REPORT Nº 136/99
On November 16, 1989, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
(hereafter "the Commission") received a petition from the
non-governmental organization Americas Watch (hereafter "Americas
Watch" or "the petitioners"), to the effect that the Republic of
El Salvador (hereafter the "Salvadoran State", the "State"
or "El Salvador") had violated the American Convention on Human Rights
(hereafter the "American Convention") to the prejudice of six Jesuit
priests and two women, who were executed extra-judicially by agents of the
State. According to the complaint,
these deeds occurred in the morning of that same day, at the residence of the
Jesuit Order located within the premises of the Universidad
Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (hereafter "the UCA")
in San Salvador. The Jesuit priests concerned were the Director of the UCA,
Father Ignacio Ellacuría, 59 years old; the Vice Director Father Ignacio Martín-Baró,
47 years old; and the Rector of the Institute of Human Rights of the UCA, Father
Segundo Montes, 53 years old, founder of Socorro Jurídico Cristiano [Christian
Legal Aid] “Oscar Arnulfo Romero” and president of the Institute of Human
Rights of that University, and Professors Armando López, Joaquín López y López
and Juan Ramón Moreno. The women
were Mrs. Julia Elba Ramos, who was employed as a cook in the residence, and her
15 year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos.
In additional submissions, the petitioners alleged that the crime was
planned and carried out by agents of the State, belonging to the Armed Forces of
El Salvador. They claimed that the investigation conducted by the
Salvadoran authorities was ineffective, that the intellectual authors of the
murders were never investigated despite serious evidence and witness testimony
that implicated high-ranking officers, and that efforts were made to cover up
the crime. Furthermore, the only
two military personnel convicted of the murders were granted amnesty under the
General Amnesty Law of 1993, with the result that they enjoyed absolute impunity
for the crime.
For its part, the State requested that the case be set aside, because it
considered it to have been "duly processed".
The State also provided information concerning proceedings under domestic
jurisdiction against the soldiers who were charged with the crime.
After examining the case, the Commission concludes in this report that
the State violated the following human rights enshrined in the American
Convention: the right to life (Article 4), the right to judicial guarantees and
effective judicial protection for the relatives of the victims and the members
of the religious and academic community to which the victims belonged (Articles
8(1) and 25), and the right to know the truth (Articles 1(1), 8(1), 25 and 13).
It concludes moreover that the State has failed in its obligation to
respect the rights recognized in the American Convention and to guarantee the
full and free exercise of those rights (Article 1.1), and in its obligation to
refrain from adopting domestic legal provisions that impede the enjoyment of the
rights enshrined in the Convention (Article 2).
PROCEEDINGS BEFORE THE COMMISSION
On November 16, 1989, Americas Watch submitted a petition to the
Commission alleging that military personnel of El Salvador had on that day
executed six Jesuit priests, a woman working with them as a cook, and her 15
year-old daughter. The petitioners
requested the Commission to seek the consent of El Salvador for an in
loco visit, in order to investigate the murders and to demand proper
protection for members of human rights and social service agencies.
On the same day, the Commission transmitted the pertinent parts of the
complaint to the Salvadoran State, and requested that it provide such
information as it deemed appropriate within ninety days.
On November 29, 1989, the petitioners submitted a copy of the testimony
presented by an eyewitness to the events. On
December 5, 1989, the Commission transmitted this additional information to the
State and again asked for the pertinent information.
On December 13, 1989, the petitioners presented a report prepared by the
organization Christian Legal Aid “Archbishop Oscar Romero” on the summary
executions that occurred in El Salvador on November 16, 1989.
On February 21, 1990, the Commission received a note from the State
referring to the report of the Archbishop’s Legal Protection Office [Oficina
de Tutela Legal del Arzobispado] concerning the investigations conducted by
that office, but limited itself to noting that the report had been submitted to
the Criminal Investigation Commission. On
March 12, 1990, for the third time, the Commission requested the State to
provide information within thirty days.
On August 22, 1990, Americas Watch submitted additional documentation in
which it reported, among other things, on the inadequacy of the official
investigations conducted to date, and charged that there was an ongoing campaign
to cover up the crime. On August
28, 1990, the Commission transmitted the relevant portions of this communication
to the Salvadoran State and requested a response within a period of 60 days.
On November 9, 1990, the Commission reiterated to the State its request
for information on the case. On
March 20, 1992, a non-governmental organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for
Human Rights, (hereafter "the petitioners") replaced Americas Watch as
the petitioner in the case, and presented additional information.
On October 19, 1992, the State requested that the case be set aside.
On October 8, 1993, that request was reiterated.
On November 3, 1994, the Commission transmitted the State's submission to
the petitioners and requested that they present their observations on it within
thirty days. That request was
repeated on January 9, 1995, and on April 25, 1995.
On June 14, 1995, at the request of the petitioners, the Commission
granted them an additional period of 45 days to respond.
On May 3, 1996, the Commission placed itself at the disposal of the
parties in order to arrive at a friendly settlement of the affair.
On April 22, 1998, the petitioners declared that "they remained open
to the possibility of participating in discussions to arrive at a friendly
settlement, provided that the government accepted, as a starting point, the need
to clarify the truth and establish the responsibility of the parties responsible
for the violations committed in this case". The State, for its part, did
not respond to the proposal of the Commission within the time limit set, and the
Commission consequently proceeded as provided in the American Convention and the
Regulations of the IACHR.
On February 8, 1999, the petitioners submitted additional information and
requested that the UCA be considered a co-petitioner in the case.
On March 16, 1999, the Commission transmitted this communication to the
State, giving it a period of 30 days to present its final observations.
The Commission expressly requested that it indicate “the points
separating the parties with respect to the questions raised, and those points
that were accepted, and that it refrain from repeating arguments" pursuant
to Article 34(8) of the Regulations. At
the date this report was approved, the State had not responded to the
POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES
The Commission will summarize the allegations of the petitioners under
the following main headings: the murders and those responsible for them,
materially and intellectually; the subsequent cover-up of the crimes;
irregularities in the investigation; and the approval and application of the
The petitioners point out that the facts of the case occurred during the
final stages of the armed conflict that raged in El Salvador between 1980 and
1992. During those years, a
Catholic religious order, the Company of Jesus (hereafter "the Company of
Jesus") was in the forefront among those calling for a peaceful settlement
of the conflict.
The petitioners maintain that in the years leading up to November 16,
1989, the date of the murders, Jesuit priests were the victim of various attacks
by government officials and members of the Armed Forces, which culminated in the
extra-judicial execution of the victims.
With respect to this point, the petitioners point to statements and
incidents that occurred during the three years before the extra-judicial
executions. For example, the
petitioners indicate that in 1986 legislators of the Alianza
Republicana Nacionalista political party (hereafter "ARENA")
launched a campaign to strip Father Ellacuría of his Salvadoran citizenship,
and that subsequently they made common cause with other political figures such
as the then President, Napoleón Duarte, who publicly accused the priest of
being the "creator of the theory and concept of guerrilla rebellion."
The petitioners also indicate that the Salvadoran Armed Forces published
a statement in which they accused Father Ellacuría of supporting the use of car
bombs during the guerrilla campaign in the last months of 1988.
The petitioners declare that a similar campaign was conducted against
Father Segundo Montes.
