Extradition request threatens to reopen civil war wounds in El Salvador

Nine former military officials are fighting extradition to Spain over the killings of six Jesuits during El Salvador's civil war. Salvadoran opinion is divided over whether to reopen old wounds.

Luis Galdamez/Reuters
A Salvadoran woman looks at a banner with pictures of Salvadorans killed during the civil war in El Salvador, at a protest to ask for the extradition of nine former soldiers of the Salvadoran military accused of involvement in the 1989 killing of five Spanish and one Salvadoran Jesuit priests during the country's civil war, in San Salvador August 12, 2011.

At various times El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, former President Alfredo Cristiani, the business association ANEP, and others have voiced their concerns about the potential consequences of extraditing the nine former military officials involved in the murder of the Central American University (UCA) martyrs or opening old wounds in the Salvadoran courts. Gerardo Arbaiza at Contrapunto begins to tackle the question of what happens if El Salvador does not.

What happens to El Salvador's relationship with Spain? Spain is one of El Salvador's largest foreign aid donors. Between 2006 and 2009, Spain donated over $200 million to fund a variety of development projects in the country. The Spanish government has supported projects related to the courts, government institutions, and NGOs that could be adversely affected by how El Salvador handles the proceedings. And it's not just relations with Spain; a decision by El Salvador to not do anything about the alleged war criminals might have reverberations throughout the rest of the European Union.

Benjamin Cuellar at the UCA says that whatever decision the court makes might affect how El Salvador is seen throughout the world, especially given what has been going on in Guatemala where the administration of President Alvaro Colom has taken important strides to advance the cause of justice by arresting and bringing perpetrators of civil war massacres before the courts. How bad does it look for El Salvador when its neighboring "failed state" is strong enough to bring human rights violators before the courts? That says nothing about the trials that have been held or are ongoing in Argentina, Peru, and Chile.

As I said the other day, I hope that Spain's judicial proceedings will kick start a process in El Salvador. Not everyone who committed a human rights violation before and during the conflict has to spend the rest of their life in prison, but there needs to be a good faith effort on the part of the government to hold the intellectual authors of the violence to account.

And I said much of the same thing two years ago on the twentieth anniversary of the Jesuit murders.

While I am not convinced that the accused will ever see a Spanish courtroom, I am somewhat hopeful that the Spanish investigation as well as Funes' election will help to restart a movement in El Salvador to deal with the human rights violations committed during the 1970s and 1980s...

I have no idea whether Funes' intentions are to recognize previous administrations' culpability in these two crimes and leave it at that or to use these two cases to rally support for a repeal of the 1993 amnesty law and a more comprehensive reconciling of past acts. However, the actions on the part of the Spanish judge might put pressure on El Salvador to pursue an accounting of the past similar to what happened to Augusto Pinochet in Chile. While the attempt to extradite Pinochet from Britain to Spain to face trial failed, the movement to prosecute Pinochet in Chile gained momentum as a result. President Funes' two acts and that of Spanish judge Velasco Núñez might start El Salvador down a similar path.

Pressure from the international community and civil society might provide Funes with political cover to backtrack on his campaign promise not to push the Legislative Assembly to revoke the amnesty law.

I hope that the actions taken by the Spanish judge, judicial proceedings in Guatemala, support from US congressmen and senators (in addition to disgust brought upon by the knowledge that former Col. Inocente Orlando Montano lives in Massachusetts), and President Barack Obama's August 4th proclamation that makes it more difficult for human rights violators to enter the United States gives the Salvadoran courts and politicians the international support needed to reopen those wounds that never did heal.

--- Mike Allison is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. You can follow his Central American Politics blog here.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.