Michael Busch

Last month, a court in Spain issued a request for the arrest of seventeen former military officers connected to crimes committed during El Salvador's civil war. The soldiers in question are accused of participating in the November 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, a woman, and her teenaged daughter at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador.  Five of the priests who were murdered in the operation were Spanish citizens. 

In the past, calls for justice in this case and others have been slapped down by the Salvadoran Supreme Court. A 1992 amnesty law negotiated following the end of the civil war has offered war criminals in the country protection from having to pay for past deeds. In the case of the UCA massacre, the Salvadoran high court has rejected attempts by Spanish authorities to have the soldiers extradited to Europe in order to stand trial. But the end of this blanket amnesty appears to be at hand.

This weekend, the Salvadoran government took action. According to Reuters, four of the wanted soldiers were detained "in a Friday night operation," carried out by government forces, who promised to continue hunting "for twelve other suspects who remain at large." At the same time, another former officer, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, faced more immediate extradition by the United States-where he's been living since 2001-for his role in the massacre. 

The Associated Press reports that 

Federal Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank ordered that US Marshals take custody of Montano so he can be turned over to Spain, pending final approval by [the] State Department..."In short, the government's evidence shows [Montano] was a decision-maker and member of a group of officers who collectively ordered the unlawful killings of Jesuit priests," Swank wrote.

Swank also accused Montano of threatening witnesses of the crime and their families following the massacre, which the government initially pinned on guerilla rebels. At least 1,100 other human rights abuses committed under Montano's command have also been identified.

While Montano's appears destined for a European courtroom, the fate of the officers seems less certain. Following the arrests of the four officers, El Salvador's president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, called on the remaining officers to turn themselves in wherever they may be hiding, and hinted that a pardon might be in the offing. Sanchez Ceren noted that "We need to have the truh told about what happened in the past. But we also need forgiveness."

Salvadoran officials have made clear their intention to ensure justice in this case. The country's Human Rights Ombudsman told reporters last month that "there is an obligation to prosecute these acts and, in the absence of domestic justice, there is an obligation to collaborate with the legal process that the Spanish National Court is leading in this case." Whether those arrested on Friday will join Montano in a Spanish jail cell, however, remains an open question.

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.