Juan Orlando ZEPEDA
Juan Orlando Zepeda was born on 27 March 1943 in El Salvador. He is a former General of the Salvadoran armed forces, who was first head of the military intelligence and then Vice Minister of Defence during the period of the internal armed conflict in El Salvador. He retired in 1993, after the signature of the Chapultepec Peace Accords).
At dawn on 16 November 1989, Salvadoran troops belonging to the Atlacatl Battalion invaded the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” (UCA) and brutally murdered six Jesuit priests, including the headmaster, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, as well as the university’s housekeeper and her daughter.
Zepeda was allegedly present at a meeting on 15 November 1989, when the Joint Chief of Staff, René Emilio Ponce, ordered Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, director of the military school, to murder the UCA headmaster and all potential witnesses. The meeting was also attended by the Minister of Defence General Rafael Humberto Larios, General Juan Rafael Bustillo, the Vice Minister for Public Safety Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano and Colonel Francisco Elena Fuentes. Emilio Ponce and Humberto Larios are also said to have had an audience with the president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, a few hours before the massacre.
In March 2000, the UCA asked the San Salvador Prosecutor to open an investigation into the murders, without success.
On 13 November 2008, Spanish NGOs filed a suit with the Spanish Audiencia Nacional against Alfredo Cristiani and 14 Salvadoran military officers and soldiers, including Juan Orlando Zepeda.
Two months later, on 13 January 2009, the Court opened an investigation and charged Zepeda and his co-accused with crimes against humanity, murder and state terrorism. It could not indict former president Cristiani for lack of evidence and jurisdiction.
On 31 March 2011, Spain issued international arrest warrants against the accused, on the ground that five of the murdered priests were Spanish citizens. In November 2011, the Court submitted extradition requests for all the defendants, pursuant to the existing extradition treaty between El Salvador and Spain.
On 9 May 2012, the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador denied the capture and extradition of the accused.
On 6 October 2014, the criminal chamber of the Audiencia Nacional ruled that Spain had jurisdiction to investigate and to prosecute the Jesuit murder case as a crime against humanity and a terrorism crime.
The investigating judge issued new international arrest warrants on 16 December 2015. In the meantime, the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador, in a new composition, allows the arrest of the accused.
Consequently, the National Civil Police (PNC), supported by Interpol, launched an operation to arrest all the accused. Four of them were captured on 5 February 2016, while the others, including Zepeda, are fugitive since then.
In July 2016, the Supreme Court of Justice declared the Salvadoran Amnesty Law of 1993 unconstitutional. On 16 August 2016, the Supreme Court of Justice denied the extradition of the four captured, who were released in October 2016. The others remain fugitive and on 22 March 2017 their relatives filed a complaint asking the Supreme Court of Justice to declare the arrest warrants null and void and to decide on their habeas corpus claim.
In January 1932, a peasant revolt against the regime was crushed and 30’000 civil, mainly indigenous people, were massacred by the military. After this event, the Salvadoran military dominated the government, and the conflict between the left and the right wings became a feature of the country.
On October 15, 1979, moderate officers overturned the dictator Carlos Humberto Romero and formed the Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG). In January 1980, right-wing violence broke out, including bombings against government newspapers, kidnappings and murder.
On 24 March 1980, Archbishop Romero who denounced the death squad slaughters and preached for justice was assassinated. On the day of his funerals, where 250’000 persons gathered in the cathedral in San Salvador, snipers attacked the crowd, and killed 42, and wounded 200. This massacre triggered the civil war which will last for 12 years.
In December 1980, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered, allegedly by military and paramilitary forces. Despite these outrageous human rights violation, the US President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, reasserted his support to the Salvadoran military government
Throughout the 1980s, the El Salvador’s civil war opposed the US-backed Salvadoran military forces and paramilitary forces against the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group, created in September 1980 by the five major leftist revolutionary organizations. Systematic human rights violations were committed, such as torture, mutilation, forced disappearance, extrajudicial killing and rape.
The atrocity of the Jesuit Massacre in Novembre 1989 led to the creation of a special investigative task force by the US Congressman Joseph Moakley. Its findings revealed that the high command officers of the Salvadoran army had been responsible for the murders of the Jesuits.
The report also presented an international process to end the conflict and to reduce the US support to the rightwing Salvadoran government– which had reached approximately US$ 4 billion, including money, weapons and training in assistance to El Salvador’s military during the conflict.
It is estimated that 75’000 people died during the civil war, which ended with the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Agreements on 16 January 1992. An UN-backed Truth Commission was established to investigate the abuses committed since 1980. The Commission presented its final report on 15 March 1993, documenting thousands of killings, disappearances and torture. The experts named individuals allegedly responsible for human rights violations and attributed the overwhelming majority of the human rights abuses to the Salvadoran armed forces and the paramilitaries. The Commission set out a series of recommendations, calling for investigations to be carried out and for those responsible for human rights violations to be brought to justice.
On March 20, 1993, five days after the release of this report and recommendations, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly adopted a blanket amnesty law, preventing prosecutions of wartime atrocities. In 1999, the Inter-American Commission considered that El Salvador’s amnesty law violated international law by foreclosing further investigation in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women.
On 14 July 2016, the Constitutional Court judged that the 1993 amnesty law is unconstitutional and violates El Salvador’s international obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. It also ruled that the statute of limitations does not apply to crimes against humanity. The ruling states that the government has an obligation to “investigate, identify and sanction the material and intellectual authors of human rights crimes and grave war crimes” and to provide reparations to victims.
The annulation of this blanket amnesty will hopefully lead to the investigation and prosecution of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the 12 years long civil war.