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Spain Starts Trial Of Former Salvadoran Officer Over Killing Of Jesuit Priests

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It was one of the most notorious atrocities of El Salvador's 12-year-long civil war. More than 30 years ago, a Salvadoran military battalion raided a Jesuit university and brutally killed six priests, a housekeeper and her daughter. A few officers have been convicted, but they were released over the years amid truth commissions and amnesties. Now a court in Spain is set to rule on charges of murder and state terrorism in a trial that raises hopes for justice decades after the Jesuits were killed. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Nov. 16, 1989 - the news was shocking. The murders spurred international outrage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Six Jesuit priests from Central American University were tortured and murdered.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Six Jesuit Roman Catholic priests were tortured and assassinated.

AMOS: One of the dead included the university's rector, Ignacio Ellacuria. He was a noted philosopher. He actively promoted dialogue with the leftist guerrillas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Since the early 1980s, such well-known figures internationally have been off-limits for death squads.

AMOS: The days before the murders, Army Radio had broadcast threats against these priests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Said one Western diplomat, this was done if not by the army, then certainly by people who have the freedom of movement. The government, however, has blamed the guerrillas.

AMOS: Five of the murdered priests were Spanish citizens. Now 30 years later, a panel of Spanish judges heard the details of that day. The main defendant, Orlando Montano, in his late '70s, sat in Madrid's national court in a wheelchair. The former high-ranking Salvadoran military officer is charged with ordering the executions of the priests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

AMOS: The Spanish court provided a livestream of the proceedings. Thousands watched Montano dismiss the evidence. He said it was a pack of lies. Now a panel of Spanish judges will decide on his guilt and could sentence him to 150 years in jail.

MARTHA DOGGETT: The long arc of justice is very much a long-term project.

AMOS: That's Martha Doggett. In El Salvador, the day of the murders, she documented the case in her book "Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders In El Salvador."

DOGGETT: I think this is a wound in El Salvador that has never properly healed, and I think it won't until the full truth is known.

AMOS: And, says Doggett, the full truth is important for an American audience, too.

DOGGETT: We own this story together - we the United States and El Salvador - 'cause we paid such a big role in the matter.

AMOS: The U.S. provided more than $1 billion just in military aid to El Salvador, a cold war conflict that ended in 1992. Experts say the death of the Jesuits marked a turning point in the war.

TERRY KARL: And so U.S. policy changes with the murders of the Jesuits. It just was a huge crisis.

AMOS: That's Terry Karl, a political scientist who's researched the case for decades. She says the murders sparked a congressional investigation, calls for accountability for those who gave the orders. Karl handed the Spanish court dozens of documented threats published in newspapers and broadcast by Army Radio.

KARL: So one of the things I said in my testimony is that it is not easy in Latin America to kill a priest, OK? So you have to build a climate.

AMOS: Another witness - Luis Parada. An intelligence officer at the time, he told the judges he heard officers report back that the priests were dead on an internal army radio, which he recalled for NPR.

LUIS PARADA: I knew the military had done it, and I did not know the military was going to try to cover it up. It did not cross my mind.

AMOS: Parada's testimony, via video link from his home in Washington, was significant - one former military officer testifying against another.

PARADA: I saw it as my duty. And you know, I - just like some people live by a code of silence, I live by a code of honor.

AMOS: The defendant had also been living in the U.S. until the State Department extradited him to Spain in 2017. But Montano sat alone in the courtroom. El Salvador refused to hand over more than a dozen officers also charged in the Jesuit murders.

KARL: This trial should be in El Salvador. Justice is closest always to where the crime was committed.

AMOS: A trove of declassified U.S. documents is now part of the court record. In 1991, a secret cable from the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador condemns the country's military leadership for, quote, "resisting an honest accounting of what they possessed from the beginning - the truth."

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CCFX SONG, "THE ONE TO WAIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.