Two women hope testimony leads to conviction in El Salvador's 1989 Jesuit priest massacre

"It really takes a lot in a Catholic country to kill a priest," Terry Lynn Karl said. "You have to turn your enemies into subhumans—this is what the top commanders did."

Catholic faithful participate in a procession to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, five other Jesuit priests and two employees at Central American University in San Salvador on Nov. 14, 2015.Marvin Recinos / AFP - Getty Images file

The killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter in El Salvador in 1989 put a focus on the country's 12-year civil war and outraged human rights activists all over the world. Now, two American women — a Stanford University professor and a national security analyst — hope the declassified documents they helped present as evidence in a Spanish court will bring justice 31 years later.

"It really takes a lot in a Catholic country to kill a priest. You have to lay the groundwork," said Terry Lynn Karl, a Stanford University political scientist and Latin American studies professor emeritus. "You have to turn your enemies into subhumans, guerrillas, the heads of a guerilla group, and plant the idea that if you kill them, the war will be over. This is what the top commanders did."

Karl, who researched the notorious massacre over the last three decades, testified July 13 via video as an expert witness for a National Court trial in Madrid that has brought murder and terrorism charges against Inocente Orlando Montano, a former Salvadoran colonel and ex-deputy defense minister who was extradited from the U.S. to Spain in 2017.

Karl told a panel of Spanish judges that the Jesuits had been targeted by El Salvador's high military command.

"These murders were premeditated, and they were a long time coming," Karl said. "I documented 34 pages of single-spaced attacks against the Catholic Church since 1977. So there was no accident in the identification of the Jesuit priests as leaders of the FMLN." The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a leftist guerrilla group, fought the Salvadoran military during the 12-year civil war.

Karl said that two days before the killing, members of an elite military group, the Atlacatl Battalion, had done a "cateo," or targeted reconnaissance, of the priests' residence at the prestigious Central American University in San Salvador, the country's capital. The members of the battalion did not survey the rest of the campus. The New York Times reported that the priests were dragged out of their beds and shot in the head with high-powered rifles, "apparently of the same type issued by the army."

"On the night of Nov. 15, the military high command and the top military commanders met together and made a unanimous decision to go after and kill the leaders of the FMLN — if this decision were not countermanded by then-President Alfredo Cristiani," Karl said in an interview. "As the top officers had done repeatedly, they identified several Jesuit priests — especially Father Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the Catholic university — as one of the leaders of the FMLN, which he was not."

After the Salvadoran government passed an amnesty law in 1993 that made it difficult to investigate and prosecute human rights cases, Spain applied the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to take up the Jesuits' case because five of the slain priests were Spanish citizens. The international human rights law says unresolved war crimes or crimes against humanity can be tried by other countries, even when they happen outside their borders.

Karl relied on declassified archival documents to help prosecutors identify what can and cannot be used as evidence. She compared them with different sources, including testimony, case records, a truth commission report from 1993 and other published histories. If Montano is convicted, he could face up to 150 years in prison.

"Expert witnesses are not sexy, because we do not make the headlines. We are not the lawyers," Karl said, "but we can be the witnesses that perpetrators are most afraid of, because documents and historical interpretation speak volumes."

Digging up the documents' trail

Kate Doyle, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University, testified July 10 via video as a fact witness in the Jesuit case for the National Court in Madrid. She was called to authenticate the declassified documents, which Karl later interpreted and put into context with other sources.

Doyle said the role of national security analysts like her is changing from scholarly projects that focus on the history of government policies to collaborating on human rights cases with experts from all over the world.

"We now work with archivists, human rights advocates, truth commission investigators, with prosecutors looking into human rights criminal cases, and all kinds of individuals and state institutions trying to clarify periods of state repression and human rights violence with the help of declassified U.S. documents," Doyle said.

Part of her work is explaining to magistrates around the world where the declassified documents come from and how prosecutors got them.

"I've testified many times over the years, not just in this Jesuit trial in Spain, but also in the trial against [former President Alberto] Fujimori for crimes against humanity in Peru and a number of trials in Guatemala," Doyle said. "Essentially it's a matter of explaining to the courts how the declassification process works and why a nongovernmental organization like the National Security Archive would be able to obtain these records."

Doyle said national security analysts use the Freedom of Information Act to identify and obtain secret archives from government agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Department, the State Department and U.S. embassies.

In the case of the Jesuits, these documents have given prosecutors a valuable snapshot of what was being said behind closed doors.

"The documents were written by firsthand witnesses to this moment in time, to this particular place and to many of the individuals who are accused of this crime or victimized by this crime," she said. "We're talking about the ambassador, the political officers, the deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy. We're talking about defense attachés who talked with the military every day in El Salvador. We're talking about the CIA, who gathered intelligence from barrooms to the national palace."

While human rights advocates hope the case in Spain will compel El Salvador's political and legal systems to seek justice at home, they hope this could be a landmark case for universal jurisdiction.

"These cases send a universal message to the killers, the fingernail pullers, the kidnappers in repressive regimes around the world that perhaps your country is not willing to go after you, but the world is watching," Doyle said, "and there are countries, people, places, lawyers, organizations and a community of human rights advocates who are going to hunt you down and prosecute you."

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