In the same vein, the petitioners note that in 1989 Colonel Juan Orlando
Zepeda, of the First Infantry Brigade, declared that the assassination of a
public prosecutor had been planned within the UCA and he referred to that
academic center as "a haven of terrorist leaders from which a strategy of
attacks against Salvadoran citizens is planned and conducted."
The petitioners also maintain that the Vice-Minister of Public Safety,
Colonel Inocente Montano, declared publicly that the Jesuits were totally
identified with the subversion.
Moreover, the petitioners indicate that in March 1989 a grenade exploded
in the electrical plant of the UCA. One
week after the accusations made by Colonel Zepeda, the University press
facilities were attacked with bombs. Subsequently,
several explosive devices were thrown at the complex housing the press.
In July, the press facilities were again bombed.
The petitioners relate that on November 11, 1989, the date of launching
of the military offensive by the dissident armed group “Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional”
(hereafter the “FMLN”), all radio broadcasters were given the order to
connect with Radio Cuscatlán, the official station of the Salvadoran Armed
Forces, over the national network. From
that moment there was no further broadcasting of news on the struggle, and in
its place government and military propaganda was carried. Some people called in, in search of their relatives; supposed
citizens called in to advocate violence against members of the political
oppositions, the labor unions, the church and non-governmental organizations.
Some callers voiced support for killing Jesuits, and Father Ellacuría in
particular. In one call, the Vice
President of El Salvador, Francisco Merino accused Father Ellacuría of
“having poisoned the minds of El Salvador’s youth”.
Material responsibility of State agents
The petitioners allege that the material authors of the extra-judicial
executions were agents of the State, members of the Commando Unit of the
Atlacatl Counterinsurgency Battalion (hereafter the “Atlacatl Battalion”),
which operated under the orders of Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides.
Company Commander Lt. Espinoza Guerra, Sub-Lt. Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos,
and Lt. Yusshy Mendoza Vallecillos, who were accompanied by thirty-six soldiers,
led the unit.
The petitioners relate the facts involved in the extra-judicial execution
in the following manner:
The three lieutenants and the troops under their
command proceeded towards the priests’ dormitory where they awakened the
priests and ordered them outside. The
five priests who came out of the dormitory were ordered to lie face down on the
ground while soldiers went inside to search for others.
The lieutenant in charge, Espinoza, then gave the order to murder the
priests. Oscar Mariano Amaya
Grimaldi shot to death Father Ellacuría, Father Martín-Baró and Father Montes
with an AK-47 specially-assigned to him for this mission.
Sub-Sgt. Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas shot to death the other two
priests, Fathers López Quintana and Ramón Moreno, with a standard military
issue M-16 rifle. Immediately thereafter, although another soldier had shot
Father López y López, when Cpl. Angel Pérez Vásquez went into the room where
the priest had fallen, the dying man grabbed at his leg and Pérez Vásquez shot
him to death. Sub-Sgt. Tomás
Zarpate Castillo shot Mrs. Julia Elba Ramos, who worked as a cook in a nearby
Jesuit household, and her 15 year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos. The
soldier José Alberto Sierra Ascencio shot them again, this time killing them.
The petitioners relate that, subsequently, the soldiers simulated a
confrontation in front of the priests’ residence, in an effort to shift the
blame for the deeds to the FMLN, and private Cerritos wrote up a sign reading:
“We have executed the dirty informers.
Victory or death…FLMN”. Another
soldier posted this sign on a door of the UCA.
Intellectual responsibility of State agents
The petitioners allege that Col. Benavides and the temporary platoon of
soldiers from Atlacatl, identified as the material authors of the extra-judicial
execution, were acting under the orders of high-ranking officers.
In this respect, they point to two facts that prove the existence of
orders from higher ups: first, the “scouting” or reconnaissance search of
the premises that was done on November 13, 1989, with the unstated objective of
studying the place where the murders would subsequently be carried out; and
second, the lack of any immediate response form the military following the
murders. The petitioners interpret
these facts as showing that there was an order from above not to intervene.
The petitioners allege that the reconnaissance search conducted on
November 13 was ordered by Col. Joaquín Arnoldo Cerna Flores, Chief of the C-3
of the Joint High Command of the Salvadoran Armed Forces,
who in turn received the order from Col. René Emilio Ponce, Chief of Personnel
of the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Col.
Cerna Flores ordered Lt. Espinoza of the Atlacatl Battalion to conduct the
search, and it was Espinoza who also led the murder mission three days later.
According to the petitioners, about thirty-five members of the Atlacatl
Battalion took part in the reconnaissance exercise, many of whom would also be
involved in the murders. As well,
Lt. Héctor Ulises Cuenca Ocampo, an officer of the Intelligence Service, was
added to the group although he had no formal connection with the exercise.
According to the petitioners, the soldiers made only a cursory inspection
of the University premises, which as they maintain shows their lack of interest.
The petitioners also cite the testimony of several witnesses to show, in
contrast to earlier records, that more attention was devoted to the location of
rooms and the features of the building itself than to the books and papers found
The petitioners also claim that the excuse offered by the Army for the
reconnaissance mission is unsustainable. In
fact, there were at that time already three security rings in place around the
UCA, and the area was under military control.
According to the petitioners Col. Ponce “claimed that he ordered the
search in response to counter-intelligence reports of an FMLN attack and
infiltration of the UCA campus. However, no evidence has been produced to corroborate that
any counter-intelligence report was ever made, and the search turned up no
evidence of guerrillas or weapons”.
The petitioners claim, moreover, that the events immediately following
the murders also point to senior officers as bearing intellectual responsibility
for the crime. Despite the fact that the incident at the UCA "involved
machine-gun fire, grenade explosions and the launching of a flare in the midst
of the most highly guarded military zone in the city", the petitioners
maintain that there was no immediate military reaction, nor is there even a
record that the shooting was investigated, whereas such procedure is called for
under standard military rules of conduct.
According to the petitioners, the only explanation for this lack of
response is that "the High Command was well aware of what was happening at
They point out that on the night of November 15, at 7.30 p.m., some 20
members of the High Command had met and had agreed that stronger measures were
needed to defeat the FMLN. According
to Lt. Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, who headed the operation, Col. Benavides gave
the order at 11.15 p.m. that very night that the Jesuits should be killed.
The petitioners consider that these conclusions are reinforced by those
of the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (hereafter the
“Truth Commission”), in the sense that officers of the High Command decided
to assassinate Father Ellacuría, and ordered that no witnesses be left alive.
The cover-up of the role of State agents
The petitioners claim that, according to the Truth Commission,
high-ranking Salvadoran officers brought pressure during the investigation to
ensure that soldiers made no reference in their legal testimony to the orders
that they had received from above. Moreover,
the petitioners allege that the daily logbooks of the Military Academy recording
troop movements on the day had disappeared and were subsequently burned.
Further, the barrels of the rifles used to commit the murders were
destroyed and replaced, and consequently any ballistic tests conducted were
Irregularities in criminal investigations and proceedings
The petitioners point out that the investigation of the crime was placed
in the hands of the Investigations Unit of the Investigation Commission
(hereafter the “Investigation Commission”)
and the Special Commission of Military Honor of the Salvadoran Armed Forces
(hereafter the "Honor Commission").
