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The Guernica Group Commemorates the Anniversary of the Jesuits Massacre

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

From The Guernica Group we would like to remember the victims today and reaffirm our commitment to international justice so crimes like the present one will never be repeated.

This article was posted on in Spanish on Monday November 16, 2020 by Michael Reed Hurtado, and an English translation is available below.

The UCA massacre still awaits justice

"Death to the communists of the UCA" was the label used in October 1989 to threaten the Jesuit priests of that university, who promoted peace and supported social transformation in El Salvador.

Designated enemies of the state, the priests were profiled to die in the war. A gang of thugs carried out the order that a second man transmitted; It was not just any gang - this, in particular, was part of the Atlácatl Battalion, an elite group of the Salvadoran Army trained in counterinsurgency tactics and deceptive maneuvers by the US Army.

On November 16, 1989, after midnight, the soldiers carried out a simulated guerrilla raid on a residence in the university citadel in a chambona way and massacred six priests, an adolescent and a woman. Although the involvement of some soldiers in the events could not be denied, the decades of propaganda and psychological warfare had and continue to have the desired impact: on the one hand, the justification for the death of "the guerrillas in cassocks" fell (and cala) in a wide sector of Salvadoran society; on the other hand, the involvement of the public power (in the highest spheres) in the planning and cover-up of the crime has had no consequence.

This week marks the 31st anniversary of that massacre that still awaits justice in El Salvador.

State bypass In recent years, the Salvadoran State began to follow hopeful paths to overcome impunity. For example, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice declared in 2016 the unconstitutionality "in a general and mandatory way" of the general amnesty that stood as an obstacle to justice, and outlined a favorable scenario for the State to Salvadoran could comply with its international obligations in the matter of human rights (Unconstitutionality 44-2013 / 145-2013, judgment of July 13, 2016). In addition, this Chamber, showing a commitment to the rule of law and its support for the institutionality, undertook a follow-up exercise to monitor compliance with the order. The Chamber recently held, at the end of October 2020,

But the news is not encouraging. Last week, the UCA announced that, on October 30, some judges of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court, in a non-unanimous decision (two against one), ignored the unconstitutionality of the Amnesty Law and the duties of the State in matters of human rights. With their decision, these two powerful judges ensure that those responsible for this case do not respond to justice. Contrary to what is required by international law, what has been stated by the Spanish courts and what is ordered by the highest court in constitutional matters in El Salvador, the two judges who achieved a majority allege procedural obstacles that do not exist and the passage of time , which is nothing more than a demonstration of state omission to protect those allegedly implicated. The UCA ends in its editorial:

More than four years have passed since the Constitutional Chamber decreed a series of measures that should have promoted the advancement of a strategic process of investigation and criminal prosecution of those responsible for the serious violations, including the massacre that took place at the UCA in 1989. However, the few actions have not been strategic and the lack of political will, as well as institutional laziness are active impediments to "not touching the untouchables."

Ignacio Martín Baró, one of the Jesuits murdered more than 30 years ago, was reflecting precisely on this phenomenon. In the mid-1980s, considering the arbitrariness in the Salvadoran State, he wrote: “the official lie takes root in the state institutions themselves, distorting their functions: the security forces become the main source of citizen insecurity, and the security system Instead of guaranteeing the exercise of rights and duties, justice becomes a guarantor of injustice and impunity ”.

Salvadorans deserve to have their case tried in the Salvadoran courts. But in the absence of this, the Spanish courts have made progress in seeking justice in this case.

An opportunity (hopefully, not lost) Between June and July 2020 a trial was held in Spain against one of the perpetrators of the UCA massacre: Inocente Orlando Montano Morales , a military colonel who served as deputy minister of Defense in 1989. At the trial we saw a quiet, lonely 77-year-old man sitting in a wheelchair, showing the deterioration generated by all confinement. Between arrests in the United States and Spain, Montano has been deprived of liberty for about seven years; if he serves his sentence, he will be locked up for many more.

In accordance with Spanish law, Montano was found guilty on September 11, 2020 for five crimes of murder of a terrorist nature, for the deaths of Spanish nationals produced in the context of the UCA massacre. Current legislation did not allow him to answer for the murder of the three Salvadorans. He was sentenced to 133 years in prison. He has already appealed the sentence; it is your right. The Spanish courts will decide the appeal, respecting due process.

The Sentence of the National Court of Spain (Criminal Chamber, Second Section) should serve the Salvadoran authorities as motivation to begin to exercise their functions of investigation and criminal prosecution. The Spanish court, according to the applicable law and examining the evidence available, determined that the criminal intervention was materialized “through the use of an organized apparatus of power, which was none other than the High Command of the Armed Forces, in whose positions of maximum responsibility were the military graduates in the so-called 'tandona'. And from this point of view, the High Command, and each and every one of its members, who deliberately agreed to commit the crime, dominate and control each and every one of the illicit acts carried out from that power apparatus " .

