Bringing Former Allies to Justice ; U.S. Helping Prosecute Rights Abuses by Military in El Salvador's Civil War

By Katz, Jonathan M | International New York Times, September 15, 2015 | Go to article overview

Bringing Former Allies to Justice ; U.S. Helping Prosecute Rights Abuses by Military in El Salvador's Civil War


Katz, Jonathan M, International New York Times


The United States, which spent more than $4 billion on El Salvador's military during its civil war, is now working to bring some of the officers to trial.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Early in the morning on Nov. 16, 1989, soldiers from an elite battalion of the Salvadoran Army walked into the religious center of a Jesuit university and killed everyone they found inside.

The murders -- of six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter -- broke the stupor of a world inured to the constant blood baths of El Salvador's civil war from 1979 to 1992, hastening the end of American support for the military regime and clearing the way for a peace accord.

Twenty-six years later, the United States government, which spent more than $4 billion in assistance to El Salvador's military during the conflict -- including training the Atlacatl Battalion, which massacred the Jesuits -- is now working to bring some of the officers it once partnered with to justice.

This quiet shift, taking place in hidden discussions and nearly empty courtrooms, is a sign of how much has and has not changed since the end of the Cold War. Championed by human rights advocates and condemned by critics who say it amounts to selling out old allies, the move speaks to the ever-complicated relationship between American foreign policy and human rights around the world.

For months, the most prominent example of this shift has been the push to extradite Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, a former vice minister of defense accused of participating in the meeting where the order was given to kill the Rev. Ignacio Ellacurria, the rector of the Jose Simeon Canas University of Central America, and to leave no witnesses alive. The officers believed that Father Ellacurria, who was trying to help broker peace, was an intellectual leader of the leftist guerrillas with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or F.M.L.N.

The United States Justice Department is now pressing for Mr. Montano, who is in American custody after immigration violations, to be extradited to Spain, where he and 19 other former officers have been charged with murder and terrorism in the massacre. Five of the six priests were Spanish citizens.

"The U.S. government has moved from an era in which we help provide visas to resettle the Salvadoran military in the United States to an era in which we are supporting their deportation and extradition for criminal charges," said Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America and a longtime El Salvador observer. "That's a really significant shift."

Mr. Montano, who was living in Massachusetts and was arrested by federal officials in 2011, is the only defendant in custody. At an Aug. 19 hearing, the judge in the case said she would most likely issue a ruling on the extradition request in the coming weeks. If Mr. Montano is sent to Spain, other defendants can be tried with him in absentia.

Those familiar with the case say it began as a result of efforts by human rights advocates and a specialized unit of the Justice Department, the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, as opposed to a directive from higher levels of government. But, they add, it would not have gotten this far without support from the top.

The action coincides with a renewed engagement by the Obama administration in Central America -- especially the so-called northern triangle region of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- spurred in part by recent surges in migration by people fleeing violence and poverty there. The administration's plan calls for a tripling of spending on American-run programs in the region to $1 billion, concentrating on areas like military cooperation, business development, education and reducing police corruption. Still, a senior State Department official said the legal proceedings against Mr. Montano and others were on a separate, independent course. …

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