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Justice for the Jesuits Suspended at Home

November 16, 2020

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By Megan DeTura

As the thirty-first anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, their housemaid, and her daughter dawns, the search for justice has hit a roadblock. On Thursday, October 29, the Supreme Court of El Salvador suspended domestic investigations into the crime. In a decision issued by the Criminal Chamber, two magistrates reversed a lower court’s 2018 decision to reopen the case, ruling that the intellectual authors of the murders should not be investigated. The suspects included six military officials and former president Alfredo Cristiani. 

The ruling comes two months after the historic conviction of Col. Inocente Montano by the National Court of Spain for acts of state terrorism and murder – a verdict reached under the concept of Universal Jurisdiction. And while Montano will continue to serve his 133-year sentence, the prospect of similar verdicts closer to home has been thrown into doubt.  

In responses published after the decision, members of the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA) have expressed their outrage, calling it a “corrupt sentence,” one that “gravely offends the rule of law and human rights.” Yet the statements also note that the ruling does not close all avenues for justice, as the Jesuits and families of the victims are said to be considering potential next steps. 

One potential avenue has already been set in motion. On November 5, the Attorney General’s Office submitted an appeal to the Criminal Chamber, requesting the suspension be revoked. Should the request be denied, the Office has suggested it would file an appeal before the Constitutional Chamber, prompting an internal court battle between both chambers of the Supreme Court. Given the Constitutional Chamber’s superiority, a ruling in the Jesuits’ favor would annul the October 29th decision and allow the investigations to proceed. 

Nevertheless, the implications of the Criminal Chamber’s initial decision are likely to extend to other investigations. Leonor Arteaga, Director of the Due Process of Law Foundation’s (DPLF) program on Impunity and Grave Human Rights Violation, told the Archive, “Beyond the Jesuit case, the danger of this kind of decision is that it gives a message to lower courts that no case from the civil war, especially crimes against humanity or war crimes, should advance. Otherwise, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Chamber will annul the decision.” 

Examples of those pending investigations include several high-profile cases, such as the massacre at El Calabozo and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Both cases were reopened after the 2016 overturning of El Salvador’s Amnesty Law and remain under the purview of the country’s Attorney General’s Office. Yet progress has stalled due to a lack of political and judicial will. 

In the case of El Mozote – where Salvadoran armed forces massacred nearly a thousand residents in 1981 – actions by both President Nayib Bukele and his Defense Minister René Merino Monroy have led to a standoff between the current administration and investigators. By physically barring the doors to military archives and claiming most of the documents were destroyed, the President and Defense Minister have repeatedly blocked access to declassified military information considered essential to the case. Such steps disregard an October 9th Constitutional Court decision requiring access to the records, and have prompted condemnation by the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights (CIDH). Survivors have also requested an investigation into both officials on charges of arbitrary acts, disobedience, and dereliction of duty.

Whether suspending, stalling, or actively obstructing investigations, the Bukele administration’s actions highlight the diminishing window for domestic proceedings. This has led investigators to look externally in their search for evidence. For instance, the presiding judge in the El Mozote case Jorge Guzmán Urquilla has requested support from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seeking the release of U.S. records. And while the State Department has yet to respond, the House of Representatives has since passed its own amendment requiring the release of Defense Department documents related to the case.  

Taken together with the Spanish Court’s verdict in the Jesuit Case, such bilateral cooperation demonstrates the continued importance of international human rights efforts. However, such efforts can only go so far. For as the families of the victims weigh next steps, an inability to prosecute at home would suggest a State that favors impunity over justice – one step further from accountability and toward amnesty.

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