By Sarah Whites-Koditschek
On a gray January afternoon, Inocente Montano sat in the sunroom at his sister’s home in Saugus, Massachussetts. When I knocked on the door, he turned around in his chair to peer at me through the shutters.
His niece answered the door and said he would not give interviews.
It wasn’t surprising that he didn’t want to talk.
Monitored by GPS, Montano awaited a sentencing hearing for U.S. immigration fraud.
Montano pleaded guilty in federal court in 2012, and began serving a 21-month sentence at the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina on Friday, October 11. He now faces the possibility of extradition to Spain for allegedly masterminding the 1989 murders in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
In the early morning of November 16, 1989, a group of 50 Salvadoran soldiers surrounded the Pastoral Center at the University of Central America in San Salvador. The men pounded on the doors and windows of the compound with fists and pieces of wood. They yelled for the sleeping priests to come out.
One priest appeared on the balcony wearing a brown nightshirt. “Wait, I am coming to open the door,” he said, “but don’t keep making so much noise.”
Fathers Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno and Amando López were led in pajamas to their outdoor courtyard and told to lie in the grass. As Martha Doggett recounted in her book, “Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador,” a neighbor reportedly heard the priests murmuring prayers in unison before they were shot.
Indoors, soldiers shot Father Joaquín López y López, along with the priests’ housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter Celina. Soldiers later testified they returned to fire again at the two women who were moaning and embracing on the floor.
Before leaving, battalion members fired an anti-tank rocket and grenades and shot bullets into the pastoral center. They spray-painted slogans onto the walls of the gate in an attempt to implicate the country’s leftist guerillas: “The FMLN executed the enemy spies. Victory or Death, FMLN.”
Days earlier, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) had launched a major offensive against the military in San Salvador. Father Ellacuría had tried to negotiate a peace deal involving the ouster of top military officers.
Those officers were desperate.
The murders provoked international outrage.
A Fresh Look Back
El Salvador’s civil war raged between 1980 and 1991, and resulted in the deaths of 75,000 civilians. After decades of inaction in the name of moving forward, international legal efforts, from Spain to Costa Rica to El Salvador, may finally bring justice to victims of two of the most infamous crimes of the Salvadoran civil war: the Mozote massacre and the Jesuit murders.
In early September, El Salvador’s Attorney General announced plans to investigate the case of the 1981 Mozote massacre in which roughly 1,000 civilians were murdered. The move followed a 2012 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, that El Salvador’s 20-year-old amnesty law does not cover civil war crimes violating international law. The court said El Salvador should revisit the Mozote case.
The Salvadoran military officer responsible for the massacre, former Defense Minister General José Guillermo García, lived for two decades in Florida. García entered the United States in 1989 as a tourist and received political asylum. García was charged with immigration fraud in 2009. The charge was later dropped, but the case is proceeding under a provision that allows the government to remove anyone accused of assisting, ordering or participating in extrajudicial killings or torture.
In 2012, an immigration judge in Florida found former General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former defense minister in El Salvador, could be deported for participation in extrajudicial killings.
García, Vides and Montano sought safe havens in the United States. Only recently has the U.S. government begun to investigate the pasts of such human rights violators and ask how they ended up here.
As El Salvador’s Vice Minister of Defense and Public Safety from 1989 to 1992, Inocente Montano presided over a counterinsurgency campaign of torture and death. According to a 1993 United Nations human rights report, Montano was complicit in the 1989 murders. The report also implicated Montano in a cover-up of the crime.
In 2001, Montano was allowed to enter the U.S. as a tourist. He has lived here under his own name for nearly 12 years, under the shelter of legal protections intended for refugees.
In 2008, the Center for Justice and Accountability — a San Francisco-based nonprofit that seeks legal justice for victims of human rights abuses — filed the case of the Jesuit murders with the Spanish National Court. Since Spain recognized universal jurisdiction for human rights cases in 1985, Spanish courts have been trying human rights violations that occur in other countries.
A Spanish court indicted Montano and 19 other former officers and soldiers of the Salvadoran army in May 2011 for the Jesuit murders at the University of Central America. The court sought Montano’s extradition from the United States and the extradition of his fellow officers from El Salvador.
The extradition request is before the international affairs section of the Department of Justice, said Patty Blum, senior legal advisor at the Center for Justice and Accountability. Peter Carr, DOJ spokesman said the Department could not comment on the case.
The Spanish court cannot hear the case unless at least one of the accused appears in court. The fate of the case therefore rests on whether the United States decides to send Montano to Spain to face trial. For the United States, the request is an opportunity of sorts for national redemption, given its role in financing the “dirty wars” from the 1960s to the 1980s throughout Latin America. For decades, Salvadoran society was dominated by a small landowning oligarchy, often called the “fourteen families,” acting in a loose partnership with the military.
