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Haunted by War Crimes Accusations, the Candyman Has His Day in Court

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Inocente Montano had a secret.

Until last year the 70-year-old from El Salvador lived anonymously in Everett, Massachusetts, a working-class city just north of Boston with deep Catholic roots, and worked at a candy factory.

His quiet life in America stood in shocking contrast to what his accusers say is his secret past: he is the first of 19 former military officials who may be held to account for allegedly planning the murders of six Jesuit priests at the the University of Central America in El Salvador on November 16, 1989, during that country's civil war.

Montano is scheduled to be sentenced next month in a federal court in Boston, not for these murders, but on charges of immigration fraud and perjury -- his whereabouts were discovered last year, and soon after the U.S. government indicted him for lying on his immigration applications. Last fall, Montano pleaded guilty to the immigration charges brought against him, though he and his lawyer deny he had any involvement in the 1989 slayings or other illegal activities by the military.

Human rights groups like the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) argue that Montano lied on his immigration applications to hide his war criminal past. During El Salvador's civil war, during which an estimated 75,000 civilians died, Montano was a colonel in El Salvador's military and served as the country's vice minister for public security.

Meanwhile, one person watching Montano's trial closely is William Stuebner, who was in El Salvador from 1988 until a peace treaty was signed in 1992, as part of a special unit associated with the U.S. Southern Command. Leading up to and especially after the slayings of the Jesuits, his group was brought in "to try and get a handle on what was happening in the country during the massive insurgent offensive," Stuebner told me.

Trying those responsible for the Jesuits' murders is on the one hand important to counteract an overwhelming sense of impunity that remains across much of El Salvadorian society in the aftermath of the civil war, where few officials (or opposition FMLN guerrillas, for that matter) were ever called to account for their crimes. But Montano's immigration case is being watched around the world because of its implications for international law and justice.

The government of Spain formally requested Montano's extradition to face justice there, after CJA and local partner the Spanish Association for Human Rights (APDHE) initiated prosecution in the Spanish National Court against the 20 officials alleged to have planned the killings. (One of the accused has since died.) Five of the six murdered Jesuits were Spanish citizens and, importantly, Spain recognizes universal jurisdiction.

Montano, after being discovered, attempted to flee the U.S. for El Salvador but was caught by federal agents in Virginia. When sentenced he may face up to two years in prison on the immigration charges; whether he will ever have his day in court over his alleged role in the Jesuits' murders all hangs on whether Montano is extradited to Spain by the U.S., which he will likely fight.

Jorge Remeu, a political counselor at Spain's embassy in Washington, D.C., told me that if Montano returns to El Salvador "it would be almost impossible to have him extradited," as the Supreme Court of El Salvador denied the extradition to Spain of any of the former officials accused of planning the Jesuits' killings, in direct contradiction of the two countries' bilateral extradition treaty.

While CJA has publicly expressed optimism the U.S. will extradite Montano, this remains to be seen. However, if this does come to pass, it will serve as a striking blow against impunity for grave human rights violations, and a victory for the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.

Still, even in the context of El Salvador's civil war, what led to the murders of the Jesuits, which brings us to where we are today?

To be clear, El Salvador's history and the political, economic and social contexts in the years leading up to, during, and after the civil war are deeply complex. (Recent, fair and relatively brief perspectives are available here and, alternatively, here.) Stuebner, who had a role in negotiating the 1992 peace treaty between the government and the FMLN rebels, noted, "Anyone could tell you then that society in El Salvador was a three-legged stool, made up of the military, the landowners and the church. But people on the right-wing would say, even today, that when the church turned to liberation theology back then, that broke one leg off the stool, leading to societal collapse and war."

In actual fact, Stuebner said, the movement by the church toward liberation theology was about "caring about [the country's] poor people." And for all of the shocking brutality and widespread rights abuses endured by El Salvador's citizens during the civil war, the administration of President Ronald Reagan supported El Salvador's military and government because, with the Cold War still running hot, they were anti-communist and the FMLN were leftist, supported by countries like Cuba and Nicaragua.

And so after years of conflict, on November 11, 1989 the FMLN guerrillas launched a major offensive against the government, and just five days later the six Jesuits priests were murdered, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. "The reason that happened," Stuebner explained, "is that the Jesuits were in charge of the University of Central America," and he said those who planned the murders "felt betrayed by the church," as the clergy in El Salvador had been decrying abuses by the government, military and security apparatus against its citizens.

"I knew Father Ellacuria, he was a fine man," Stuebner recalled. "The Jesuits were not involved in helping the guerrillas. In fact, they were really pushing to get some kind of negotiation going," between the rebels and the government.

After the 1992 peace treaty a truth commission was established, a slew of reports by the United Nations and others were issued, and yet more than two decades later, real justice remains elusive.

Thus, all eyes will be on Montano when he next appears in federal court, as answers are sought about his past, and for the past of his troubled native El Salvador -- while human rights advocates look ahead to the possibility of his extradition to face more serious charges in Spain.