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Former Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani charged in connection with 1989 Jesuit massacre

  • Former President Alfredo Cristiani of El Salvador has been formally charged by prosecutors in connection with the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and two others.
  • Prosecutors allege that Cristiani was present at a meeting where the killings were authorized during the country’s civil war.
  • A Spanish court previously sentenced a former Salvadoran colonel to 133 years in prison for the priests’ killings, describing it as “state terrorism” driven by powerful interests.

Prosecutors in El Salvador say they have evidence that former President Alfredo Cristiani was present at a meeting that approved the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and two others by soldiers.

Prosecutors who announced the case against Cristiani last year presented formal charges against the former president at an arraignment hearing late Monday, saying the plot to kill the Jesuits during the country’s 1980-1992 civil war went all the way to the top.

Cristiani, who left El Salvador in 2021 and whose whereabouts are unknown, has always denied knowledge of or involvement in the killings, which shocked the world.

Prosecutors said that not only did Cristiani know about and approve the 1989 killings, he also held a phone call to reassure one of the priests before he was murdered.

“The investigations reveal that former President Alfredo Cristiani was present at the meeting where the crime was coordinated and authorized,” the prosecutors wrote in a statement.

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One of the murdered priests, Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, had several phone calls with Cristiani before soldiers burst into the Central American University, the UCA, where the Jesuits lived. According to the prosecution, Cristiani told Ellacuría “he should not worry about the raid being carried out at the UCA, and asked him to remain calm and stay where he was.”

Cristiani and seven of the country’s top-ranking military officers at the time face charges of homicide, conspiracy and terrorism in the case.

El Salvador

Catholics take part in a mass at the Central America University in San Salvador, 16 Nov. 2005 to commemorate the XVI anniversary of the massacre of six Spanish Jesuits and their maid and her daughter by the Salvadorean Army in 1989 during the strongest offensive of the last civil war in El Salvador.  (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Prosecutors say lawyer and former legislator Rodolfo Parker falsified the officers’ statements during a previous military trial.

A general amnesty passed in 1993 during Cristiani’s administration had prevented pursuit of those involved in war crimes until it was repealed in 2016.

Prosecutors had previously alleged that Cristiani knew of the military’s plan to eliminate the priests and did nothing to stop them. In a statement released in 2022 by Cristiani’s daughter, the former leader denied the allegations.

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“The truth is I never knew of the plans they had to commit those killings,” Cristiani said at the time. “They never informed me nor asked for my authorization because they knew that I would never have authorized that that Father Ellacuría or his brothers were harmed.”

Cristiani left El Salvador in June 2021 after appearing before a special congressional panel investigating overpayments to former government officials.

On Nov. 16, 1989, an elite commando unit killed the six priests — five Spaniards and one Salvadoran — along with their housekeeper and the housekeeper’s daughter in the priests’ residence. The killers tried to make the massacre appear as though it had been carried out by leftist guerrillas.

Nine members of the military were initially put on trial, but a court absolved seven of them. Two officers served short sentences, but were released in 1993 under the amnesty. After the Supreme Court found the amnesty unconstitutional, a judge ordered one of those officers, Col. Guillermo Benavides, back to prison where he remains.

While the case stalled at home, a Spanish court in 2020 sentenced former Salvadoran Col. Inocente Orlando Montano to 133 years for the priests’ killings. The court called the massacre “state terrorism” carried out by powerful interests, including Cristiani, aimed at “holding onto their positions of privilege within the power structures.”

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