November 16 is the 22nd anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by members of the Salvadoran armed forces in a massacre ordered by the Salvadoran high command. As readers of this blog know, the failure by the Salvadoran government over that time to bring to justice the high level commanders who ordered the killing, pushed human rights groups including the Center for Justice Accountability ("CJA") to go to court in Spain to prosecute the case.
This video from CNN provides background on the Spanish proceedings.
This past year, developments in the Spanish case, have forced Salvadorans to confront impunity directly. They will see whether their country's institutions can, will, or should ever deal with impunity and assessing responsibility for crimes against humanity committed during El Salvador's brutal civil war. The Spanish court has forced El Salvador's government to take a position when the court issued international arrest warrants in the Jesuits case for former high ranking military officers.
From the CJA:
When it became clear that the Salvadoran National Police were going to honor the arrest warrants, nine of the defendants met on Sunday night (August 7) at a country club outside of San Salvador to presumably discuss next steps. Later that night, at approximately 10:00 p.m., all nine turned themselves into a military facility also outside of San Salvador. The decision to self-surrender to the military was presumably an attempt to defy the usual civilian process involving international arrest warrants and extradition treaties. In an unprecedented development, the Minister of Defense of El Salvador accepted the validity of the international arrest warrants and turned the defendants over to civilian authorities where they are all now being held in custody.Persons and groups in El Salvador reacted in a variety of ways to the action of the Spanish court.
In addition to former Minister of Defense Rafael Humberto Larios and former Air Force Chief General Rafael Bustillo, the following defendants surrendered: Colonel Francisco Helena Fuentes, Vice Defense Minister Juan Orlando Zepeda, Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos and Antonio Ramiro Ávalos Vargas y Tomás Zárpate Castillo.
The Spanish courts have 60 days to formalize the extradition requests. The Salvadoran Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether to honor the arrest warrants and extradite the men to Spain to be prosecuted for their role in these outrageous crimes. One of the main issues confronting the Salvadoran court is whether the amnesty law which was passed in 1993 at the end of the twenty year civil war will continue to protect military officials for human rights abuses committed against the civilian population. While amnesty laws that protect military officials from human rights prosecutions are illegal under international law, how the court will rule is very difficult to predict.
Alfredo Cristiani, the president of El Salvador at the time of the killings, harshly criticized the Spanish court proceedings as an attack on the sovereignty of El Salvador. (Cristiani has been mentioned as a potential participant in the cover-up of the killings). Critstiani claimed that Spain had no right to re-try a case which had already proceeded through the Salvadoran court system, that both sides had committed wrongs during the civil war, and that the Spanish case was unnecessarily opening old wounds. The GANA party has similarly backed the accused military leaders.
The archbishop of San Salvador elected to stay on the sidelines, stating that the church would support any decision of the Salvadoran courts which were taken in the interests of the country.
A march through the streets of El Salvador towards the Spanish embassy expressed its solidarity with the nine military officers seeking to avoid extradition to Spain. Among the marchers was ARENA party deputy Roberto D'Aubuisson, whose father orchestrated death squads and ordered the murder of archbishop Oscar Romero.
The FMLN issued a statement where the FMLN expressed:
The party is committed to truth, respect for human rights, and the application of justice that includes the moral compensation for victims, as elements that lead to achieving the great goal of National Reconciliation, established in the Peace Accords.Hopes that El Salvador's institutions might actually be ready to confront impunity dimmed when El Salvador's Supreme Court ordered the release of the military officers. According to CJA:
That being a subject of national interest, prudence and political responsibility should prevail along with respect for the victims, and we believe that it is improper for the case to be used by groups for partisan or electoral purposes.
We express our interest that this case be resolved in the courts and aired with strict adherence to law.
We are confident that the country's institutions work, and strongly reject the individuals or minority groups who intend to make use of this case to threaten the country's political stability.
But the Supreme Court, sitting en banc, ordered the defendants’ release on the theory that El Salvador had not received a formal extradition request. In the Court’s view, INTERPOL Red Notices authorized only locating, not arresting wanted subjects. Spain has requested that El Salvador clarify the defendants’ legal status. Commentators have noted that the Salvadoran Court’s decision may conflict with treaty obligations to comply with INTERPOL rules, which state that Red Notices secure the “location and arrest” of suspects, prior to a formal extradition request.An editorial in El Faro perhaps summed up the situation best when it said:
The Jesuit case confirms that the peace process and the amnesty law have been insufficient for the process of national reconciliation, the restoration of the dignity of victims and to finally leave the armed conflict in the hands of historians. El Salvador deserves to know the truth.In a different approach, Mike at Central American Politics blog wrote:
2012 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended El Salvador’s war. What better time to announce that they will not honor Spain’s extradition request because the government intends to open cases against those suspected of having war crimes and crimes against humanity.The Jesuit case, the murder of Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre and other well known crimes of the war years have not seen the focused light of judicial proceedings in El Salvador designed to get at the truth and provide justice to victims. Dealing with these crimes of the past requires dealing with many issues:
- Is amnesty necessary for the ongoing peace of society?
- What crimes are so grave that an "amnesty" should not be permitted to allow the guilty parties to escape?
- What is the consequence of opening old wounds?
- If you open up the Jesuit case, where do you stop?
- Should the killing of a civilian family on the slopes of the Guazapa volcano get the same treatment?
- Does assigning blame and responsibility require (a) punishment (b) reparations to the victims (c) apology?
- How do you weigh the costs and benefits?
An open dialogue among all elements on Salvadoran society on these issues has never occurred, but must occur, if each anniversary of the Jesuits massacre is to stop being a symbol of justice ignored. Contrary to those who say that amnesty provides healing in the country, consider the points made in this article titled Justice heals: The impact of impunity and the fight against it on the recovery of severe human rights violations’ survivors which describes the impact of impunity on the ongoing psycho-social trauma which the victims suffer.
It is the victims who need to be represented. It is the victims who have lacked an advocate. The late Margaret Popkin in her article The Salvadoran Truth Commission and the Search for Justice wrote:
[M]any factors have contributed to the lack of justice in El Salvador. The parties to the negotiations were more interested in recommendations for legal and institutional reform; they sought to ensure the future but abandoned the past. By asserting the impossibility of justice in the existing context, the Truth Commission for El Salvador did not challenge the justice system to undertake investigations, and the government’s negative reaction to the Truth Commission’s report and the immediate passage of a broad amnesty law apparently foreclosed the possibility of justice.
Essentially abandoned by political leaders and not consulted in the process of developing the truth commission or its recommendations, victims had little recourse. In this context, victims and their representatives in El Salvador have not been able to bring sufficient pressure to achieve justice or secure compensation. Despite important advances in judicial reform, the justice system has yet to rely on the Truth Commission’s findings, implement the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or otherwise rely on international law developments in the struggle against impunity.For a detailed examination of all the available information about the murder of the Jesuits and the subsequent cover-up, I recommend Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuria and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador, by Teresa Whitfield.