Spain sentences ex-colonel to 133 years in El Salvador’s 1989 Jesuit priest massacre

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Inocente Orlando Montano, who served as vice minister for public security during El Salvador’s 1979-1992 civil war, denied having taken part or ordering the massacre.

A former Salvadoran colonel was sentenced to 133 years in prison for the killings of five Jesuit priests more than three decades ago, a court in Spain ruled Friday.

Spain’s National Court in Madrid ruled that Inocente Orlando Montano, an ex-colonel who served as El Salvador’s vice minister for public security during the country’s 1979-1992 civil war, was responsible for the 1989 “terrorist assassinations.”

Montano, 77, listened from a wheelchair as judges read the verdict, imprisoning him to 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the deaths. The verdict can be appealed.

After the Salvadoran government passed an amnesty law in 1993 that made it difficult to investigate and prosecute human rights cases, Spain applied the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to take up the Jesuits’ case because five of the slain priests were Spanish citizens, including one of the leading minds behind the so-called Liberation theology, Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría.

The international human rights law says unresolved war crimes or crimes against humanity can be tried by other countries, even when they happen outside their borders. So, the U.S. extradited Montano to Spain in 2017 to face murder and terrorism charges.

During his trial earlier this year, Montano denied having taken part or ordered the massacre that led to the death of eight people, including a total of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter, in the campus of the Central American University.

Terry Lynn Karl, a Stanford University political scientist and Latin American studies professor emeritus who researched the notorious 1989 massacre, testified July 13 via video as an expert witness on Montano’s case.

She recently told NBC News that there was ample evidence that the Jesuits had been targeted by El Salvador’s high military command.

“These murders were premeditated, and they were a long time coming,” Karl said. “I documented 34 pages of single-spaced attacks against the Catholic Church since 1977. So there was no accident in the identification of the Jesuit priests as leaders of the FMLN.” The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a leftist guerrilla group, fought the Salvadoran military during the 12-year civil war.

Kate Doyle, a national security analyst, also testified in Montano’s trial, telling NBC News they had documents written by “firsthand witnesses” that proved that the military officials were behind the massacre.

“We’re talking about the ambassador, the political officers, the deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy,” said Doyle. “We’re talking about defense attachés who talked with the military every day in El Salvador. We’re talking about the CIA, who gathered intelligence from barrooms to the national palace.”