Washington, D.C.—Salvadoran Col. Orlando Montano has been ordered to be extradited to Spain, where he will stand trial for his role in planning the murders of six Jesuit priests and two women in San Salvador in 1989. Five of the Jesuits were Spanish citizens. The judge’s decision marks a turning point in the search for justice in the Jesuit case, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Colonel Montano, former Vice Minister of Defense in El Salvador, had been living in the Boston area. He was convicted in a U.S. court on immigration fraud and perjury charges. While serving his sentence in a prison in North Carolina, Spain requested his extradition. A federal judge ruled late on February 4th that Montano should be extradited to Spain, where he has been indicted for organizing and carrying out the murder of the Jesuit priests, along with other members of the Salvadoran military.
Col. Montano can still file a last minute writ of habeas corpus seeking to prevent his transfer to Spanish custody, and procedure requires the State Department to approve the extradition. “While Colonel Montano can’t actually be sent to Spain till this process is completed, this decision means that we are likely, finally, to see a trial of those who gave the orders in the Jesuit case,” according to WOLA Program Director Geoff Thale.
“It would be best if this trial were taking place in El Salvador. But a trial in Spain may bring a measure of justice, and may open the way to domestic prosecutions.” said Thale. “This is an important step for human rights and for the rule of law.”
The Jesuit murders, which took place as the Salvadoran government unleashed a no-holds-barred campaign to fight off a rebel offensive, shocked the world. Several of the priests were well known in the United States and in Europe for their support for a peaceful solution to El Salvador’s civil war. Their murders sparked outrage in the U.S. Congress. A year later, Congress voted to suspend half of U.S. military aid to El Salvador and to tie assistance to peace talks.
But there has been little justice in the case itself. Under intense international pressure, the Salvadoran government tried the colonel, two lieutenants, and five soldiers who actually committed the murders. Two of the soldiers were convicted, but released two years later. A post-war amnesty law was interpreted as bringing any investigation of who had ordered the killings to a halt. Despite repeated calls by religious and human rights groups in El Salvador and internationally, no action has been taken in the Jesuit case.
Because of the efforts of San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability and their colleagues in Spain, a Spanish court opened an investigation into the killings. In 2011, the court ordered the indictment of 20 senior military officials. But the trial has not moved forward because none of the defendants were present in the Spanish court. El Salvador’s Supreme Court refused, in May of 2012, to honor a Spanish extradition request, for the seventeen defendants still in El Salvador.
“Today, with the judge’s decision to extradite Colonel Montano, begins a new era. Once Montano is in Spain, the court will be legally empowered to move ahead with the trial; as long as one defendant is physically present, the case may proceed against all defendants,” said Thale.