There are enough elements in the sentence to promote an investigation and achieve the establishment of subjective responsibilities of the members of the High Command and of all those who participated in the process of decision, design, execution and cover-up of this State crime. Many of them, however, walk around his house like Pedro, protected by power, in El Salvador.

The omission unites power with crime The Salvadoran State owes justice to the victims of repression and war, and to the entire society, as indicated, among others, by the Report of the Truth Commission (1993). The UCA massacre was extensively documented in that report, which includes lists of some of the material perpetrators and others allegedly implicated.

The imperative of justice was clear at that momentous moment in the implementation of the Peace Agreement, but the Commission expressed in its final report that it would have to be postponed because the Salvadoran institutional framework did not meet the minimum conditions of objectivity and impartiality. Three decades after the UCA massacre, the imperative of justice endures and becomes a legal imperative with serious consequences for the legitimacy of the rule of law in El Salvador. Is it that the institutionality is still lost or is it hijacked by the confluence of power and crime?

For the political philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf, impunity links power with crime. It says: “impunity, this is the systematic waiver of sanctions, unites crime and the exercise of authority. It talks about the legitimation of an order. It is a sign of corruption ... "

In the Salvadoran context, his words are a harsh opinion. The impunity that continues to protect those responsible for State crimes actively legitimizes the order of La Tandona, Los Maneques, the Unión Guerrera Blanca and civil and military elites until now covered by appearances and power. It is an order based on arbitrariness and denial. An order sheltered by impunity.

Transcending his death, recovering the words of one of the victims Ignacio Martín Baró or Father Nacho, as his relatives called him, he dedicated a large part of his life to studying, analyzing and writing about violence and how it was embedded in societies , particularly the Salvadoran.

His work is his best testament and contains important messages for the present. Always starting from a profound reflective exercise on his responsibility as a social psychologist, Martín Baró left a robust work program agenda to promote justice and the recognition of atrocity in El Salvador - sadly still in force today.

Martín Baró knew his murderers. He was persecuted and became the target of state repression for exposing the instruments and gadgets of disinformation and propaganda in war, for exposing institutional lies, for unraveling the justification of violence, and for illustrating the ideological background and the rationality of violence (which claimed his life).

In the 1980s, he shed light on issues that are emerging today in the social sciences as very new developments. After highlighting that the systematic concealment of reality was a substantial component of life in El Salvador, he noted that “(e) concealment adopts various modalities: above all, it is about creating an official version of events, a 'story official 'that ignores crucial aspects of reality, distorts others and even falsifies or invents others. This official story is imposed through an intense and very aggressive propaganda display that is supported even by putting the full weight of the highest official positions at stake. For example, the President of the Republic became the public guarantor of the version that he tried to accuse the FMLN of the murder of the president of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission, Herbert Anaya Sanabria ”. Anaya was assassinated in October 1987.

With chilling insight, Martín Baró had described the denial and cover-up resources that would qualify his murder: at the beginning, the High Command and the Presidency blamed the massacre of the Jesuits and the other two victims on the guerrillas; when that version fell, they claimed ignorance - everything was done behind their backs - and proclaimed their innocence. Finally, they appealed to the delivery of scapegoats and took refuge in silence and inaction, which ensure that no one (of whom it matters) responds.

The Jesuit warned that “the public expression of reality, the denunciation of human rights violations and, above all, the unmasking of the official history, of institutionalized lies, are considered 'subversive' activities, and in reality they are, since they subvert the established order of lies ”.

The confrontation of that lie aroused and awakens the anger and reaction of the elites. Reporting and confronting state crime was not in the script allowed during the eighties in El Salvador. "Whoever dares to name reality or denounce the abuses becomes" a target of this violence, expressed Martín Baró in one of his last writings. Father Nacho named the reality and denounced the abuses, such as the other murdered Jesuits and many of the victims of state repression in El Salvador. Decades later its history is not known; silence, ignorance and denial rule. The established order of lies continues to prevail.

Until now, the Salvadoran State, governed by the representatives of the different sides and those who declare themselves without a side, maintains the cloak of impunity for the atrocious crimes of repression and war. Covering silence and calculated deception have made the lie take root in the state; thus, successive regimes (regardless of their differences) defend at all costs that the best recipe is to kidnap justice.

Decades later, the impunity of those responsible for the murder of the Jesuits (and thousands of other atrocities committed in El Salvador) links the exercise of power with crime.

 Michael Reed Hurtado is an expert lawyer in international human rights and humanitarian law. He is the Director of Operations for the Guernica Center for International Justice and a professor at Georgetown University.
Michael Reed Hurtado is an expert lawyer in international human rights and humanitarian law. He is the Director of Operations for the Guernica Center for International Justice and a professor at Georgetown University.



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