In the view of the petitioners, both of these agencies did everything
possible to cover up the intellectual authors or responsibility of those who
planned and ordered the crime, and they acted with incompetence and in bad
faith. In fact, according to the
petitioners, although there was serious evidence that senior officers had been
involved in planning and covering up the crime, no official investigation was
undertaken along these lines.
The Investigation Commission
In the opinion of the petitioners, the investigation for which the
Investigation Commission was responsible suffered from the following
Delay in sealing off the scene of the crime, with the result that evidence was removed. After having sealed off the scene, the investigators overlooked some important pieces of evidence and destroyed others.
They failed to investigate the calls to
the radio station of the Armed Forces, which in the days leading up to the
murders had advocated that the Jesuits should be killed.
Col. Benavides was not interrogated
before he was charged, although he was the officer in charge of the area where
the murders took place.
There was no investigation into the
destruction and cover-up of essential evidence by military personnel.
The Honor Commission
The petitioners indicate that on January 27, 1990, the President of El
Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, appointed a Special Commission of Military Honor to
determine responsibility for the murders. The
President took this step on the basis of information supplied by the United
States Embassy, to the effect that Col. Benavides had supposedly confessed his
involvement in the crime to the Director of the Investigations Unit.
In less than one week, the Honor Commission announced the names of nine
soldiers and officers presumably responsible for the murders.
According to the petitioners, the report did not specify the method used
for reaching such a conclusion.
31. The petitioners indicate, moreover, that there was no attempt to investigate any senior officers. On the contrary, the Truth Commission found that Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto, legal adviser to the Honor Commission, had altered the testimony of witnesses implicating officers of the military High Command in the crime.
The Public Prosecutor's Office
The petitioners claim that on January 8, 1991, Henry Campos and Sidney
Blanco, officials of the Public Prosecutor's Office who were working with the
Fourth Criminal Court in charge of the case, resigned their positions because
the Public Prosecutor was attempting to interfere in their investigation of the
intellectual authors of the murders.
Criminal trial and procedural maneuvering following the judgment
According to the petitioners, only Col. Benavides, who was held to be
responsible for the eight killings, and Lt. Mendoza, who was found guilty of the
execution of the 15 year-old girl who died in her mother’s arms, were
convicted for the crimes. Espinoza, the commander of the company who led the soldiers
on their murderous mission and gave the final order, was absolved of charges of
homicide, as were all the other defendants.
The petitioners point out that the report of the Truth Commission,
released in March 1993, concluded that officials of the High Command were
involved in the murder. Moreover,
that report revealed an extensive cover-up undertaken by the Investigation Unit
and the Commission of Military Honor. Despite
this, the State brought no charges against the officers named in that report.
The petitioners note that, despite the conclusions contained in the Truth
Commission Report, El Salvador proceeded to issue an amnesty law that absolved
from all liability, both civil and criminal, persons who participated in any way
in political crimes, common crimes related to political crimes, and common
crimes committed by at least 20 persons, prior to January 1, 1992.
The petitioners note that, by virtue of this amnesty law, the
constitutionality of which was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Justice of El
Salvador, Benavides, Mendoza and the various soldiers who were accused with them
were set free, and all further investigations into the facts revealed in the
Truth Commission's Report were suspended.
The petitioners ask that the Salvadoran State be found responsible for
having violated Articles 1, 4, 8 and 25 of the American Convention.
They also seek condemnation of the State for violating Articles 2 and 6
of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Finally, they seek a declaration that the State has violated the precepts
of humanitarian law and has committed crimes against humanity.
The State did not present its first submission to the IACHR with respect
to this case until October 22, 1992. It
limited itself therein to declaring that "the Government of the Republic
reiterates that it will not shrink from its policy of promoting and defending
human rights, and it requests the IACHR to set aside this case, because it has
been duly processed, the persons guilty of the crime have been tried, and for
the first time in the history of our country a high-ranking military officer has
In this respect, the State declared that:
On November 16, 1989, the Jesuit priests
Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Armando López, Joaquín
López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, Mrs. Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter
Celina Mariceth Ramos were assassinated in their residence located next to the Universidad
Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas. For
those crimes, proceedings were conducted in the Fourth Criminal Court against
Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, Lts. Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos and José
Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Sub-Lt. Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Sub-Sergeants Antonio
Ramón Avalos Vargas and Tomás Zarpate Castillo and Privates Angel Pérez Vásquez,
Oscar Amaya Grimaldi and Alberto Sierra Ascencio, all members of the Army.
After hearing evidence against the
accused, the judge referred the case to the plenary Court.
The Fourth Criminal Court set a public hearing for 9 a.m. on September
26, 1991, and proceedings continued until January 28, when the Tribunal of
Conscience issued an acquittal for José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo
Guevara Cerritos, Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Tomás Zarpate Castillo, Angel Pérez
Vázquez, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi and Jorge Alberto Sierra Ascencio, for
the crime of murdering the victims referred to, while Guillermo Alfredo
Benavides Moreno and Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos were convicted of the
crimes of murder, the first for the killing of the victims Ignacio Ellacuría
Beascochea, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes Mozo, Armando López Quintana,
José Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno Pardo, Elba Julia Ramos
and Celina Mariceth Ramos, and the second for the murder of the child Celina
On January 23 of this year, a final
verdict was handed down against Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno,
sentencing him to 30 years in prison for the crime of murder against the persons
referred to above. He was also convicted of the crime of proposing and
conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. Lt. Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos was
sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime of murdering the child Celina
Mariceth Ramos, and was also convicted of the crimes of proposing and conspiring
to commit acts of terrorism, and got concealing a crime.
Sub-Lt. Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos was
also sentenced to three years in prison for the crime of proposing and
conspiring to commit acts of terrorism.
On October 14, 1993, the State supplied supplementary information and
reiterated its request to have the case set aside.
That information consisted of two documents. The Assistant Judge of the Fourth Criminal Court, Luis
Antonio Villeda Figueroa, had sent the first on September 24, 1993, to the
Coordinator of Human Rights in the Office of the Public Prosecutor.
It reviewed the facts of the case and its legal processing, and referred
to the public hearing; the verdict of the jury; the sentences handed down, and
the subsequent application of the amnesty law to those convicted.
The second document was a report that was sent to the Public Prosecutor
of the Republic by the Prosecutors Carlos Figeac Cisneros and Ricardo Marcial
Zelaya Larreynaga, containing a similar summary and reporting that on December
19, 1990, the defense had brought an appeal against the decision to convict the
nine soldiers, and that on April 8, 1991, the First Criminal Chamber of the
First Section had confirmed, in all aspects, the ruling that had been appealed.
The State reported as well that the sentence was handed down on January
23, 1992, and was appealed by the defense on January 30 of the year.
The State also confirmed that the convicted persons were granted amnesty
on March 24, 1993. Both of these
submissions merely add that, pursuant Articles 1, 2 and 4 of the General Amnesty
Law for Consolidation of the Peace, the convicted persons were granted amnesty
and were subsequently released on April 1, 1993.
It remains to be noted that, although the IACHR transmitted to the State
on May 3, 1996, the offer of its good offices to assist in arriving at a
friendly settlement of the case, the State did not respond to that offer.
Moreover, on March 16, 1999, the IACHR transmitted to the State
additional information submitted by the petitioners, but to date El Salvador has
not responded to that communication.
