A Madrid court sentenced a former Salvadoran colonel to 133 years in prison on Friday for the slaying of five Spanish priests in El Salvador more than three decades ago.
Spain’s National Court ruled that Inocente Orlando Montano, a former colonel who served as El Salvador’s vice minister for public security during the country’s 1979-1992 civil war, was responsible for the 1989 “terrorist assassinations.”
The massacre of the Jesuit priests is one of the most high-profile religious crimes in recent Latin American history and drew global attention to the human rights crisis in El Salvador’s long-running civil war, as well as U.S. support for the country’ military.
Montano, now aged 77, listened from a wheelchair as judges read the verdict, imprisoning him to 26 years, eight months and one day for each of the deaths.
The U.S. extradited Montano to Spain in 2017. During his trial earlier this year, Montano denied having taken part or ordered the massacre that led to the death of eight people in the campus of the Central American University.
On November 19, 1989, armed soldiers broke into the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in San Salvador, and raided the residence where six Jesuit priests were sleeping. They were dragged from their beds and murdered, their bodies laid out in the garden.
Five of the eight victims were Spanish Jesuit priests, including Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the university, and they were considered among the top theologians in El Salvador, closely associated with the beliefs of so-called Liberation Theology, also known as ‘the Church of the Poor.’
The priests publicly opposed U.S. support of the Salvadoran armed forces, and pleaded for peaceful dialogue between the right and the left. The right wing accused the Jesuits of being communists, and Ellacuría was called "the brains behind the guerrillas."
The priests’ cook and her 16-year-old daughter, were also among the victims.
One of the surviving witnesses, housekeeper Lucía Cerna, recalled hearing the vice rector Ignacio Martín-Baró, screaming at the soldiers: "This is an injustice, a disgrace!" before he was gunned down. When the military claimed that the guerrillas were to blame, Cerna provided key eyewitness evidence, saying she saw the soliders.
At the time, the capital was in the midst of a massive left-wing guerrilla offensive that forced the evacuation of the U.S. embassy and marked the pinnacle of military achievement by the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN).
Salvadoran government forces were able to take back control of the city after days of street battles. It proved to be the final major confrontation before the guerrillas agreed to demobilize as part of a peace deal in 1991 that ended the war that claimed over 75,000 lives.
During the war, half a million Salvadorans were displaced, and many fled as refugees to the United States.
The Jesuit massacre wasn't the first time the Catholic clergy came under attack in El Salvador. Throughout the civil war, priests and nuns who stood alongside the poor were targeted by right-wing death squads — expelled, beaten, imprisoned and killed.
In March 1980, El Salvador's famed Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was canonized as a Catholic saint in 2018, was assassinated at the altar while celebrating Mass. And in December 1980, four American churchwomen were raped and killed by Salvadoran government security forces.