According to William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and author of the 1998 book, “Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992,” the United States spent $1 billion to sponsor the Salvadoran military’s brutal anti-guerilla campaign in the 1980.
Montano was born July 4, 1942, the oldest of five children in a family of moderate means in San Vicente, in central El Salvador.
In 1966, at the age of 22, Montano graduated from the Salvadoran National Military Academy, a member of the largest class in the history of the school. The class was nicknamed, La Tandona, “the large group.”
La Tandona members remained a cohesive unit as they rose through the ranks of the military. They became powerful and known for fierce loyalty to one another.
Montano’s military career followed a trajectory similar to other members of his class. He trained as an engineer and in 1968 began designing streets and schools.
Early in his career, Montano designed an irrigation system for peasant farmers in La Paz. He was credited with founding the Zacatecoluca Home for Children, an orphanage.
Terry Karl, a professor of political science and Latin American studies at Stanford University, said that she had not studied Zacatecoluca specifically. But many military-run orphanages and adoption facilities were the result of an acknowledged policy by senior officers in El Salvador at the time to “forcibly disappear” children in combat zones. Karl, who testified as an expert witness at Montano’s trial, said that these children were often taken from their parents, sometimes seized from the arms of their mothers. Some military officers and their civilian allies subsequently engaged in false adoptions–charging $20,000 per child. Many children disappeared from the area of the orphanage, she added.
“[In El Salvador] I earned the gratitude of many people,” Montano said later. “I was a military officer who kept up with his duties, not only military obligations but human obligations.”
According to Karl and news reports at the time, Montano’s subordinates committed gruesome crimes.
In a 1981 massacre that became known as the Well of Death, soldiers from Montano’s unit killed 23 soccer players after one drunkenly initiated an argument with military officers at a roadblock. Witnesses claimed the soldiers threw the men’s bodies into a well to conceal the murders.
As a public figure, Montano was not well liked by his countrymen. William Walker, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from 1988 until 1992, said, “I think he was generally seen as a rough and tough guy. He was seen as a police type. [He] looked the type.”
According to Karl, during the years Montano was Vice Minister of Public Safety, his subordinates were responsible for an estimated 498 incidents of torture, 23 extrajudicial killings, 47 disappearances, making a total of 1075 human rights violations.
Escape to Anonymity
At his immigration fraud sentencing last month in Boston, Montano told me that his life in Boston was unremarkable. “My life was normal,” he said. “Like any immigrant, I had a normal job.”
For nearly a decade, Montano lived quietly with his wife in the first-floor apartment of a square yellow house with white windowpanes on Irving Street in Everett, a small middle-class suburb of Boston. He worked in a nearby candy factory. His neighbors didn’t know that in 2001, he had fled El Salvador, where he was greatly feared.
Ana Perlera, Montano’s landlady of eight years, described Inocente and Maria Montano as a nice couple, “Very polite, very responsible. I never had a problem with him or his wife.” She often heard Maria outside, calling for her pet cat. On rare occasions, Inocente might ask Perlera about her young son, Jeffery. “Where is my friend Jeffery?” he would say.
During winter months, Montano volunteered to shovel the driveway. On Sundays, his landlady said, he and his wife attended mass at a nearby Catholic Church. He worked swing shift as a machine operator at the local NECCO wafer factory in Revere, outside Boston.
According to his supervisor, Manuel Amaral, Montano sometimes worked in the Mary Jane department, where workers made peanut butter chews. “He caught the candy and put it in a package. Twenty-four bags pack into one case, which goes in a carton and is put on pallet,” said Amaral.
“He had problems with his leg, but he did his job. I never had a problem with him.”
In 2008, Montano’s bladder was removed because of cancer. He required a colonoscopy bag and was put on medication for indigestion.
In 2011, Montano was charged with immigration fraud after people familiar with the case against him in Spain told authorities that Montano was living in the Boston area.
Unable to afford a lawyer, Montano spent nearly two years under house arrest with a GPS tracking device. In September 2012, he pleaded guilty to six charges of immigration fraud and perjury for lying about his military past on his applications for refugee benefits. In August of this year, Montano sat calmly through his sentencing hearing. He denied personal responsibility for the Jesuit killings and other human rights abuses.
“I don’t deny there were human rights violations by the military,” he said to the court. “The institution is made up of individuals that can [make] errors.
“When there were complaints, they were addressed,” he said.
Wearing a gray suit, white shirt and a light blue tie, Montano listened as Federal Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock sentenced him to 21 months in prison.
“I’m satisfied with the decision,” Montano told me as he left the courthouse.
The 21 months buys time for the U.S. to act on his extradition. If he is not extradited to Spain, Montano will likely be deported to El Salvador in 2015. “It’s sad,” said Montano’s sister, Nora. “He’s innocent of everything.”
Word Gets Out
Most Salvadorans in Massachussetts first learned Montano lived in Everett when he was charged with immigration fraud. “They were surprised that one of the assassins of the Jesuits was in the community,” said Salvadoran community organizer, Antonio Iraheta.
