Washington, D.C.—The U.S. State Department today officially designated thirteen former members of the Salvadoran military—ranging in rank from general to private—as gross human rights violators for their involvement in the extrajudicial killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the University of Central America (UCA) on November 16, 1989. The deaths shocked the world and marked a turning point in the decade-long U.S. support for the military in El Salvador. But, despite extensive investigations into the killings that resulted in convictions for some of the military elements directly involved in the massacre, the United States has never before announced the command responsibility of the Salvadoran military for their role in this case.
“For the United States to designate senior military officers as being directly responsible marks a historic moment for justice in El Salvador,” said Geoff Thale, Interim President of WOLA. “It should strengthen efforts for truth and reconciliation in a country that is still living with the ghosts of the past.”
While the list released by the State Department is not comprehensive, it does include all the living high command officers named in the Salvadoran Truth Commission report as responsible for ordering the killings. Notably, it includes General Juan Rafael Bustillo, who earlier this week testified in the case of a second massacre known as El Mozote, in which he admitted for the first time that the military was responsible for that massacre as well.
The brutal killings of six Jesuit priests and two others at the university campus led to a special investigation by the U.S. Congress, which resulted in the cut off of millions of dollars in military aid and paved the way for peace process. Since the end of the war in 1992, El Salvador has struggled to deal with the issues of accountability and justice for thousands of deaths, disappearances, and human rights abuses committed by U.S.-backed and trained Salvador military forces. These challenges remain today, as Salvadorans continue to confront corruption, violence, weak rule of law, and other issues directly related to accountability, justice, and the strength of government institutions.
“The full extent of the military command’s involvement in massive human rights violations during the war, including the Jesuit massacre, needs to be investigated further,” concluded Thale. “Whether the Salvadoran justice system is capable of fairly handling these cases will be a true test of how much rule of law has progressed in the country.”