Washington D.C., July 10, 2020 - More than three decades after the shocking execution of six Jesuit priests by the Salvadoran military, National Security Archive senior analyst Kate Doyle testified today at the historic legal proceedings in Spain to hold senior officials accountable for the November 1989 atrocity. Acting as an expert witness, Doyle authenticated hundreds of declassified U.S. records that have been submitted as evidence to the Spanish tribunal in the case of the Jesuits.
“The U.S. documents provide a strong credibility, and a clear relevance to clarifying the crimes that were committed,” as Doyle, who directs the El Salvador Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, informed the court.
The legal proceedings against former Vice Minister of Public Security Col. Inocente Orlando Montano began in June 2020. Montano, who quietly left El Salvador in 2001 was discovered by human rights investigators living outside Boston in 2011. He was convicted of immigration fraud and, in November 2017, extradited to Spain to stand trial for his role in the murder of the Jesuits, five of whom held Spanish citizenship.
In the early morning hours of November 16, 1989, an elite unit of the Salvadoran armed forces entered the grounds of the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador and executed its rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, along with five other Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year old daughter. The murders became one of the most notorious human rights crimes of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992 after an estimated 75,000 civilian deaths.
Since 2008, when Spanish lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, then at the independent, San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), along with Spain’s Human Rights Association, first filed a 126-page legal complaint in Madrid against members of the Salvadoran high command, the National Security Archive has made hundreds of declassified U.S. records available to the proceedings. In late November 2009, Doyle traveled to Madrid to testify on the authenticity of the records as part of a set of evidentiary hearings. Spanish judge Eloy Velasco cited “an abundant amount of information, collected and carefully analyzed,” contained in “thousands of documents declassified by United States government agencies” in his May 2011 indictment of 20 high-level Salvadoran officers.
Gathered painstakingly over the course of decades, the documents contain what Doyle describes as “vital information about the military’s conspiracy to assassinate the Jesuits, how the kill operation unfolded, and the elaborate steps taken by senior officers – including the official on trial in Madrid, former army Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano – to hide what happened.”
As the evidence makes clear, these actions by El Salvador’s Armed Forces (ESAF) were apparent to U.S. officials at the time. As one embassy cable from San Salvador reported: “In the 12 months since ESAF responsibility for the murders was revealed, the military’s leadership has resisted all appeal for an honest accounting of what [it] must have possessed from the beginning—the truth.”
The National Security Archive has a long track record of supplying evidence in the form of once-secret CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI and State Department records for human rights trials. When prosecutors have sought assistance in a case, the Archive has searched its data-based collections of declassified U.S. documents amassed through years of research, archival sleuthing, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Archive collections can take three, five, ten, even twenty years to build because of the staggering delays in the federal classification and public access system.
Research on human rights violations in El Salvador dates back to the very founding of the National Security Archive in 1985. At that time, two journalists – Scott Armstrong, formerly of The Washington Post, and Raymond Bonner of The New York Times – each donated boxes of declassified records on El Salvador that they had independently accumulated during their careers as investigative reporters. Bonner was one of three American journalists to tell the world what happened in the village of El Mozote after soldiers had massacred hundreds of its residents in 1981. Armstrong was the founding director of the Archive. Their material became part of the Archive’s first published collection, El Salvador: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1984.
Since then, the Archive’s El Salvador Documentation Project has filed hundreds of FOIA requests and gathered tens of thousands of declassified documents on El Salvador’s bloody civil war, U.S. policy, Salvadoran security forces, the armed revolutionary groups of the FMLN, and notorious human rights crimes such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre, as well as the brutal slaying of the Jesuit priests. The records derive from the U.S. government national security and foreign policy agencies: the State Department and its embassy in San Salvador, the Pentagon and its intelligence division known as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America, the CIA, and the FBI.
The El Salvador Documentation Project provided many of these records to the United Nations Truth Commission when it was created in 1992 to investigate El Salvador’s human rights catastrophe. Truth Commission investigators eventually determined that the order to kill the Jesuits came from the military’s chief of staff, Col. Emilio Ponce, at a meeting of the high command on November 15, 1989. At that meeting, which Col. Montano attended, according to the Truth Commission report, “Colonel Ponce called over Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides and, in front of the four other officers, ordered him to eliminate Father Ellacuria and to leave no witnesses.”
The Clinton administration responded to the Truth Commission by ordering the declassification of more than 1,000 documents, but too late for the Commission's proceedings. The Archive indexed and published this collection and it, along with the Archive's first published compilation on El Salvador mentioned above, is now part of the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) from ProQuest.
Since 2009, the Archive has collaborated with CJA’s former international lawyer Almudena Bernabeu – now the co-founder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers – along with human rights lawyer Patty Blum, El Salvador expert Professor Emeritus Terry Karl, and Spanish lawyer Manuel Ollé Sese to identify the most important documents pertinent to the Jesuit case and incorporate them into the prosecution’s strategy. The ongoing trial in the National Court in Madrid is the culmination of the decades of collective efforts by this team of human rights lawyers and advocates, as well as many others, among them colleagues of the Jesuits at the UCA and their families.
To provide a sense of the content and quality of the documentation submitted as evidence in the Jesuit case, the Archive today is posting a representative sampling of six declassified records: