Inocente Orlando Montano, a seventy-seven-year-old former Army colonel from El Salvador, was convicted this month in Madrid for having ordered the “terrorist” murders of five Spanish-born Jesuit priests in their residence at the University of Central America in San Salvador more than thirty years ago. Given a combined sentence of 133 years and likely to serve at least thirty, he is all but certain to die in a Spanish prison.
The elite U.S.-trained soldiers also murdered a housekeeper and her daughter whom they found hiding in the Jesuits’ residence, after they had shot the priests in their pajamas on their front lawn with a Kalashnikov rifle—to make it look like the guerrillas did it.
Human rights advocates see Montano’s trial and conviction as a big, new step for international justice. But no one thinks the former colonel ordered the Jesuit murders alone, or that he was the most influential officer among those who did, according to documents and testimony.
How this senior commanding officer, alone, ended up in court was just his bad luck. Montano had lost his savings through bad business decisions compounded by an earthquake, so he immigrated to the United States, claiming he qualified for “protected” status. While working at a candy factory outside of Boston for $14 an hour, he was arrested in 2011 and charged with lying on his visa application.
The United States under President Barack Obama allowed for the extradition of the Salvadoran war crimes suspects to Spain. Spanish authorities prosecuted Montano under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity that its former magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, helped begin to establish more than twenty years before in Spain’s attempt to prosecute the former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The Spanish indictment names nineteen other Salvadoran military officers as having been present at the High Command meeting that approved the Jesuit murders, as well as five suspects, including Montano, who either gave or witnessed the order being given to the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite counter-insurgency unit trained at the U.S. School of the Americas. Most, if not all, of these commanders belonged to the Tandona, or the unusually “large class” of young officers who graduated from El Salvador’s Military Academy in 1966.
“The Big Batch,” as the ground-breaking Salvadoran news site El Faro (whose co-founder Carlos Dada found Montano hiding in Massachusetts) translated “La Tandona,” rose up through the chain of command to peak in their influence twenty-three years later, during the last major offensive by Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas in what was then already a decade-long civil war.
Having planned the nationwide assault months in advance, the leftist rebels simultaneously occupied parts of the capital and almost every other major city in El Salvador in November 1989—just as the Berlin Wall was starting to fall. San Salvador’s nonstop fighting led the world’s news cycles for a few days until Berlin’s crumbling wall became the lead story.
Ignacio Ellacuría, the Jesuit university’s rector, had long called out both the government and the military for their resistance to negotiations. During the offensive, FMLN cadres in different parts of San Salvador told me they would fight until the United Nations called for negotiations.
As unrealistic as this idea—then, at least—truly was, the high command knew, and the CIA reported, that one of the FMLN’s goals in the offensive was to compel the government to come to the table. El Salvador’s strongest advocate for a negotiated settlement since the start of the war and over the ensuing decade had always been Ellacuría. A prolific liberation theologian, he wrote that Catholic faith meant converting the Church into the kingdom of God on Earth.
Other victims included Ignacio Martín Baró, another university Jesuit and military critic who was poignant in fluent English on camera and Segundo Montes, a Jesuit sociologist and human rights scholar popular with his students as well as his parishioners in a rural community since renamed for his martyrdom.
By the late 1980s, in the wake of the murders of dozens of journalists among tens of thousands more killed by death squads earlier in the war, these three university Jesuits emerged as the nation’s most influential surviving critics of the military. Even worse for the military high command, Ellacuría encouraged the elected civilian government to ignore the military’s objections and finally sit down with the guerrillas to achieve peace.
The Jesuits sadly achieved their goal through their own martyrdom. It was the international outrage over their murders that soon led Congress to slash military aid by half to pressure the Salvadoran army to the table. The Cold War thaw after the Berlin Wall’s fall helped lead the George H.W. Bush Administration’s Secretary of State James Baker to change course, after the Jesuit murders, and back El Salvador’s peace negotiations. The war wound down and ended within about two more years.
The military high command decided to kill the priests as they searched for ways to curtail the FMLN offensive that had taken them, along with in-country U.S. intelligence chiefs, by surprise.
The first night of the offensive, rebel units took over Escalón Circle just up the road from the High Command headquarters and in front of the home of the U.S. military attaché and Defense Intelligence Agency liaison Wayne Wheeler, as the fighting was just outside the exterior walls of his and his family’s home.
Other rebel units on higher ground took over the even more posh San Benito neighborhood and the property on Avenida Capilla of Robert W. Hultslander, the CIA Station Chief who had previously served in Angola. One FMLN fighter later told me their objective was to take tactical positions on high ground. A top U.S. embassy official later confirmed to me and other reporters that the rebels did not harm Hultslander during the unexpected interaction.
