WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Aug 2013 | Commentary | News

Colonel Montano of El Salvador Sentenced to 21 Months in Prison

A federal court in Boston sentenced Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 21 months in prison on immigration charges. Montano had lied on his immigration documents when he emigrated to the U.S. in 2001, asserting that he had never been in the military despite a lengthy career as a high-level officer in the decade-long civil war in El Salvador. Montano lived quietly in the Boston area for about a decade.

He might have continued to live quietly but for a new inquiry into who was responsible for the wartime murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.

Killing of Jesuit priests

In 1989, at the height of an FMLN guerrilla offensive, the Salvadoran military launched a counter-offensive that targeted civilians thought to be sympathetic to or allied with the guerrillas. The rector of the Jesuit University of Central America, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, had been a long-standing advocate of a negotiated end to the war in El Salvador, and had contacts on both sides. In the context of the guerrilla offensive, military officials saw Ellacuria and his colleagues as a potential threat. On the night of November 16th, 1989, army troops, acting on orders from their commanders, entered the university grounds and killed Ellacuria, five other priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter. This brutal murder of internationally-known religious figures sparked a tremendous outcry.

Investigations, prodded by Congressional pressure from the United States, led to the conviction of nine military officials, and the sentencing of two, including the colonel in charge of the unit. But a post-war amnesty law let them off, and prevented further investigation and prosecution.

Investigations in Spain

Several years ago, an investigation opened in Spain. Spanish courts have legal jurisdiction in cases involving their citizens, and five of the six Jesuits that had been murdered were Spanish by birth. Two international human rights groups—the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) in the U.S.—raised the case with Spanish prosecutors.

In 2011, a Spanish judge issued preliminary indictments against 20 military officials, including Colonel Montano, for their involvement in the decision to kill the Jesuits, and ordered them to appear in Spain for a trial. When the officials refused to voluntarily appear in the Spanish court, the Spanish government requested the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and friendly governments to detain any officials in their jurisdiction in order that they could be extradited to Spain for trial. Nine of the accused officials were living in El Salvador, and after a series of judicial battles, El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that the amnesty law prevented their extradition. One had died and several others were unable to be located; without a defendant physically present in Spain, the trial could not proceed.

Current Trial

At that point, Colonel Montano was identified as living in Boston. He was found to have committed immigration violations and was charged with a series of immigration related crimes. On Tuesday, August 27th, he was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

During the three-day sentencing phase, the court heard testimony from experts about Col. Montano’s history and the allegations that he was not only involved in the Jesuit massacre, but in other human rights violations that occurred during El Salvador’s civil war. Most notably, Stanford Professor Terry Karl provided extensive and detailed testimony about wartime abuses linked to Col. Montano or those under his command.

During sentencing, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock noted it was clear “that there were human rights violations by troops under Mr. Montano’s command and he took no action.” Although Judge Woodlock could not prosecute Montano for human rights violations in the immigration case, the prison sentence will give the Spanish government time to proceed with a formal extradition request. If extradited, Montano’s presence would allow the Jesuit murder trial to move forward, marking what could be the beginnings of a process of justice in one of the most well-known human rights abuses in El Salvador.

A note from Professor Terry Karl on the court ruling.