In light of the foregoing, and pursuant to the American Convention and
the Statute and Regulations of the IACHR, the Commission will now proceed to
decide the case on the basis of the considerations of fact and law set forth
The Commission is competent to examine the petition in question because
it alleges violations of human rights protected by the American Convention, to
which El Salvador is a State party. The
IACHR also has competence because the deeds alleged in the petition took place
when the obligation to respect and guarantee the rights established in the
American Convention was already in effect for the Salvadoran State.
The petitioners have standing to appear because they allege violation by
a State party of the norms established in the American Convention.
The Commission will now examine whether the case is admissible in light
of the requirements established in Articles 46 and 47 of the American
Exhaustion of domestic remedies and timeliness
In the present case, the State has not expressly claimed an exception on
the basis that domestic remedies were not exhausted.
Consequently, the Commission considers that the State has tacitly waived
Indeed, as the Inter-American Court has declared, the exception of prior
exhaustion of domestic remedies must be claimed expressly in the first stages of
If this is not done, the exception may be deemed to have been tacitly
Nor has the State sought an exception on the grounds that the six-month
time limit established in Article 46(1) of the Convention was not observed, for
which reason the IACHR considers that the State has also tacitly waived this
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Commission notes that, as both the
State and the petitioners have indicated, the court of first instance issued a
judgment on January 23, 1992, in the criminal proceedings held with respect to
the extra-judicial executions and that that sentence was duly confirmed.
On the other hand, the amnesty law was challenged on the grounds that it
was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador declared
that appeal to be inadmissible.
Duplication of proceedings
The IACHR considers that, on the basis of the information contained in
the files, it is clear that the issues raised in the present case are not
pending resolution in any other international forum.
For this reason, the requirement established in Article 46.1 of the
American Convention may be considered satisfied.
Characterization of the alleged facts
In the case under examination, the petitioners have presented evidence
that, in principle, tends to characterize possible violations of Articles 1(1),
2, 4, 8 and 25 of the American Convention.
The Commission therefore considers that the conditions established in
Article 47 of the Convention are satisfied.
Conclusion on admissibility
On the basis of the considerations of fact and law set out above, the
IACHR concludes that it is competent to examine the present case and that the
requirements of admissibility set forth in Articles 46 and 47 of the American
Convention have been satisfied.
ANALYSIS OF THE MERITS
51. Having determined its competence to hear the present case, and having established the admissibility of the petition, the Commission will now declare its position on the merits of the case, taking due account of the fact that the parties declined to subscribe to a process of friendly settlement, and that the Commission has sufficient elements to pronounce itself on the substance of the case.
Considerations on the facts of the case
In order to ensure a full understanding of the factual circumstances of
the case in question, the Commission considers it useful to provide some details
on the violent situation that was afflicting El Salvador at the time of the
alleged violations and the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Truth
In this respect, it will be recalled that during the period in which the
extra-judicial executions took place, an internal armed conflict, that had begun
about 1980, had submerged the country in almost 12 years of violence, giving
rise to many regrettable acts and thousands of deaths.
The parties to the conflict were, on one hand, the government, and on the
other hand the FMLN, which was created in 1980 through the merger of five armed
The events in question occurred in the midst of the most important
military offensive launched by the FMLN during the entire civil war.
The FMLN military offensive began on November 11, 1989, following a
severe attack committed on October 31, 1989, in the city of San Salvador, in
which unidentified groups of the extreme right exploded a bomb in the
headquarters of the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers' Unions (FENASTAS).
This attack resulted in the deaths of 10 labor union leaders, and wounded
30 other people.
In the face of this offensive, the government declared a state of siege
on November 12, 1989, and imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
On November 13, the senior military command decided to create a special
security zone (Security Command) embracing the vicinity of the UCA.
Also included in the security zone, and only a few blocks away, were the
headquarters of the Estado Mayor (High
Command), the Ministry of Defense, the Military Academy, the National
Intelligence Directorate (DNI), the San
Benito Battalion of the National Police, and two military residential
compounds, Colonia Arce and Colonia
Palermo. The command
headquarters for the security zone was located in the Military Academy, and the
Director of that academy, Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, was appointed its
Since the Military Academy does not normally have combat-ready troops at
its disposal, sections of other units were stationed at the school, including 47
men of the Atlacatl Battalion.
Thus, the scene of the events was totally militarized and under the
control of the National Army, which maintained a series of military surveillance
posts in the Torre Democracia [“Democracy Tower”], in Colonia Arce, at the northern gateway to the UCA, on the periphery
of the university campus, in the Ceiba de
Guadalupe, and in the zone known as Colonia
Jardines de Guadalupe.
On November 15, after a meeting at which about 20 of the country’s
highest-ranking military officers were present, it was decided to escalate the
military offensive against the FMLN. It
was on that same night that the extra-judicial executions took place.
The armed conflict that provided the background to these extra-judicial
executions came to an end on February 16, 1992, with signature of the El
Salvador Peace Accord, in Chapultepec, Mexico City, between the Government and
The signing of this accord represented the culmination of peace
negotiations, conducted under United Nations auspices, which had dragged on for
more than three years (1989-1992). During
that time, a series of peace agreements were signed: the Mexico City Agreements
of April 27, 1991, created the Truth Commission, whose mandate was to
investigate "serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980, the
social scars from which urgently demand that the public should know the
The accord provided that the Truth Commission should consist of
"three persons appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations,
with the advice of the parties” to the accord.
The United Nations Secretary-General appointed Belisario Betancur (former
President of Colombia), Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart (former Minister of Foreign
Affairs of Venezuela) and Thomas Buergenthal (former President of the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights). According
to its mandate, the Truth Commission was to present a final report with its
conclusions and recommendations, which was to be transmitted to the parties and
to the United Nations Secretary General.
The Report of the Truth Commission, titled “From Madness to Hope: The
12-year war in El Salvador” (hereafter “the Truth Commission Report”) was
published on March 15, 1993.
The IACHR notes that several facts alleged by the petitioners have not
been disputed by the State. Some of
these facts are related below.
On the morning on November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests were
assassinated, as well as a woman who was employed for domestic duties, and her
15 year-old daughter, by agents of the Salvadoran Armed Forces in the Centro Pastoral of UCA. The
victims were the Jesuit priests Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró,
Segundo Montes, Armando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno,
Mrs. Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter Celina Mariceth Ramos, 15 years of age.
President Cristiani assigned responsibility for investigating these
extra-judicial executions to the Investigation Commission, headed by Lieutenant
Colonel Manuel Antonio Rivas Mejía.
Subsequently, the Minister of Defense of El Salvador established another
investigative body, the Honor Commission, consisting of five officers and two
civilians. On January 12, 1990, the
Honor Commission presented its report to President Cristiani, implicating nine
military personnel as responsible for the extra-judicial executions.
These nine soldiers were arrested and tried before the Fourth Criminal
Court, presided over by Judge Ricardo Alberto Zamora (hereafter "Judge
Judge Zamora instituted public proceedings against the accused on
September 25, 1991.
Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, Director of the Military Academy,
was accused of ordering the assassination of the priests.
Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, an officer of the Military
Academy, and Lieutenants José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Gonzalo Guevara
Cerritos, officers of the Atlacatl Battalion, were accused of participating in
the operation. Sgt. Antonio Ramírez
Avalos Vargas, Sgt. Tomás Zarpate Castillo, Corporal Angel Pérez Vázquez and
soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi and Jorge
Alberto Sierra Ascencio, were accused of being the material authors of the
Two days later, on September 27, 1991, the court rendered guilty verdicts
solely against Colonel Benavides (who was found responsible for all the summary
executions) and Lieutenant Mendoza (found responsible for murdering the child
Celina Mariceth Ramos). The other
defendants were acquitted of all charges of homicide.
In 1991, the State and the FMLN signed a set of historic accords in
Mexico, calling among other things for creation of a Truth Commission with a
mandate to investigate "the serious acts of violence that have occurred
since 1980, whose impact on society urgently requires that the truth about them
be made known to the public." On
January 23, 1992, the final ruling in the case of the Jesuit murders was handed
Almost a month after this ruling was issued, on February 16, 1992, the El
Salvador Peace Accord was signed in Chapultepec, Mexico, in which the work of
the Truth Commission was linked to clarifying the record and preventing
impunity. On March 15, 1993, the
Truth Commission presented its report, which included the results of its
investigation into the executions of the Jesuit priests and the two women. Colonel Benavides and Lieutenant Mendoza, who had been found
guilty of the murders, were sentenced to prison terms of 30 years.
In addition, the court convicted them of proposing and conspiring to
commit acts of terrorism. The court also sentenced Lieutenants Espinoza and Guevara
Cerritos to three years in prison for proposing and conspiring to commit acts of
terrorism. Finally, the court
convicted Lieutenant Colonel Hernández and Lieutenant Mendoza of cover-up.
Their sentence was appealed by the defense on January 30, 1992, and was
upheld by the Court of Appeals.
In its report, the Truth Commission identified agents of the State as the
persons who had decided, planned and carried out the assassinations.
With respect to the intellectual authors, the Commission noted that on
November 15, 1989, in the presence and with the connivance of General Juan
Rafael Bustillo and Colonels Juan Orlando Zepeda, Inocente Orlando Montano and
Francisco Elena Fuentes, Col. René Emilio Ponce ordered Colonel Benavides to
kill Father Ellacuría, and to leave no witnesses.
None of the military officers identified in the report as the
intellectual authors of the crime were tried before the Fourth Criminal Court.
Moreover, the report determined that the execution operation was
organized by the then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and carried out by
a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion, under the command of Lt.
Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Sub-Lt. Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lt.
Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos.
The report also revealed the cover-up operation that was carried out by
other agents of the State, in an effort to conceal the identity of both the
direct and indirect authors of the murders.
In fact, the report noted that the Chief of the Criminal Acts Commission,
Colonel Antonio Rivas Mejía and Colonel Iván López y López were aware of the
facts surrounding the events, and took steps to conceal them.
In addition, the Truth Commission found that a member of the Honor
Commission, the lawyer Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto, had altered the statements
of witnesses in order to protect high-ranking officers.
On March 20, 1993, only five days after the Truth Commission Report was
released, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador issued its Amnesty Decree Nº
That decree was challenged as unconstitutional before the Supreme Court
of Justice of El Salvador, which declared itself incompetent to review the
constitutionality of the decree, on the grounds that the amnesty constituted an
"eminently political" act.
The persons convicted of the crime of murder, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo
Benavides and Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, were granted amnesty
and were subsequently released on April 1, 1993.
The facts of the case that are disputed by the parties relate exclusively
to the nature of its investigation by Salvadoran authorities.
The petitioners maintain that the official investigation was designed to
prevent the truth from being discovered, in order to protect high-ranking
officers of the Armed Forces. For its part, the State, while it has not responded
individually to each of the claims made by the petitioners, maintains in general
that "this case has been duly processed, the guilty persons have been
convicted, and for the first time in the country's history a high-ranking
military officer has been sentenced.” The State adds that "the government
has always made it a policy to investigate such cases carefully and to take the
pertinent legal action."
In order to clarify the points in dispute, the IACHR will first examine
the investigation that was conducted by the Truth Commission into the case in
question, and which resulted in the conclusions published in its March 15, 1993
report. As noted above, the Truth Commission was created as the
result of a peace agreement between the State and the dissident armed group,
FMLN. The members of that
Commission were moreover selected by the Secretary General of United Nations,
with the advice and consent of the State and the FMLN.
In view of the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Truth
Commission, and the appointment of its members, as well as the rigorous
methodology employed and strength of the evidence collected, the IACHR considers
that the impartiality, soundness and good faith of the Truth Commission are not
open to question.
With respect to the methodology employed in the investigation, it should
be noted that the members of the Truth Commission "examined
documents in El Salvador and other countries; interviewed numerous participants,
witnesses, victims and relatives; requested information from Government bodies;
consulted court dossiers; visited places where incidents had occurred; and
requested copies of instructions and orders given."
As well, "in
order to guarantee the reliability of the evidence it gathered, the Commission
insisted on verifying, substantiating and reviewing all statements as to facts,
checking them against a large number of sources whose veracity had already been
established. It was decided that no
single source or witness would be considered sufficiently reliable to establish
the truth on any issue of fact needed for the Commission to arrive at a finding.
It was also decided that secondary sources, for instance, reports from
national or international governmental or private bodies and assertions by
people without first-hand knowledge of the facts they reported, did not on their
own constitute a sufficient basis for arriving at findings.
However, these secondary sources were used, along with circumstantial
evidence, to verify findings based on primary sources."
Given the rigorous methodology used by the Truth Commission and the
guarantee of its impartiality and good faith resulting from the manner in which
its members were appointed (and in which the State itself participated), the
IACHR considers that its investigation into this case is credible and as such
must be taken into account, together with the alleged facts and other evidence
submitted. Moreover, it should be
noted that the State has not presented any allegations or evidence that would
cast doubt on the conclusions of the Truth Commission, which the State itself
The Truth Commission Report
For the Truth Commission, the extra-judicial execution of the Jesuit
priests constitutes an illustrative case of "violence against opponents by
agents of the State", which it sees as part of a pattern of violence that
characterized the internal armed conflict in El Salvador.
Given the pertinence of the Truth Commission's investigation, the IACHR
considers it important to transcribe, verbatim,
the chapter of the report referring to the extra-judicial execution of the
Jesuit priests, and the conclusions reached by the Commission:
OF THE FACTS
In the early hours of 16 November 1989, a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the Pastoral Centre, which was the residence of Jesuit priests Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice‑Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; and Armando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, all teachers at UCA.
The soldiers tried to force their way into the
Pastoral Centre. When the priests
realized what was happening, they let the soldiers in voluntarily.
The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into
the back garden and lie face down on the ground.
The lieutenant in command, José Ricardo Espinoza
Guerra, gave the order to kill the priests.
Fathers Ellacuría, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by
Private Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Fathers López and Moreno by Deputy
Sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas. Shortly
afterwards, the soldiers, including Corporal Angel Pérez Vásquez, found Father
Joaquín López y López inside the residence and killed him.
Deputy Sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo shot Julia Elba Ramos,
who was working in the residence, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth
Ramos. Private José Alberto Sierra
Ascencio shot them again, finishing them off.
The soldiers took a small suitcase belonging to the
priests, with photographs, documents and $5,000.
They fired a machine gun at the façade of the
residence and launched rockets and grenades.
Before leaving, they wrote on a piece of cardboard:
"FMLN executed those who informed on it.
Victory or death, FMLN."
A few hours earlier, on 15 November between 10 p.m.
and 11 p.m., Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Director of the
Military College, met with the officers under his command.
The officers present included Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona,
Captain José Fuentes Rodas, Lieutenants
Mario Arévalo Meléndez, Nelson Alberto Barra Zamora, Francisco Mónico
Gallardo Mata, José Vicente Hernández Ayala, Ramón Eduardo López Larios, René
Roberto López Morales, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, Edgar Santiago Martínez
Marroquín and Second Lieutenant Juan de Jesús Guzmán Morales.
Colonel Benavides told them that he had just come
from a meeting at the General Staff at which special measures had been adopted
to combat FMLN offensive, which had begun on 11 November.
Those present at the meeting had been informed that the situation was
critical and it had been decided that artillery and armoured vehicles should be
Those present at the meeting had also been informed
that all known subversive elements must be eliminated.
Colonel Benavides said that he had received orders to eliminate Father
Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.
Colonel Benavides asked any officers who objected to
the order to raise their hands. No
Major Hernández Barahona organized the operation.
Troops from the Atlacatl Battalion were used, under the command of
Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra. In
order to overcome any reluctance on his part, it was arranged that Lieutenant
Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, who had graduated from officer training school
in the same class ("tanda")
as him, would also participate.
After the meeting, Major Hernández Barahona met
with Lieutenant Mendoza Vallecillos, Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra and Second
Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos of the Atlacatl Battalion.
In order to pin responsibility for the deaths on FMLN, they decided not
to use regulation firearms and to leave no witnesses.
After the murders, they would simulate an attack and leave a sign
It was decided to use an AK-47 rifle belonging to
Major Hernández Barahona, because the weapon had been captured from FMLN and
was identifiable. The rifle was
entrusted to Private Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, who knew how to use it.
In order to reach UCA, it was necessary to pass
through the defence cordons of the military complex. Lieutenant Martínez Marroquín arranged for the
Atlacatl soldiers to pass.
Lieutenants Espinoza Guerra and Mendoza Vallecillos
and Second Lieutenant Guevara Cerritos left the Military College in two pick-up
trucks with the soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion. They went to some empty buildings which are close to the UCA
campus, where other soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion were waiting.
There, Lieutenant Espinoza indicated who would keep watch and who would
enter the Jesuits' residence.
Members of the armed forces used to call UCA a
"refuge of subversives". Colonel
Juan Orlando Zepeda, Vice-Minister for Defence, publicly accused UCA of being
the centre of operations where FMLN terrorist strategy was planned.
Colonel Inocente Montano, Vice-Minister for Public Security, stated
publicly that the Jesuits were fully identified with subversive movements.
Father Ellacuría had played an important role in
the search for a negotiated, peaceful solution to the armed conflict.
Sectors of the armed forces identified the Jesuit priests with FMLN
because of the priests' special concern for those sectors of Salvadorian society
who were poorest and most affected by the war.
On two earlier occasions that same year, 1989, bombs
had gone off at the University printing house.
The offensive launched by FMLN on 11 November
reached proportions that the armed forces had not expected and which alarmed
them. The guerrillas gained control
of various areas in and around San Salvador.
They attacked the official and private residences of the President of the
Republic and the residence of the President of the Legislative Assembly.
They also attacked the barracks of the First, Third and Sixth Infantry
Brigades and those of the National Police.
On 12 November, the Government declared a state of emergency and imposed
a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
At a meeting of the General Staff on 13 November,
security commands were created to deal with the offensive.
Each command was headed by an officer under the operational control of
Colonel René Emilio Ponce, Chief of the Armed Forces Joint Staff.
Colonel Benavides Moreno was designated to head the military complex
security command, a zone which included the Military College, the Ministry of
Defence, the Joint Staff, the National Intelligence Department (DNI), the Arce
and Palermo districts (most of whose residents were members of the armed
forces), the residence of the United States Ambassador and the UCA campus.
A national radio channel was also established, the
pilot station being Radio Cuscatlán of the armed forces.
Telephone calls to the station were broadcast in a "phone-in"
in which callers levelled accusations at Father Ellacuría and went so far
as to call for his death.
On 11 November, guerrillas blew up one of the main
gates of the University and crossed the University campus.
The next day, a military detachment was stationed to watch who went in
and out of the University. From 13
November onwards no one was permitted onto the campus.
On 13 November, Colonel Ponce ordered Colonel Joaquín
Arnoldo Cerna Flores, head of unit III of the General Staff, to arrange for a
search of UCA premises. According
to Colonel Ponce, he ordered the search because he had been informed that there
were over 200 guerrillas inside the University.
Colonel Cerna Flores entrusted the search to
Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, who took some 100 men from the
Atlacatl Battalion. Lieutenant Héctor
Ulises Cuenca Ocampo of the National Intelligence Department (DNI) joined the
troops at the entrance to UCA to assist with the search.
Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra personally directed the search of the Jesuits'
residence. They found no signs of
any guerrilla presence, war matériel or propaganda.
On completing the search, Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra
reported to Major Hernández Barahona. He
then went to the General Staff where he reported to Colonel Cerna Flores.
At 6.30 p.m. on 15 November there was a meeting of
the General Staff with military heads and commanders to adopt new measures to
deal with the offensive. Colonel
Ponce authorized the elimination of ringleaders, trade unionists and known
leaders of FMLN and a decision was taken to step up bombing by the Air Force and
to use artillery and armoured vehicles to dislodge FMLN from the areas it
The Minister of Defence, General Rafael Humberto
Larios López, asked whether anyone objected.
No hand was raised. It was
agreed that President Cristiani would be consulted about the measures.
After the meeting, the officers stayed in the room
talking in groups. One of these
groups consisted of Colonel René Emilio Ponce, General Juan Rafael Bustillo,
Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes, Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda and Colonel
Inocente Orlando Montano. Colonel
Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and, in front of the four
other officers, ordered him to eliminate Father Ellacuría and to leave no
witnesses. He also ordered him to
use the unit from the Atlacatl Battalion which had carried out the search two
From 12 to 2:30 a.m. the next day, 16 November,
President Cristiani met with the High Command.
According to his statement, the President approved a new arrangement for
using armoured units of the cavalry regiment and artillery pieces; at no time
during this meeting was anything said about UCA.
During the early hours of the morning of 16
November, Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and Lieutenant José Vicente
Hernández Ayala went in person to Colonel Ponce's office to report on
everything that had happened at UCA. They
reported that they had a small suitcase with photographs, documents and money
which the soldiers had stolen from the Jesuits a few hours earlier.
Colonel Ponce ordered it destroyed because it was evidence of the armed
forces' responsibility. They
destroyed the suitcase at the Military College.
On returning to his unit, Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra
informed the Commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Oscar
Alberto León Linares, of what had happened.
President Cristiani entrusted the investigation of
the crime to the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal Acts (CIHD).
Colonel Benavides told Lieutenant Colonel Manuel
Antonio Rivas Mejía, Head of CIHD, what had happened and asked him for help.
Mejía recommended that the barrels of the weapons which had been used be
destroyed and replaced with others in order to prevent them from being
identified during ballistic tests. This
was later done with the assistance of Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Alberto León
Lieutenant Colonel Rivas Mejía also advised Colonel
Benavides to make sure that no record remained of those entering and leaving the
Military College that would make it possible to identify the culprits.
