Seeking justice for victims across borders
The nonprofit group CJA tracks down those who commit crimes in one country and flee to another – and hauls them into court.
Last August, federal agents in Massachusetts arrested a man in his late 60s. The man, Inocente Montano, had lived quietly north of Boston since 2002. Then, in May, Mr. Montano, who had been a military officer in El Salvador in the 1980s, was indicted by a judge in Spain for his involvement in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests and two women during the civil war. Now Montano endures home detention, facing US charges, held by one government and wanted by another.Skip to next paragraph
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American law enforcement has arrested hundreds of people like Montano – foreign former military commanders or officials now living in the United States despite involvement abroad in torture, extrajudicial killings, or other serious human rights abuses. These hundreds are dwarfed by the survivors around the world who are themselves victims of such acts or are relatives of the abused or dead.
For many survivors it has been decades since they were harmed. They have been denied by politics or corruption any redress in their home countries. Their histories show that one consequence of war is that peace may offer no justice.
A small San Francisco-based nonprofit organization called the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) works to find a measure of justice – and, just as importantly, truth – for such victims.
“So often what happens in cases involving state-sanctioned violence is the state also hides any evidence,” says Pamela Merchant, the CJA’s director. “It’s hugely important for survivors to have their stories acknowledged at all.”
Montano was named in a 1993 United Nations report on human rights abuses during the Salvadoran war. It was the CJA that in 2008 first filed a criminal complaint in Spain for the Jesuits’ killings (20 people were included in the May indictments). It was the CJA that in August publicized Montano's presence outside Boston and his military past.
As part of a criminal investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations arrested Montano that month. He was charged in November with making false statements on an immigration application and perjury. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly described the independent investigations of the CJA and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that lead up to the arrest of Mr. Montano..]
“Most of our cases are civil litigation – often we never see any money [from judgments]; it’s more about [having] your day in court and confronting the atrocity and the abuser, and having the opportunity to tell the truth,” Ms. Merchant says.
Along with pro bono counsel, the CJA (with just 10 employees) has won millions of dollars in judgments for its clients and has brought the importance of human rights to the attention of American politicians and news media.
Even in victory, though, the CJA’s cases often depict a dismaying reality: After a war, peace, no matter how welcome, can fail to deliver justice and transparency.