A former military official from El Salvador accused of involvement in the “terrorist murders” of six Jesuit priests and two others will be sent from the United States to Spain to stand trial for his alleged war crimes, after a historic ruling today by a federal judge in North Carolina.
As the former El Salvadoran Vice Minister of Public Security, in 1989 Col. Orlando Montano Morales allegedly plotted along with 19 other military officials the massacre of the priests at a Jesuit university in El Salvador, as well as a housekeeper and her teenage daughter who happened to be there. Spanish officials, along with the U.S.-based nonprofit Center for Justice and Accountability, want to hold Montano held accountable because five of the six Jesuit priests were Spanish.
For more than a decade and a half, Montano evaded justice by hiding in plain sight in the Boston area and working at a local candy factory. Officials said Montano was eventually arrested by Homeland Security Investigations agents in 2012 and served 21 months for lying to immigration officials in order to obtain protected status in the U.S. — he had originally claimed he never served in the El Salvadoran military. A U.S. official said that Montano was nabbed as he was trying to return to El Salvador where amnesty laws could have protected him from Spanish courts.
He was scheduled to be released last April, but was held in North Carolina until a ruling on his extradition could be made.
The former Colonel would be the first military official extradited to Spain to face the charges related to the massacre. Local amnesty laws have shielded the 19 other defendants accused alongside him, a U.S. official said.
According to court records, the Jesuits were targeted because of their support of leftist guerilla group FMLN during a bloody internecine war. In 1989 peace negotiations between El Salvador and the rebels had begun with a Jesuit priest named Father Ignacio Ellacuria acting as an intermediary.
Ellacuria then became a target for the Salvadoran government in a crime that Spanish officials said Montano helped orchestrate.
“The day before the murders, Montano Morales also allegedly participated in a series of meetings during which one of his fellow officers gave the order to kill the leader of the Jesuits and leave no witnesses,” as the Department of Justice described the conspiracy in 2015. The other seven people killed that morning, it appears, were collateral damage for the purported assassination.
Montano is also accused of allegedly threatening the wife of a witness to the slaughter, “Do not repeat that again. Remember that this is a time of war and in such time anything can happen to anyone, including you,” according to court records.
It’s unclear when he will be removed from the United States.
Michele McPhee is a Boston-based freelance journalist and frequent contributor to ABC News.