Inocente Orlando Montano, a former colonel in the army of El Salvador, is currently standing trial in Spain for the 1989 murders of six Jesuits, a housekeeper and her daughter at a Catholic university.
Montano has been charged with planning the murder of the eight victims but has pleaded not guilty.
The trial resumed in Madrid on July 8, with the hearing set to conclude next week on Wednesday, July 22.
Last week, Yushy René Mendoza, previously a lieutenant in El Salvador’s army, testified that his superior at the time, Colonel Guillermo Benavides, told soldiers on the eve of the murders to target the Spanish Jesuit Fr Ignacio Ellacuria. Fr Ellacuria was then rector of the Central American University in San Salvador and had played a prominent role in coordinating peace talks during the Salvadoran civil war.
Mendoza said that Colonel Benavides delivered his orders following a meeting of the high command, which would have included Montano.
“Benavides told me that he had to execute the order that had been received and Montano was one of the persons that gave the order to eliminate Ellacuria. He told me that several times,” Mendoza told the court.
“He told us the situation of the country was critical because the guerrilla group was well positioned and, to counteract it, a decision had been made to take drastic measures because, if not, the war would be lost.”
Mendoza also claimed that the then Salvadoran president, Alfredo Cristiani, had “approved” the assassination of the Jesuits.
Mendoza then insisted that, whilst he himself was among the soldiers entering the university, he neither shot anyone nor witnessed anyone being shot. He did, however, recount finding the housekeeper and her daughter “almost cut in two by bullets”.
On July 9, the court also heard from Fr José María Tojeira, who was Jesuit provincial in Central America at the time and who had also served as rector at the university. Fr Tojeira rejected the claim that Central American University was “a nest of communists”, adding that even military officers would send their children there.
In response to Mendoza’s requests for forgiveness for not having prevented the murders, Fr Tojeira said: “We are Jesuits. We have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and it’s that attitude: Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
This week the court heard from expert witness Terry Lynn Karl, a professor at Stanford University in California. Testifying on July 13, Karl described the murders as “premeditated” because they were preceded by a campaign to discredit the Jesuits in particular and the Catholic Church as a whole.
“I’m going to say first that it was an attack against the church, the Jesuits and mainly against Fr Ellacuria,” Karl said.
“It started in 1977 in El Salvador and was a constant attack. I have an appendix of 34 attacks against the church that I sent to Colonel Montano’s trial, showing these constant attacks,” Karl said, adding that “Montano himself carried out many of these attacks.”
Karl’s evidence agreed with Mendoza’s previous testimony on the point of the high command’s collective decision to kill Fr Ellacuria. “The decision to kill a person of such prestige is not taken … without the consensus of the high command,” she said.
Karl added her disappointment that the trial had been left to the Spanish court. “This trial should be in El Salvador,” she said. “It’s incredible that the people involved and named in the trial are members of congress, have positions of honour, have a lot of money, and there is no justice.”