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Decades Later, Lawyer Still Fights to Bring Salvadoran Priests’ Murderers to Justice


he road to justice is often long and tortured.

On March 25, Almudena Bernabeu, director of transitional justice at the Center for Justice and Accountability, spoke at Fordham about her pursuit of justice for a particularly infamous crime: the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits and two women in El Salvador.

The massacre, which was carried out by the Salvadoran army, happened during a civil war between the nation’s ruling government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that had been raging since 1980.

Nine officers were tried in 1991, but only two were convicted—and both were freed two years later when the country passed a blanket amnesty law.

Bernabeu noted that even though the FMLN ascended to power with the 2009 election of Mauricio Funes to the Salvadoran presidency, the 22 people responsible for the Jesuits’ and civilians’ deaths are still free and living in various countries. Acting on the principle of universal justice, Bernabeu and her colleagues have been fighting to have them extradited to Spain, where they were convicted of the murders and where five of the victims were citizens.

For years, the Salvadoran people had little faith that justice was ever going to be achieved in the case, she said.

However, that changed in 2004, when Álvaro Rafael Saravia, the architect of another political assassination—the 1980 murder of San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero—was tracked down in Modesto, Calif., convicted under the U. S. Alien Tort Statute, and ordered to pay $10 million in restitution.

“That was the case—this tiny civil litigation in Modesto– that could really engage the Salvadoran people. They started paying attention and there was that huge transformation,” she said.

In 2008, the local community in El Salvador was ready to try again, and in May 2011, the Spanish high court ruled against 20 Salvadoran members of the military, and ordered their immediate arrest. Getting them extradited, however, is another matter, she said.

“We found that one of them was living happily ever after, as they say, in Everett, Massachusetts, right next to the office of the Boston Globe,” she said.

“So I thought the best way to expose him was to call the paper and tell them, ‘I have a local angle for you. One of the killers of the Jesuits [is]living a couple blocks from you.’”

He was arrested on immigration fraud and now faces the possibility of extradition to Spain.

Bernabeu said the United States is not an easy partner to work with on this issue because its use of the death penalty makes European countries leery of two-way extradition treaties. And extraditing criminals from their home countries is also hard; El Salvador recently turned down a request to extradite members of that group of 22.

Still, the energy and perseverance of the victim’s families inspires her to press forward, she said.

“I’m a true believer that these universal jurisdiction efforts are good and should survive, but we all know that the ideal would be that the courts and tribunals in the home countries where the violations take place will be able to provide justice for their people,” she said

Her talk was co-sponsored by the Columbia University Seminar on Latin America, Fordham’s Latin American and Latino Studies Institute (LALSI), and Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA).


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