Reflections on this historic ruling on 1989 murder of Jesuits, with insights from the Martín-Baró Initiative Advisory Committee
Grassroots International joins with movements for justice in El Salvador, Spain and across the globe in welcoming news of the conviction of Inocente Orlando Montano, former Salvadoran colonel involved in the murders of six Jesuit priests and two women, a housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter, at their lodgings in the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989. The conviction holds special meaning for all of us at Grassroots International as a demonstration of hope that justice prevails, and because of our special connection with one of those murdered: Ignacio Martín-Baró, whose namesake initiative we are honored to manage.
The six priests – five originally from Spain and one Salvadoran – had been working toward the peace process in El Salvador during the country’s bloody civil war of the 1980s. Grassroots International board member M. Brinton Lykes, Professor of Community-Cultural Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, explains that:
“It is widely known and well-documented that the U.S. government provided more than $1 billion in military aid to El Salvador during the war in large part because the rhetoric and policies from Washington saw it as one front in the fight against the spread of communism. More than 75,000 people were killed, 8,000 disappeared and more than a million displaced. The conflict ended in 1992 with a United Nations-brokered peace agreement. As is clear, it has been decades of hard work, political resistance, and social movements’ persistence in El Salvador and beyond to bring this case forward, and a wonderful albeit limited victory for justice.”
The court ruling, which took place on September 11, 2020 in Madrid after a lengthy process involving Montano’s extradition from the US to Spain in 2017, is significant on multiple levels. First, it is deeply meaningful to the families of the victims and the movements who have been working to bring justice to this case for more than 30 years. As stressed by documentary filmmaker Patricia Goudvis, “Coming to terms with and healing from a civil war is a long road. This judgement removes one small roadblock on that path.”
Second, it is an example of the effective exercising of “universal jurisdiction” for human rights crimes, in which a crime committed in one country (in this case, El Salvador) is investigated and tried in another country (in this case, Spain). Professor Lykes explains that “this can be an effective resource when the legal and political systems in the country in which the crimes took place fail.”
Justice delayed and deferred is still justice, even if in Spain rather than in El Salvador… it demonstrates that “universal jurisdiction” for crimes against humanity can be an effective resource when the legal and political systems in the country in which the crimes took place fail. – M. Brinton Lykes
Third, while this victory is partial (Montano is only one of the intellectual authors of these brutal killings and the case only convicts him for the murders of the Spanish victims while recognizing his role in the murders of the Salvadoran victims), it is a major step forward. It is hoped that the ruling can serve as a stepping stone toward greater justice both for this particular case and for other related atrocities that took place in El Salvador, including by shedding light on US involvement in them. It is also hoped that it will serve as inspiration to those engaged in long-fought battles for justice elsewhere.
This win is also meaningful to Grassroot International on a direct level in that it connects to our work to keep the legacy of the victims alive through the Martín-Baró Initiative (MBI), named after Ignacio Martín-Baró, who was among the six Jesuit priests murdered. The Spanish-born professor specialized in social psychology and worked among people deeply marred by what he called psychosocial trauma, violence and repression.
Joan Liem, Professor Emerita of Psychology at UMass-Boston, explains that “For the past 30 years, the MBI (formerly the MB Fund) has been raising money and providing small grants to community-based projects around the world that do mental health and human rights work in the tradition of Ignacio’s principles of liberation psychology.” She adds that, “While the grants the MBI provides are small, they support innovative projects that foster healing within communities by raising social consciousness, increasing awareness of human rights, supporting active resistance, and strengthening community in places affected by state-sponsored violence, repression, and social injustice.” What the dozens of grassroots organizations funded by the MBI over the years all share, according to Patricia Goudvis, is “a commitment to putting into practice Ignacio’s belief that as long as communities and societies are not healthy and well, the individuals within them will suffer.”
In reflecting on the legacy of Ignacio Martín-Baró, Professor Lykes shares that:
“Ignacio challenged psychologists to build a new people and a new society, from the base of people’s experiences… He also challenged us to recognize the normal abnormality of polarized life, that is, to acknowledge that it is not us as humans who are ‘sick’ or ‘mentally ill,’ but the society is ruptured and we need to challenge the discourse that labels people rather than interrogates systemic injustice of our systems and those in power who use their power against the majority. He urged us to de-ideologize dominant knowledge systems and to lift up the knowledges, practices, and wisdoms of ‘el pueblo’ or ‘the people’ – and that is a call from a growing number of social movements today.”
Also on Ignacio’s legacy, Ramsay Liem, professor emeritus of psychology and visiting scholar at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, reflects that:
“Ignacio instinctively understood the power of corrupt social systems and institutions to dictate the fate of all members of society – the privileged and the oppressed. He showed us how a repressive state could create a culture of ‘us vs. them’ that in turn could justify all manner of heinous crimes against the Salvadoran people. Were he with us today he would have much to teach us about our own state of affairs north of the border – systemic racism, the 1% vs, 99%, the West (U.S.) vs. the rest.”
Professor Liem adds that “Atrocious injustices, especially those abetted by our own government, are rarely if ever brought to light, let alone redressed. Many thanks to all those who have persisted in fighting for the truth of the 1989 murders at the University of Central America and this first victory in bringing the perpetrators to justice.” We echo these sentiments and hope that this news provides strength and inspiration to those involved in ongoing work for justice in the face of atrocities past and present.