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The Right to Information is the Right to Justice: Declassified Documents and the Assassination of the Jesuits in El Salvador

November 16, 2009

Twenty years ago today, Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the renowned University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, and brutally murdered the university’s rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, and five other Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The killings were meant to destroy the spirit of the social justice movement in El Salvador and undermine the insurgent FMLN forces after ten years of civil war. Instead, the crime sparked worldwide outrage and condemnation and helped lead to a negotiated settlement between the government and the guerrillas that ended the war in 1992.

Although attempts in El Salvador to bring the assassins and their military superiors to justice largely failed, an international legal effort is about to get underway in Spain’s National Court in Madrid. The case was filed by San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and the Spanish Pro-Human Rights Association under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which permits the prosecution of the world’s worst human rights atrocities no matter where they were committed. It charges 14 former army officers, including former Army Chief of Staff Gen. René Emilio Ponce and Defense Minister Gen. Rafael Humberto Larios, with crimes against humanity and state terrorism. Hearings begin later this month before Judge Eloy Velasco Nuñez of the court’s 6th Chamber.

In preparation for the hearings, the National Security Archive worked for months with CJA, Stanford professor Terry L. Karl and human rights lawyer Carolyn Patricia Blum to mine the available declassified US records for evidence against the officers who planned, ordered and oversaw the Jesuit massacre, and conspired afterwards to cover it up. Many of the records that will be used by Karl, as an expert witness in the case, were obtained by the Archive over the course of two decades of investigation into US policy and El Salvador and were included in the Archive’s published digital collection, El Salvador: War, Peace and Human Rights 1980-1994. The Archive used the Freedom of Information Act to identify and obtain thousands of records in an effort to uncover the secret history of US support for El Salvador government, military, police, and intelligence during the country’s civil war and its aftermath.

In addition to the documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Archive’s holdings include a special collection. Following the release, on March 15, 1993, of the United Nations Truth Commission’s ground-breaking investigation of El Salvador’s human rights record, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, members of the United States Congress wrote to President Bill Clinton asking that all US documents relevant to the 32 human rights cases studied by the commission be declassified for public inspection. The assassination of the Jesuits was one of them.

After a six-month review, in November 1993, the Clinton administration released some 12,000 records from the CIA, State Department, Department of Defense, and other federal agencies—including 10,400 records from the State Department and US Embassy in San Salvador, 939 records of the CIA, and 916 records from the Department of Defense. In August 1994, an additional release of several thousand documents took place in response to a request from Republican members of Congress. Now some these records will be used by Karl to provide Judge Velasco Nuñez with her conclusions about the facts and circumstances of the Jesuit massacre and the subsequent cover-up of the crime, and to assist the court in assessing legal responsibility.

I will also go to Spain, in order to authenticate the origins of the documents and help the judge evaluate their credibility and evidentiary value to the case.

The records serve as a rich source of information on the assassination of the Jesuits, primarily due to the strong support the United States gave the Salvadoran armed forces throughout the civil war. The close relation between the US and Salvadoran militaries translated into a constant stream of documents between US officials—operating out of the embassies or directly located in the buildings of Salvadoran military and intelligence counterparts—and authorities in Washington. Officials on the ground gathered information through intelligence liaison, military-to-military and diplomatic contacts and communicated it via cable, intelligence report, general order, memorandum and other documents. In the course of their professional duties, US officials gathered information on the assassination of the Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, meetings within the military High Command before and after the murders, the cover-up that followed conducted by the highest levels of the Salvadoran government and military, and the role of the defendants as commanders and in planning and overseeing the crimes.

Unfortunately, despite the extraordinary 1993 release, many records remain secret or heavily censored. When agencies opened the 12,000 documents in response to the president’s order, they also identified over 3,000 documents that were withheld in their entirety, primarily in order to protect intelligence sources and methods. Some of the documents were released with extensive deletions; others released and then maintained in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) were reclassified as secret during a major “re-review” program that the government undertook in 1999 and are no longer open to public scrutiny.

Now that the Jesuit massacre is being investigating under the Spanish court’s criminal jurisdiction, the continued secrecy of thousands of US government records relevant to the case is highly questionable. The strong public interest in understanding the circumstances that led to the assassination of the Jesuits, as well as the fact that two decades have passed since the crime was committed, make the disclosure of records all the more imperative.

It is possible that additional, critical information pertaining to the case may be opened in the future. On March 19, 2009, US Attorney General Eric Holder issued new instructions to all federal government agencies to encourage disclosure in response to the Freedom of Information Act, to the fullest extent possible. The National Security Archive has begun to file new FOIA requests for withheld documents, reclassified documents, and any other documents pertaining to the Jesuit assassinations that were heavily redacted when released years ago.

Watch this space for updates on the Jesuit case as it develops in Spain’s National Court.

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