El Salvador moves to arrest those accused of murdering the Jesuits

In a surprising move, the Salvadoran PNC arrested four soldiers wanted in connection with the murders of the Jesuits in 1989. Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno and soldiers Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Perez Vasquez and Tomas Zarpate Castillo were taken into custody. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren asked the remaining suspects (?) to turn themselves in although it was an oddly worded announcement.

“There are people who have hidden; we don’t know if they have left the country, but my recommendation is that they turn themselves in to justice,” he said. “We need to know the truth about what happened in the past, but we also need justice as well as pardon.”

Had not the charges against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt been played out in the Spanish legal system for years, I don’t think that you would have seen the case pick up steam in Guatemala once he lost his immunity.

The same can really be said for the legal process against Augusto Pinochet. Following his arrest in London at the behest of Spanish authorities, human rights advocates struggling to take him to court in Chile were given new life.

In El Salvador’s case, we’ve had the legal charges against former military officers moving through the Spanish system for the last several years. Judge Velasco tried to get the soldiers extradited once before but the Salvadoran courts, politicians, and military were not interested in playing along. I didn’t think that they would this time either. However, the PNC has now moved against four suspects. The president might support their efforts (justice?) or he might not (pardon?).

Holding the Salvadoran military responsible for the murders of the Jesuits is one step closer to becoming a reality. With the last Interpol notice in summer 2011, the country’s Supreme Court refused to order the detention of the soldiers. Now that they have been arrested, the Supreme Court must rule if they are to be extradited to Spain to stand trial.

In my opinion, the political system is calmer today than in summer 2011 when Salvadorans were confronted with the same choice. Decree 743 had the citizens up in arms as politicians tried to neuter the court. While some argue that is has taken a rightward turn since then, I am more inclined to think that it has become more independent. That’s good news and also makes today’s situation different than 2011.

The military? Well, from what I remember, the accused sought sanctuary on military installations the last time. President Sanchez Ceren’s statement makes it sound as if he has no idea where they are. The right and the military have been firmly against “reopening” wounds from the war.

The likely extradition of Inocente Montano from the United States to Spain and the arrests of the four soldiers in El Salvador are signs of progress in terms of transitional justice. I don’t know where this is going to end so stay tuned.