The decision to kill the nation’s most prominent, internationally renowned dissidents was the apogee of a long, tense debate within the military over whether to continue to follow the guidance of their U.S. patrons. El Salvador’s civil war began as a death squad campaign where intelligence units working with far-right political leaders murdered suspected leftists by the tens of thousands over just several years in this small, poor nation.
But the U.S. Congress conditioned military aid to El Salvador on improvements in human rights, as U.S. military and CIA advisors encouraged the military to be more selective in their targeting and to try to keep killings of civilians down and out of the press to avoid attracting the ire of Congress.
Military operations improved, but the guerrillas only grew stronger. By the late 1980s, after years of doing it the Americans’ way, the military was pushing back. “We don’t understand them,” a Tandona colonel, Juan Orlando Zepeda, told me about the CIA seventeen months before the Jesuit murders, “and they don’t understand us.”
Colonel Zepeda said this in an interview inside the High Command headquarters for The Miami Herald in June 1988. Complaining that U.S. officials in general and the CIA in particular had “no definition of objectives.” He went on: “First we must win the war, then strengthen democracy.”
Tandona officers like Colonel Zepeda knew there was another way to go. The military in neighboring Guatemala had also faced a Marxist insurgency, but, due to its already atrocious human rights record, its military only received aid covertly from the CIA.
Guatemala’s military officers, instead of even making a pretense of respecting human rights, targeted civilians as their strategy to win their war. Guatemalan authorities denied holding even one political prisoner, as suspected leftists by the hundreds were killed or disappeared. And they embarked upon a strategy of “draining the sea to kill the fish,” by targeting civilians and ultimately committing what a U.N. commission later concluded were “acts of genocide.”
By the late 1980s, most of Guatemala’s fighting was long over. Following their lead, El Salvador’s Tandona officers, four long days and nights into the ongoing FMLN offensive, decided to change tactics. Before midnight on November 15, 1989, at least twenty officers dominated by the Tandona met inside the High Command. They voted to escalate their response and begin by targeting the Jesuits and specifically Ellacuría.
Before the meeting ended, the lead Tandona officer, in front of four other officers, gave the order to another Tandona officer “to eliminate Father Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses,” according to a U.N. Truth Commission.
The elite U.S.-trained soldiers also murdered a housekeeper and her daughter whom they found hiding in the Jesuits’ residence, after they had shot the priests in their pajamas on their front lawn with a Kalashnikov rifle—to make it look like the guerrillas did it. U.S. Ambassador William Walker for months afterward told the press and members of Congress that the guerrillas might have killed them. The fighting went on, and the Air Force began heavy aerial bombing of poor neighborhoods where guerrillas had taken positions, after prior helicopter attacks with rockets and machine guns.
Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda was the vice minister of defense and the highest ranking Tandona officer. Colonel René Emilio Ponce was the Chief of Staff of the Army in charge of all operations. He had graduated first in his class within the Tandona. Colonel Montano, his Tandona classmate now in a Spanish jail, was vice minister for public security, and he was identified by witnesses and in documents as having been one of the four officers, including Zepeda, who were with Ponce when he gave the order kill the priests, especially Ellacuría, and any witnesses.
Juan Orlando Zepeda, in a joint statement with six other suspects, denied all charges. He has not been seen in public for years, but his son has defended him. “This is political persecution,” Juan Orlando Zepeda Jr. told the Associated Press in 2016, as the Spanish case against Montano was progressing. He was responding to an international arrest warrant through Interpol from Spain, which led local authorities to capture four suspects, lower-ranking military officers who were all later released. Zepeda, among others, remains a fugitive from Interpol.
“There are dark interests that possibly don’t show their faces in this country, motivated by either a hatred of the military, or a desire to destabilize the nation,” said his son.
Almudena Bernabeu is the Spanish-born human rights attorney who brought the case against retired Guatemalan Army general Efraín Ríos Montt with mixed results. By then, she had already begun the case against El Salvador’s Montano, after being tipped off to where he was living. During the trial, she said the testimonies, expert analysis, and documentary evidence presented would tell “not only the story of how the crime happened but also to establish the political context in which El Salvador was living in 1989.”
Kate Doyle is an international human rights documentarian with the National Security Archive at George Washington University who testified in the trial. “Montano’s conviction demonstrates anew that there are countries, lawyers, organizations, and victims who make up a community of human rights advocates who are going to find them and bring them to justice,” she said of the remaining suspects after the verdict.