Former colonel sentenced for murder of 'Martyrs of El Salvador'

  • Clare Bergin

A former Salvadoran army colonel has been sentenced to 133 years in prison for the murder of five Spanish Jesuit priests in his homeland more than 30 years ago. A court in Madrid on 11 September found Inocente Orlando Montano, 77, guilty of "terrorist murder".

The killings happened during El Salvador's civil war, when Catholic priests were often accused by the government of collaborating with left-wing rebels.

Spain's top criminal court found him responsible for eight murders. But it could not convict him for the killings of three Salvadorans - the priests' housekeeper and her teenage daughter, and a sixth Jesuit priest - because his extradition to Spain did not cover these cases.

Montano, who denied wrongdoing, listened from a wheelchair as he was sentenced to 26 years, eight months and one day in prison for each of the five Spanish priests' deaths, Associated Press reports. The verdict can be appealed against.

The murders took place during the 1979 to 1992 civil war in El Salvador, between the military-led government and the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

One of the murdered priests, Ignacio Ellacuria, was rector of the Central American University (UCA) in the capital San Salvador and a leading figure in the liberation theology movement, which reached out to the poor of Latin America.

The priests and the two women were dragged from their beds early on 16 November, 1989, and murdered on the university campus.

Prosecutors said Montano, a former deputy defence minister, was part of a far-right group in the military responsible for atrocities and opposed to any peace deal with the FMLN. They said Montano gave "the direct order to assassinate the Jesuits."

A man suspected of shooting the priests, ex-Lt René Yusshy Mendoza, was a witness for the prosecution.

Montano moved to the US in 2002 and was in jail there for immigration fraud and perjury when the Spanish extradition request was made. He was extradited from the US in November 2017, having been charged, along with other Salvadoran officers, by a Spanish judge in 2011. El Salvador refused to hand over to Spain other officers accused over the 1989 murder plot.

The Jesuit-run Central American University in El Salvador welcomed the verdict in a statement, saying it was "an extraordinary service to the truth" from a conflict in which many atrocities have gone unpunished.

The university expressed some sadness however, that justice had not occurred in El Salvador, where the slayings occurred during the country's civil war.

"Through the evidence and testimony given, the system of concealment and impunity overseen by the armed forces and the Salvadoran state (to a certain degree) has become clear, especially in the face of the human rights violations committed during the civil war."

Watch a video about the Martyrs of El Salvador:

(Note: This article was accidentally sent out in incomplete draft format last night! This is the corrected version)

Tags: Inocente Orlando Montano, El Salvador, Jesuits, Almudena Bernabeu, Atlacatl Battalion, Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, Ignacio Martín-Baró, SJ, Amando López, SJ, Joaquín López y López, SJ, Juan Ramón Moreno, SJ, Segundo Montes, SJ, Elba Julia Ramos, Celina Maricet Ramos

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