“Nobody knew he was here. This was a bomb for them.”
Edwin Argueta, an immigrant rights organizer in Jamaica Plain, another Boston neighborhood, grew up in El Salvador during the civil war. He remembers the dismembered bodies of combatants brought in by helicopter to the hospital that stood next to the soccer field where he played as a child.
By the time Argueta was a teenager, the Salvadoran army was kidnapping recruits to beef up its ranks. They packed young men into large Ford trucks, shaved their heads and sent them to other parts of the country. “Don’t even get near the door,” his fearful mother would tell him. “They will take you away.”
Years later, on a return trip to El Salvador, Argueta met with survivors of a 1980 massacre at the Sumpul River in northeastern El Salvador. They told him they had seen soldiers kill their family members who tried to flee across the river towards Honduras. They could only watch helplessly as the river turned red with the victims’ blood.
Surprised to hear that Montano now lives in the U.S., Argueta asked, “How is it that Montano was here? I was really bothered by that question. If you look at the current immigration debate, they are talking about, ‘People have to get in line, people are asked to jump through hoops.’”
Finding some relief in Montano’s sentencing on immigration fraud, Argueta added, “It’s totally about this notion that they [the military perpetrators] were untouchables. And now justice is knocking on their door and seeking that accountability. It feels like they thought they were going to get away with it.”
Taking Benefits Meant for Victims
Montano is one of an estimated 1,000 human rights violators living in the United States. Most enter the country with tourist visas and, like Montano, take advantage of benefits intended for refugees. Porous vetting processes — at the State Department, Immigration and Naturalization Services, and later the Department of Homeland Security — have facilitated their entry.
“I think if you look over time, there’s clearly a pattern of military and police personnel from countries that we have long been strong allies with, especially during the Cold War, seeking refuge or simply a home in the United States,” said Kate Doyle of the National Security Archives in Washington D.C.
Montano’s story reflects the U.S. government’s shifting approach towards investigating and prosecuting human rights violators. When he entered the country in 2001, the United States was technologically and legally ill-equipped to stop him from getting a visa. Databases for checking applicants were rudimentary. Applications did not ask about military background or credible allegations of human rights abuses.
Montano was a controversial figure in 2001, but his name was not flagged at the embassy. “I would have thought the embassy [knew] who he was and [would have] taken a closer look at issuing a visa,” said Ambassador Walker. “[The person who screened Montano] might have been an officer with no real knowledge of who was in front of him,” he added.
“I entered with a tourist visa because I didn’t have any accusations against me in El Salvador or in Spain,” Montano told the court in Boston.
Once in the United States, Montano obtained a benefit originally intended for victims of the civil war, “Temporary Protected Status.” Various documents indicate that beginning in 2002, Montano repeatedly applied for and was granted protected status, for which he was ineligible because of his role in extrajudicial killings.
On his applications for protected status, Montano lied about his date of entry and his military past. No one noticed these false statements until Spain took up the case, when Montano’s story was brought to the U.S. government’s attention.
“Each and every [application for Temporary Protected Status] is fully vetted to make sure [individuals] are eligible,” said Christopher Bentley of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But, he added, “The check is only as good as the information available.”
Vetting for Killers
In recent years, the government has taken steps to address the problems of immigrant vetting.
In 2004, changes to the Immigration and Naturalization Act added allegations of torture and extrajudicial killing as bases for exclusion. The change was a part of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
The DHS says it has since arrested more than 250 human rights violators, removed more than 590, and is pursuing 140 active investigations and 1,900 leads on individuals from 96 countries.
“Over the past ten years the effectiveness of background checks for the government as a whole has improved because of technology,” said Don Crocetti, former chief of the DHS’s office of Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate.
Typically, however, when the U.S. identifies human rights abusers residing in the country, they are charged solely with immigration violations, not more egregious crimes.
Only once has the U.S. prosecuted a foreign national for human rights abuses. In 2008, Chuckie Taylor, son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was convicted under the 1994 Extraterritorial Torture Statute. Taylor, a U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 97 years in federal prison.
Reconciliation with Justice
For some in El Salvador, the country’s process of reconciliation has achieved sufficient justice for both sides involved in the civil war. Ambassador Walker said many Salvadorans are ready to focus on the future. “It’s not as big a deal as you might imagine. People [here] don’t talk about [the murders] very often.”
Yet for some victims of the violence of the war, the possibility of a Spanish trial is a source of great hope.
Mark Anner, a Penn State University professor of labor studies, suffered a brain injury in a military bombing days before the murders of the priests. Anner underwent surgery to reconstruct his eardrum but has continued to experience post-traumatic stress, headaches and memory problems. “What’s important to me is that the message gets out,” he said. “[For] people who do these kind of things…sooner or later the law is going to catch up with them.”