The 1989 Jesuit Massacre El Salvador. Can those Involved Finally Face Justice?

By Eddie Galdamez  |  Feb 28th, 2022
Jesuit Massacre El Salvador
1989 Massacre in El Salvador

The legal process seeking justice for the 1989 Jesuit Massacre in El Salvador has finally arrived. But, can justice finally be served and the whole truth be known remains to be seen.

On February 25th, 2022, the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office presented formal accusations against former president Alfredo Cristiani, ex-politician Rodolfo Parker, and high-ranking military members for the 1989 Jesuit massacre in El Salvador.

The crime: “On November 16th, 1989, an elite battalion of the Salvadoran Army entered the grounds of the UCA University in San Salvador and executed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.”

The Salvadoran military conducted the executions at the University grounds using as cover the massive military offensive happening on that day by the FMLN guerillas. The assassins attempted to make the massacre seem that it had been carried out by leftist guerrillas.

In 1991, nine soldiers were prosecuted as the ones that conducted the massacre; but only two were found guilty. Guillermo Benavides and former lieutenant Yusshy Rene Mendoza were sentenced to 30 years in prison; however, they were released two years later under the 1993 Amnesty law.

The high-ranking military and government officials involved in the planning, execution, and eventual cover-up of the crime have never faced formal accusations until now.

Why haven’t others involved been charged?

Bringing high-ranking military members and ex-government officials involved in this case to face justice has not been easy.

In 1993, an amnesty law was passed by the Salvadoran legislature that gave protection to those implicated in ordering, planning, and executing the horrendous crime.

Alfredo Cristiani, who is now facing charges, was the president when the amnesty law was created. Also, his political party ARENA was in control of the Salvadoran Legislature at the time.

Then in 2016, the amnesty law was declared unconstitutional by the Salvadoran Supreme Court. This resolution allowed the filing of criminal charges against individuals involved in the massacre.

However, in 2020, a Salvadoran court ordered the closure of the criminal process for the 1989 Jesuit massacre; the resolution ordered the case to be archived.

Since then, ongoing attempts to reopen the case and bring those involved in the massacre to justice were unsuccessful until early 2022.

In January 2022, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador ordered the reopening of the case. This resolution opened the door for charges to be filed.

The court approved the appeal filed by the attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, to review the 2020 resolution ordering the closure of the criminal case.

Can those Involved Finally Face Justice?

Even though charges have been filed against those implicated in the 1989 Jesuit Massacre, seeing them in a courtroom is not guaranteed.

Salvadoran courts have previously strongly protected these defendants from prosecution. Furthermore, ex-president Cristiani still has connections with judges and members of the U.S. government that have shielded him in the past.

Also, ex-president Alfredo Cristiani left the country recently and will not likely return to face charges. Similarly, ex-politician Rodolfo Parker left the country last year. It is rumored that Parker is now living in Germany and will not return to face charges either.

Who is Implicated in the Jesuit Massacre?

The most notorious non-military individuals facing charges related to the Massacre are Ex-President Alfredo Cristiani Burkard and former politician Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto. The rest are high-ranking military officers who were part of the “La Tandona.”

The Tandona was the name given to the group of officers who graduated from the Salvadoran Military School in 1966; this group came to occupy important positions in the army and in the government during the 1980s.”

1989 Jesuit Massacre El Salvador
Military Members of the Salvadoran Tandona. Photo by @arpassv

As of today, the only person behind bars linked to the massacre is Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano. In 2020, a Spanish court sentenced the former Salvadoran Colonel to 133 years for the killings of the Spanish priest.

The following are some of the individuals that have been formally accused by the Salvadoran General Attorney’s office with different charges related to the 1989 massacre.

Alfredo Cristiani Burkard

Ex-President of El Salvador (1989-1994)

When the massacre took place, Alfredo Cristiani was the President of the Republic and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Past investigations have determined that the ex-president approved the University raid and eventual executions.

The Truth Commission report of El Salvador created by the ONU maintained that the High Command agreed to consult Cristiani Burkard about the violent act at the UCA.

Ex-president Alfredo Cristiani
Ex-president Alfredo Cristiani and ARENA deputies.

Cristiani has condemned the Truth Commission report of El Salvador, which points to him as the one who gave the order to attack the University.

The ex-president is being charged with criminal responsibility for the commission of the murders and responsibility as an accomplice to the executions.

Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto

Former Salvadoran politician

The former politician Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto will be prosecuted for committing procedural fraud and personal concealment.

During the 2020 trial of colonel Inocente Orlando Montano in Spain, Parker’s name came out on numerous occasions for his role in destroying or changing evidence of the massacre.

According to the testimony of Lieutenant Yusshsy Rene Mendoza, Parker coerced him into changing his statement regarding the material and intellectual authors of the massacre.

Yusshsy Mendoza, who was convicted for the crime in 1991, stated that Rodolfo Parker even tore up the first document that contained his testimony.

Rodolfo Parker El Salvador
Ex-politician Rodolfo Parker.

Inocente Orlando Montano Morales

Vice Minister of Security during the Massacre.

Montado served as El Salvador’s Vice Minister of Public Security in 1989. In 2021, a Spanish court sentenced him to 133 years in prison for the Jesuit massacre in El Salvador.

The Court of the National High Court of Madrid judged the ex-soldier for his involvement in planning and executing the crime.

René Emilio Ponce

Salvadoran Army Colonel

At the time of the massacre, Colonel Ponce was the Director of the Salvadoran Armed Forces Junta. According to the investigations, Ponce was the one who ordered Guillermo Benavides to assassinate Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses. Ponce died in April 2011.

Rafael Humberto Larios Lopez

Salvadoran Army General

General Rafael Humberto Larios was the Defence Minister during the massacre. According to the investigations, Larios learned of the plan to assassinate Father Ignacio Ellacuría at a meeting held by the military on November 15, 1989. This meeting was when colonel Ponce ordered an attack on the University.

Juan Orlando Zepeda

Salvadoran Army Colonel

Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda was a member of “La Tandona.” and was deputy defense minister at the time of the massacre.

Investigations have revealed that Colonel Zepada was present when Ponce gave the order to Benavides to assassinate Father Ellacuría.

Prior to the 1989 massacre, Zepeda had publicly accused the UCA University of being the FMLN’s center of operations.

Francisco Elena Fuentes

Salvadoran Army Colonel

Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes was the commander of the First Infantry Brigade in San Salvador in 1989 and a witness to the massacre.

According to investigations, the day after the executions, troops from the First Infantry Brigade, under colonel Fuentes, attempted to intimidate members of the Archdiocese of San Salvador. Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes died on January 11th, 2022.

The 1989 Jesuit Massacre El Salvador.

Seeing the accused of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her young daughter face charges is something many people thought was impossible.

The executions conducted by elite members of the Salvadoran Military sparked international outrage.

Getting a conviction for the 1989 Jesuit massacre in El Salvador will not be easy. Nonetheless, this is a legal process that is long due and part of El Salvador history.