Subsequently, Colonel Benavides and Major Hernández Barahona
ordered that all Military College arrival and departure logs for that year and
the previous year be burned.
Shortly after the investigation began, Colonel René
Emilio Ponce arranged for Colonel Nelson Iván López y López, head of unit I
of the General Staff, who had also been in charge of the General Staff Tactical
Operations Centre during the entire night of 15 to 16 November, to join CIHD in
order to assist in the investigation of the case.
In November, CIHD heard two witnesses, Deputy
Sergeant Germán Orellana Vázquez and police officer Victor Manuel Orellana
Hernández, who testified that they had seen soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion
near UCA that night; they later changed their statements.
Another witness also retracted her initial
statement. Lucía Barrera de Cerna,
an employee at the University, said that she had seen, from a building adjacent
to the Jesuits' residence, soldiers in camouflage and berets.
In the United States, where she went for protection, she was questioned
by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and retracted her earlier
statement. Lieutenant Colonel Rivas
Mejía, Head of CIHD, was present when she was questioned.
Subsequently, she confirmed her original statement.
CIHD did not take a statement from Colonel
Benavides, even though the incident had occurred within his command zone.
According to the court dossier, the first statement Benavides made was on
11 January 1990 to the Special Honour Commission.
On 2 January 1990, a month and a half after the
murders, Major Eric Warren Buckland, an officer of the United States Army and an
adviser to the armed forces of El Salvador, reported to his superior, Lieutenant
Colonel William Hunter, a conversation he had some days previously with Colonel
Carlos Armando Avilés Buitrago. During
that conversation, Avilés Buitrago had told him that he had learnt, through
Colonel López y López, that Benavides had arranged the murders and that a unit
from the Atlacatl Battalion had carried them out.
He also said that Benavides had asked Lieutenant Colonel Rivas Mejía for
Lieutenant Colonel William Hunter informed the Chief
of the United States Military Mission, Colonel Milton Menjívar, who arranged a
meeting in Colonel Ponce's office where Buckland and Avilés were brought face
to face. Avilés denied having
given Buckland such information.
A few days after Buckland's statements were
reported, the Minister of Defence established a Special Honour Commission,
consisting of five officers and two civilians, to investigate the murders.
On learning what CIHD had found out, the Honour
Commission questioned some 30 members of the Atlacatl Battalion, including
Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Guevara Cerritos, and a number
of officers of the Military College, including Colonel Benavides and Lieutenant
Lieutenants Espinoza and Mendoza and Second
Lieutenant Guevara, as well as the soldiers who had participated in the murders,
confessed their crime in extrajudicial statements to the Honour Commission.
A civilian member of the Commission, Rodolfo Antonio
Parker Soto, legal adviser to the General Staff, altered their statements in
order to delete any reference to the existence of orders from above.
He also deleted the references to some officers, including the one to
Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona.
On 12 January, the Commission submitted its report
to President Cristiani. The report
identified nine people as being responsible for the murders, four officers and
five soldiers; they were arrested and later brought to trial.
Subsequently, newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Camilo Hernández
Barahona was included in the trial.
The pre-trial proceedings took nearly two years.
During this time, Colonel (now General) René Emilio Ponce, Colonel (now
General) Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel (now
General) Gilberto Rubio Rubio pressured lower-ranking officers not to mention
orders from above in their testimony to the court.
Finally, the trial by jury took place on 26, 27 and
28 September 1991 in the building of the Supreme Court of Justice.
The identity of the five members of the jury was kept secret.
The accused and the charges were as follows:
Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno,
Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo Guevara
Cerritos: accused of murder, acts
of terrorism, acts preparatory to terrorism and instigation and conspiracy to
commit acts of terrorism.
Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos:
accused of murder, acts of terrorism, acts preparatory to terrorism,
instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism and of being an
Deputy Sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Deputy
Sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo, Corporal Angel Pérez Vásquez and Private
Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi: accused
of murder, acts of terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism.
Private Jorge Alberto Sierra Ascencio:
tried in absentia for murder. Lieutenant
Colonel Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona:
accused of being an accessory.
The jury had to decide only with respect to the
charges of murder and acts of terrorism. The
other charges were left to the judge to decide.
Only Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno and
Lieutenant Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos were found guilty of murder.
The judge gave them the maximum sentence, 30 years in prison, which they
are currently serving. The judge also found Colonel Benavides and Lieutenant Mendoza
guilty of instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.
Lieutenants Espinoza and Guevara Cerritos were sentenced to three years
for instigation and conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism.
Lieutenant Colonel Hernández was also sentenced by the judge to three
years for being an accessory and Mendoza Vallecillos was also convicted on that
charge. Espinoza, Guevara and Hernández
were released and continued in active service in the armed forces.
Having analyzed the facts, the Truth Commission stated its conclusions in
the following terms:
is substantial evidence
that on the night of 15 November 1989, then Colonel René Emilio Ponce, in the
presence of and in collusion with General Juan Rafael Bustillo, then
Colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel
Francisco Elena Fuentes, gave Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides the order to
kill Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.
For that purpose, Colonel Benavides was given the use of a unit from the
Atlacatl Battalion, which two days previously had been sent to search the
is evidence that, subsequently, all these officers and others, knowing what had
happened, took steps to conceal the truth.
There is sufficient evidence that General Gilberto Rubio Rubio, knowing
what had happened, took steps to conceal the truth.
is full evidence that:
same night of 15 November, Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides informed the
officers at the Military College of the order he had been given for the murder.
When he asked whether anyone had any objection, they all remained silent.
operation was organized by then Major Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona and
carried out by a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion under the command
of Lieutenant José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra and Second Lieutenant Gonzalo
Guevara Cerritos, accompanied by Lieutenant Yusshy
René Mendoza Vallecillos.
is substantial evidence that:
Oscar Alberto León Linares, Commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, knew of the
murder and concealed incriminating evidence.
Manual Antonio Rivas Mejía of the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal
Acts (CIHD) learnt the facts and concealed the truth and also recommended to
Colonel Benavides measures for the destruction of incriminating evidence.
Nelson Iván López y López, who was assigned to assist in the CIHD
investigation, learnt what had happened and concealed the truth.
is full evidence that Rodolfo Antonio Parker Soto, a member of the Special
Honour Commission, altered statements in order to conceal the responsibility of
senior officers for the murder.
The above extracts of the report show that senior officers of the
official entities in charge of the investigation concealed the identity of the
intellectual authors, as well as of most of the material authors, of the
A press release of the Company of Jesus, dated 16
November, issued as a result of the murder of the six Jesuit Fathers
(included on the files of the case) sheds light on the position of the
Company of Jesus with respect to the conflict.
That communiqué reads in part as follows: “We hope that our
brothers’ sacrifice will not be in vain.
We are convinced that only with an end to the war, with the cessation
of any type of repression, and that with a peacefully negotiated settlement
to the conflict will our country be able to extract itself from its present
troubles. The murdered priests
had put all their efforts into cooperating actively for a just and
negotiated peace, based on respect for human rights and the dignity of the
poor. Let us trust that their
deaths will sow the seeds of a new commitment to bring peace to our
The petitioners maintain that during those 12
years, at least 25 officials and workers of the church where assassinated in
El Salvador. As well, the
petitioners refer to several instances constituting persecution against the
Jesuits in El Salvador, namely: Jesuits were the targets of six bomb attacks
during 1976; six Jesuit Fathers and many students in the country were
arrested and deported, and two were tortured; extremist military groups were
responsible for a campaign that openly advocated the killing of all Jesuit
Fathers who refused to leave the country immediately, but that campaign was
never investigated; in 1977 Father Ellacuría was temporarily refused
permission to return to the country, although he was a Salvadoran Citizen.
