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EL SALVADOR: Declassified Docs Shed Light on Jesuits’ Murders

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Nov 27 2009 (IPS) - Thousands of pages of declassified U.S. documents shedding light on the 1989 murders of six prominent Jesuit clerics, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter in El Salvador could give a new twist to the case that opened in the Spanish courts in January.

The documents, which were presented to Spain’s National Court by attorneys representing the victims’ families, provide new clues that could lead to an increase in the number of people accused of the murders, Spanish lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, who is representing the organisations that brought the case, told IPS in a telephone interview from Madrid.

The declassified documents from the late 1980s and early 1990s indicate the CIA (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) and U.S. State Department had foreknowledge of the Salvadoran military leadership’s plan to kill the then-rector of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, along with four other Spanish priests and a Salvadoran priest on Nov. 16, 1989.

The documents, which include cables to Washington from U.S. embassy, military and CIA officials, “provide important, compelling elements,” said Bernabeu, without entering into detail, because the case is in the hands of the justice system.

The lawsuit was filed in Spain’s National Court – the high court – in November 2008 by the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) and the California-based Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA).

Fourteen Salvadoran military officers and soldiers are under investigation, and former president Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) himself was accused of cover-up and obstruction of investigation.

The 14 members of the military include generals and colonels accused of planning the crime, such as the then minister and deputy minister of defence, the general chief of staff, the air force commander, the deputy minister of public security, the commander of the first infantry brigade, and the director and assistant director of the military academy.

Officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl counterinsurgency battalion have been charged with committing the murders.

Although presiding Judge Eloy Velasco did not accept the charge against Cristiani because covering up a crime against humanity does not fall under the principle of universal jurisdiction – which permits prosecution of the worst atrocities no matter where they were committed – “the judge left open the possibility of including him in the future, if new evidence arises,” said Bernabeu.

The CJA decided to file the legal action in Spain because that country has an extradition treaty with El Salvador, and because Spain’s judges admit the principle of universal jurisdiction, already applied by Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón for the 1998 arrest in London of the late former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

The documents, which the Washington-based National Security Archive helped bring to light, were reported on by the El Mundo newspaper in Spain on Nov. 16, the 20th anniversary of the murders of the six clerics and two women.

One of the documents shows, for example, that in a meeting of the military brass a few days before the murder, then chief of staff General René Emilio Ponce gave the order to assassinate UCA rector Ignacio Ellacuría, and specifically stated that no witnesses were to be left.

There are also records of a meeting between Cristiani and then defence minister Humberto Larios the night before the killings.

Ponce and other officers had already been blamed for the murders in the 1993 report by the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission created by the 1992 peace agreement that put an end to the 12-year civil war between the Salvadoran military and the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which claimed the lives of some 80,000 people, mainly civilians killed by the security forces and allied death squads.

But Salvadoran society had never seen any hard evidence of Ponce’s participation in the murders.

The killings of the Jesuits were committed during the first major military offensive to be carried out in the capital by the FMLN – which became a political party after 1992 and is now governing the country for the first time ever, led by President Mauricio Funes, who took office in June.

The military chiefs used the opportunity to kill the Jesuits, highly respected intellectuals who were viewed by the Salvadoran right as instigators of leftist subversion for their advocacy of “liberation theology” – a progressive current in the Catholic Church that declares a “preferential option for the poor” and fights for social justice – and their opposition to the war.

Immediately after the murders, the Cristiani administration and the armed forces accused the FMLN of killing the priests.

But under heavy international pressure, especially from Washington, the Salvadoran courts brought nine members of the military to trial for the massacre in September 1991.

However, only two were found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years in prison: Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, the director of the military academy, and Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza – despite confessions from several of the other defendants.

Both of them were released under a 1993 amnesty law.

“I believe it is here in El Salvador that the case should make more progress, and what is being done in Spain underscores the need for justice in this country,” Benjamín Cuéllar, director of UCA’s Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), told IPS. “We are going to continue the battle here, through domestic institutions or the inter-American system of human rights.”

IDHUCA and the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington in 2003.

The El Mundo newspaper also reported that according to experts who were consulted, everything indicated that the Spanish intelligence agency of the time, CESID, was also fully aware of the information in the hands of the CIA.

But other newspaper reports in Spain said CESID officials had pulled out of Spain in March 1989, eight months before the Jesuits were killed.

The Salvadoran on-line journal, El Faro, reported that William Walker, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time of the killings, sent a cable to the State Department in November 1989 reporting that members of the then-governing right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) had met the day before the murders, to plan the crime.

According to the publication, Walker states in the cable that information in his possession led to a disturbing conclusion: that the murders of Ellacuría and the seven others could be traced back to a Nov. 15 meeting among Roberto D’Aubuisson and his closest followers in COENA (ARENA’s national executive council).

Army Major D’Aubuisson, the founder of ARENA, was widely considered to have been behind the death squads that abducted, tortured and killed thousands of students, trade unionists, teachers and leftist political leaders and activists in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Truth Commission determined that D’Aubuisson ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was shot by a sniper while saying mass.

D’Aubuisson died of cancer in 1992, without ever having been brought to trial.

Ricardo Valdivieso, a member of COENA at the time and a friend of D’Aubuisson’s, told IPS that Walker’s claims in the cable to the State Department were “absolutely ridiculous, absurd. That was just part of the gossip at the time, which the ex-ambassador could have heard.”

Valdivieso added that he knew Walker before he was named ambassador and that he considered him a friend. But he said the U.S. diplomat was prone to being drawn in by unconfirmed information.

At a ceremony on Nov. 16, the 20th anniversary of the killings, President Funes honoured the Jesuit clerics “for extraordinary service to the nation.”

“Today, 20 years after their cruel murders, putting in the hands of their families and colleagues…the highest award granted by the country, the Orden José Matías Delgado, signifies for me pulling back a heavy veil of darkness and lies, to let in the light of justice and truth,” said the president.

“We want this to be an act of recovering our collective memory,” added Funes, a former TV host and journalist who was educated by the Jesuits, like so many of his fellow Salvadorans.

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