Former US-Backed Salvadoran Colonel Sentenced by Spanish Court to 133 Years in Prison for 1989 Jesuit Massacre

Former Salvadoran colonel Inocente Orlando Montano was sentenced to 133 years in prison on Friday for the murder of five Spanish Jesuit priests in 1989. A Salvadoran priest, his housekeeper, and her teenage daughter were also murdered in the attack, which was carried out by members of a US-created elite military unit called the Atlacatl Battalion. (Photo: Democracy Now screen grab/CC)

Former US-Backed Salvadoran Colonel Sentenced by Spanish Court to 133 Years in Prison for 1989 Jesuit Massacre

Col. Inocente Orlando Montano led an elite U.S.-trained army unit that massacred six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter during El Salvador's 12-year civil war. 

A Spanish court last week sentenced a former U.S.-backed Salvadoran army colonel and government official to 133 years in prison for the murder of five Spanish Jesuit priests during the Central American country's civil war.

The Guardianreports Inocente Orlando Montano, 77, was found guilty of "terrorist murder" by Spain's highest criminal court, the Audiencia Nacional, in Madrid on Friday. Montano also served as El Salvador's vice-minister of public security at the time of the 1989 Jesuit massacre.

The five Spanish priests, along with one Salvadoran Jesuit priest, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, were murdered on November 16, 1989 by members of the elite Atlacatl Battalion, which was created, armed, trained, and funded by the United States.

According to a report by El Salvador's postwar United Nations Truth Commission, Atlacatl troops disguised as rebels rounded up five of the six priests--university rector Ignacio Ellacuria Beas Coechea, vice-rector Ignacio Martin-Baro, social sciences dean Segundo Montes, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Amando Lopez--before ordering them to lie face-down on the ground in a garden where they were executed.

The attackers then discovered Father Joaquin Lopez y Lopez and killed him too, along with housekeeper Julia Elba Ramos and her 15-year-old daughter Celina Ramos.

The Spanish court could not convict Montano for murdering Lopez, Ramos, or her daughter because his extradition to Spain under the legal concept of universal jurisdiction--which posits that national courts may prosecute serious human rights crimes regardless of where they occur--did not apply to those cases.

Almudena Bernabeu, a Spanish human rights lawyer and member of the prosecution team in the Montano case, said the verdict shows the importance of universal jurisction.

"It doesn't really matter if 30 years have passed, the pain of the relatives carries on," she said. "I think people forget how important these active efforts are to formalize and acknowledge that someone's son was tortured or someone's brother was executed."

Hailed by U.S. officials as "the pride of the United States military team in El Salvador," the unit Montano led committed some of the most horrific massacres of the 12-year Salvadoran Civil War. Atlacatl officers and troops--many of them trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA)--carried out mass rape and the wholesale murder of more than 900 villagers, mostly women, children, and the elderly, at El Mozote on December 11, 1981, to name but one of its many crimes.

According to a Truth Commission report, 26 Salvadoran soldiers were involved in the Jesuit massacre. Of these, 19 were SOA graduates, including Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo and three others soldiers believed to be responsible for the 1989 torture, rape, and murder of French Medecins Sans Frontieres nurse Madeleine Lagadec.

Elliott Abrams, the Reagan administration's "death squad ambassador" in Central America who is now the Trump administration's special representative for Iran and Venezuela, hailed the U.S. record in El Salvador as "one of fabulous achievement." More than 70,000 men, women, and children died during the Salvadoran Civil War. The Truth Commission investigation concluded that 85% of the more than 22,000 atrocities that were reported during the war were committed by the U.S.-backed military regime and associated forces.

Many of the perpetrators of war crimes and other human rights atrocities--including Montano--found refuge in the United States. Montano was jailed in the U.S. for immigration fraud and perjury before he was extradited to Spain in 2017.

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