The library of the UCA and its printing facilities, as well as the
Jesuit residence, were the target of several bomb attacks during the 1980s. In November 1980, Father Ellacuría was forced to flee the
country in the face of a military conspiracy to assassinate him; in 1981,
Father Ellacuría was included among a list of "traitors" held
responsible for the country's problems; in 1986 a member of Parliament, of
the ARENA Party, launched a campaign to strip Father Ellacuría of his
Salvadoran citizenship; in 1986 the then mayor of San Salvador, Armando
Calderón Sol, proposed the creation of a special commission to investigate
the activities of Father Ellacuría.
The petitioners cite as their source the newspaper “El
Mundo”, of September 6, 1986.
The petitioners cite as their source the newspaper “El
Diario de Hoy”, of April 20, 1989.
This would appear to be confirmed by the Report of the Commission on
the Truth for El Salvador (hereinafter “Report of the Truth Commission”,
included in the files of the case), which says:
“Col. Juan Orlando Zepeda, Minister of Defense, publicly accused
the UCA of serving as an operations center for planning the terrorist
strategy of the FMLN”. Cf. Provisional Report of the working group on El
Salvador, of the Speaker of the House in the United States, April 30, 1990,
which is also included as evidence in the files of the case.
The petitioners cite as their source the Report of the Truth Commission,
which says: “Col. Inocente
Montano, Vice Minister of Public Safety, said publicly that the Jesuits were
totally identified with subversive movements”
The specific function of Unit 3 (C-3) of the Joint High Command of the Armed
Forces was primarily that of coordinating military operations at the level
of the High Command. See the
statement of Col. Joaquín Arnoldo Cerna Flores on September 21, 1990, given
before the Fourth Criminal Court of San Salvador, at p. 2325 of the
The petitioners cite testimony from Capt. Herrera Carranza given before the
Fourth Criminal Court of San Salvador.
Submission by the petitioners dated August 22, 1990.
The locale where the events took place was totally militarized and under the
control of the National Army, which maintained a series of
military surveillance posts in the Torre
Democracia [“Democracy Tower”], in Colonia
Militar Manuel José Arce, at the gateway to the UCA, on the periphery
of the university campus, in the Ceiba
de Guadalupe, and in the zone known as Colonia
Jardines de Guadalupe. (“Report of the Legal Protector’s Office [Tutela
Legal] of the Archbishop of San Salvador on the investigations into the
violent deaths of six Jesuit priests and two service employees”, submitted
by the petitioners as evidence, page 33).
The petitioners also refer to the civilian leaders
of the government, claiming that "at best, they were responsible for
creating an atmosphere that was hostile to the Jesuits and, at worst, they
connived at the planning and cover-up of the murders."
In this respect, they note that President Cristiani authorized the
search of the UCA complex, and was present at military headquarters on the
night of November 15, at the meeting of senior officers.
For his part, the Vice President Francisco Merino visited the
Atlacatl Battalion in the afternoon of November 11, 1989, two days before
the battalion units were deployed to the Military Academy.
Submission of the petitioners, dated August 22, 1990.
The purpose of the Investigation Commission was to look into violations of
human rights by the Army and the Security Forces.
The petitioners cite as their source the newspapers “Diario
de Hoy” of January 8, 1990 and the “Miami Herald” of January 9,
El Salvador ratified the American Convention on Human Rights on June 23,
I-A Court, Castillo Paez case, Preliminary Exceptions, Judgment of 30
January 1996, Series C, Nº 24, para. 41.
I-A Court, Velásquez Rodríguez case, Preliminary Exceptions, Judgment of
26 June 1987, Ser. C Nº 1 (1987), para. 88.
See also IACHR Annual report 1998, Report Nº 27/99. Case 11.697, El
Salvador, Ramón Mauricio García Prieto Giralt, para. 35.
Resolution of 20 May 1993, Constitutional Court of El Salvador.
 Report Nº 1/99 (El Salvador), case 10.480, Lucio Parada Cea and others, Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (1998) OEA/Ser.L/V/II.102 Doc 6 rev.16 of April 16, 1999, page 556, para. 3. With respect to the violent situation, the Truth Commission "recorded more than 22,000 complaints of serious acts of violence committed in El Salvador during the period from January 1980 to July 1991. More than 60 percent of these events involved extra-judicial executions; more than 25 percent related to forced disappearance; and more than 20 percent included complaints of torture. Witnesses attributed nearly 85 percent of these cases to agents of the State, to para-military groups allied with them, and to so-called death squads. The complainants held the FMLN responsible for only five percent of the cases. Notwithstanding their great number, these complaints represented only a portion of the acts of violence that actually occurred. The Commission was able to obtain only a sample of such complaints during the three months in which it received testimony." See "From Madness to Hope, the Twelve-Year War in El Salvador”, Report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, IV, Cases and Patterns of Violence.
The FMLN was
composed of the following five armed opposition groups:
Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP),
Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación (FAL), Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia
Nacional (FARN) and Partido
Revolucionario de los Trabajadores de Centroamérica (PRTC).
The FMLN maintained a military presence and control in several
portions of the country on a more-or-less permanent basis, especially in the
North and East.
 The Atlacatl Battalion was "a quick response infantry battalion". Report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, UN S/25500, 11 April 1993, p. 119. This was an elite fighting force, and one of the best-trained and most experienced units of the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Its members were tried for the murder of the Jesuit priests. “The Jesuit Murders Trial”. International Commission of Jurists, November 1991, pp. 19-20.
“Report of the Legal Protector’s Office [Tutela
Legal] of the Archbishop of San Salvador on the investigations into the
violent deaths of six Jesuit priests and two service employees”, submitted
by the petitioners as evidence, page 33.)
The signing of this accord represented the culmination of the negotiation
process and the beginning of the execution phase of the Peace Accords.
It was also stipulated at Chapultepec that the work of the Truth
Commission (created on April 27, 1991 in Mexico City, during the eighth
round of negotiations) should be linked to clarifying the record and
preventing impunity. The El
Salvador Peace Accord, in Section 5, Preventing Impunity, says:
recognize the need to clarify and avoid any special treatment for officers
of the Armed Forces, especially in cases relating to respect for human
rights. To this end, the
Parties will leave consideration and resolution of this point to the Truth
Article IV of the Mexico Accords of April 27, 1991, and Article 2 of the
annex to the Mexico Accords of April 27, 1991.
Article 1 of the annex to the Mexico Accords of April 27, 1991.
Articles 11 and 12, annex to the Mexico Accords.
Decree 486, published in the Official Gazette Nº 56, Volume 318, of March
Constitutional Affairs Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of El
Salvador, May 20, 1993.
See Truth Commission Report, point V.A
Ibid, footnote Nº 125, page 41.
Ibid, pages 22-23.
Ibid., page 44.
Ibid., pages 42 to 51.
 The Truth Commission defined substantial evidence as “very solid evidence to support the Commission´s finding.” Ibidem, par. 24.