing the notorious massacre.

According to reporting by Reuters on Wednesday:

The government made the announcement after a Spanish judge sent a new petition to international police agency Interpol on Monday, ordering the soldiers' capture for the 1989 murders of the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Five of the priests were Spanish and one was Salvadoran.

"We consider compliance with international arrest warrants to be mandatory, and we must proceed with immediate implementation by the Salvadoran authorities," Agence France-Presse quotes Salvador's human rights ombudsman David Morales as saying late Wednesday.

The Center for Justice and Accountability, which has sought legal remedy on behalf of the families of the murdered Jesuit priests, offers this background on what happened on the day of the massacre, November 16, 1989:

As summarized in the United Nations Truth Commission report, a feature of the post-conflict peace accords, on the night of November 15, 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the presence of General Juan Rafael Bustillo, Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, ordered Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides to kill Jesuit Father Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. Later that night, Benavides in turn ordered Lt. Espinoza Guerra, a member of the elite Atlacatl Battalion, to carry out this order.

Espinoza Guerra and his platoon of Atlacatl troops arrived at the Universidad Centroamericana ¨José Simeon Cañas¨ (UCA) in San Salvador in the early hours of November 16, 1989 and made their way to the Pastoral Center. When the priests came out to see what the commotion was about, they were ordered to go into the garden and lie face down on the ground, while the soldiers searched the building. At this point, Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra gave the order to kill the priests. By the end of the massacre, six priests, their housekeeper and the housekeeper's daughter were brutally murdered.

Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra and his troops attempted to cover up their role in the massacre by making it look as if the killings had been carried out by members of the FMLN.

Reuters adds: "Prosecutors say Salvadoran soldiers shot the priests at their home at a university to silence their criticism of rights abuses committed by the U.S.-backed army during the 1980-1992 civil war that claimed an estimated 75,000 lives."


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According to watchdog group School of the Americas Watch, "Nineteen of the military officers cited for this atrocity have received training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas."

In 2011, a Spanish court issued arrest warrants for the former soldiers for their role in the massacre, but El Salvador said that the INTERPOL-issued red notices only required the government to locate, not arrest, the men.

And in Guatemala, authorities on Wednesday arrested over a dozen ex-military and government officials for human rights abuses committed during the U.S-backed, decades-long war that saw at least 200,000 people, mostly indigenous, killed, and tens of thousands "disappeared."

"The detainees are alleged to have participated in 88 events related to massacres carried out between 1981-1986 in the context of internal armed conflict in Guatemala," Guatemala's Attorney General Thelma Aldana said at a press conference. "It is one of the biggest cases of forced disappearances in Latin America."

As Democracy Now! reports, "Many of the arrested former military leaders were backed by the United States, including Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, who had worked closely with U.S. military officials to develop a system of attacking the highlands where Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan communities reside."

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin writes at Just Security that the arrests in Guatemala are are "a cogent reminder that impunity for systematic human rights violations is diminishing."

On Monday, the trial of U.S.-backed, School of the Americas-trained dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who is charged with crimes against humanity and genocide committed during the country's civil war, is set to start.

"Tens of thousands of Guatemalans who fell victim to the heinous crimes committed under Ríos Montt’s rule have been waiting three decades to see justice done – they must not be forced to wait one second longer," stated Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

"The only deterrent to the perpetrators of crimes like these is the clear knowledge that they will face justice and the full might of the law," she said.

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