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Case Of Slain Jesuits Gets A Second Chance

Asst. News Editor

Published: Sunday, March 25, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

One November night in 1989 in El Salvador, six Jesuit priests who were living at the University of Central America were woken up, taken outside, and shot. The killers, all part of the Salvadoran army, were unwilling to risk leaving any witnesses behind and also killed the Jesuits’ housekeeper and her daughter. Now, over 20 years later, these men and women may finally get the justice they deserve through the efforts of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA).

On Mar. 22, Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice and the Ignacio Martin-Baro Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights co-sponsored a discussion about CJA’s recent efforts to try the conspirators behind what became known as the Jesuit Massacre in Spanish courts. Rev. Jose Maria Tojeira, S.J., a colleague of the six murdered priests, spoke of the Jesuit perspective on the current efforts to secure justice. Pamela Merchant, executive director of CJA, talked about the process of securing a trial in Spain and the difficulties faced along the way.

Tojeira spoke in Spanish while a word-for-word translation of his speech was projected onto a screen behind him.

“Truth, justice, and forgiveness: the position of the Jesuits was very clear from the very beginning,” he said.

Justice and truth, however, would prove very difficult to achieve. In 1993, the Salvadoran government passed a law granting impunity to all crimes committed during the civil war, including that of the Jesuit Massacre. Despite this, the Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la UCA (Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America) was finally able to officially open a case against the murderers in 2000.

Tojeira said that though the Jesuit Massacre was shocking, even more shocking events have happened in El Salvador that are only now getting attention. In 1981 in the village of La Quesera, for example, hundreds of children were murdered in cold blood as part of the Salvadoran government’s “Scorched Earth” campaign, which systematically destroyed towns and specifically targeted children to prevent them from becoming anti-government guerilla soldiers. But, Tojeira argued, because this case was not as high-profile as the Jesuit Massacre, it went unacknowledged for years.

“An international justice system that only acknowledges famous cases will obtain very mediocre results,” he said. “Developed societies that apply the principles of social justice should always maintain a link between strong and weak cases.”

Because of this, Tojeira said that the Society of Jesus has somewhat mixed feelings about the case of the Jesuit Massacre because it is being tried in Spain, not El Salvador. Jesuits have collaborated and cooperated with the trial, but have kept their focus on El Salvador and their efforts to create a better system of justice there.

“We didn’t want to look superior by using means outside of those that El Salvadorans can use,” Tojeira said. “International justice should help weak institutions and reveal the weak side of the developed world.”

Merchant spoke afterward, giving an update on the current status of the case in Spain and the CJA’s reasons for taking it up.

“It took a long time for this case to be ready in a way that would honor the victims in El Salvador,” she said.

In November 2008, CJA formally submitted the case to the government of Spain, charging 14 people, including former president Alfredo Cristiani, for their roles in the Massacre.

The case file included the testimony of Lucia and Jorge Serna, who had witnessed the murders unbeknownst to the Jesuits and their murderers, and documentary evidence of the meetings in which the killings were planned. The judge in charge of the case, Eloy Velasco, is one of the most conservative in the Spanish Supreme Court, which also helps the case.

In the spring of 2011, the court issued indictments and arrest warrants for 20 individuals, including former Salvadoran government minister Inocente Montano, a current resident of Everett, Mass.

 Around this time in El Salvador, nine former soldiers involved in the murder turned themselves in. “There was a brief period before the judge released them for ridiculous reasons,” Merchant said. “It’s a symbol of how seriously this [case] was taken in El Salvador.”

Montano was arrested in Massachusetts in August on charges of immigration fraud and is now facing extradition to Spain, which will be likely because of the United States’ treaty with Spain. The other defendants in the case also face extradition, but because the majority of them still reside in El Salvador, it is unlikely that the government will actually follow through with its responsibility to send them to Spain.

“People need to have courage, resilience, and passion,” Merchant said, referring to both the witnesses and governments involved. “I truly believe that this is the only path out of the violence.” n

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