Judge Orders Attorney General to Reopen Jesuit Massacre Case

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On April 16, 2018, a judge in San Salvador ordered the Attorney General to reopen a case against high-ranking former military officers who are accused of orchestrating the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the Central American University Jose Simeon Cañas (UCA) in 1989, among them Chancellor Father Ignacio Ellacuria, who is thought to have been the main target of the killing. The Jesuit priests gained notoriety for denouncing the atrocities being committed by Salvadoran state forces, and, like the murder of Archbishop Monseñor Arnulfo Romero, their killings drew international attention to the repressive US-backed regime.

The April ruling came in response to a November 2017 petition by UCA representatives that the case be reopened. Along with the 1981 El Mozote massacre, it is one of the most high-profile human rights cases that has been brought forward following the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court’s July 2016 decision to strike down the 1993 Amnesty Law, which had previously prohibited the prosecution of war-time crimes.

Defense lawyers for the military officers, who were members of the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion, argued that the same charges against them had previously been dismissed in a trial that happened in 2000, in which former President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) was also named as an intellectual author. However, the judge ruled that the previous case was not valid and therefore that it was not “double jeopardy” to reopen it.

However, it remains to be seen when, or if, the Attorney General’s office, which is responsible for presenting new charges, will take up the case. As Carolyn Patty Blum, who worked on the case for years with the Center for Justice and Accountability recently told Americas magazine, “The federal prosecutor’s will is 100 percent the name of the game here. There has to be people in the ministry of justice who are willing to take [the restored investigation] seriously.”

In the coming months, the Legislative Assembly, where the right-wing has a strong majority following the March 4 legislative and municipal elections, will elect the next Attorney General to serve a three-year term. The current Attorney General, Douglas Meléndez, whom social movement organizations have criticized for ignoring more than 150 cases of past corruption under ARENA administrations that have been presented to his office and failing to effectively prosecute major cases like that of former President Paco Flores, is seeking re-election.

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