Santa Clara University

SCU Today

News & Views

Back to Blog

The Lawyer Pursuing Justice for Murdered El Salvador Jesuits

Thursday, Mar. 8, 2012

The occasion of the 2012 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize, being awarded to the lead prosecutor against 15 alleged perpetrators of the massacre of six Jesuits and two women 23 years ago in El Salvador, shines a new light on how justice is closer than ever for the eight victims memorialized on SCU's campus.

Almudena Bernabeu is the lead prosecutor against former Salvadoran Military High Command involved  in the Nov., 1989 massacre of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, at the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador.  Santa Clara University School of Law honored her on March 14  with the Alexander Law Prize, created in 2008 to bring recognition to lawyers who have used their legal careers to help alleviate injustice and inequity. The March 14 award honors her work on the Jesuit-massacre case and other high-profile human-rights cases.

Bernabeu  is the head of the Latin America and Transitional Justice Programs  for the San Francisco-based Center  for Justice & Accountability (CJA), an international human rights organization dedicated to deterring torture and other worldwide human rights abuses, and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.

In 2008, CJA and the Spanish Association for Human Rights filed a complaint in Spanish court alleging that top Salvadoran government and military officials ordered the murder of the Jesuits, as an attempt to silence their human-rights agenda in the midst of a brutal civil battle between repressive military and government and liberation factions. The complaint alleges crimes against humanity and state terrorism by the defendants.  

The names of the victims are memorialized on white crosses in front of SCU's Mission Church, a symbol of SCU's solidarity with the mission and memory of the martyrs.

CJA filed the case 19 years after the murders, following a number of failed efforts at justice in El Salvador and changes in Spanish and international law related to jurisdiction for international crimes. Many explicit details about the case emerged in a Salvadoran Truth Reconciliation Commission report, including efforts by multiple witnesses to change testimony in order to insulate top leaders from culpability.

Spanish courts assert jurisdiction over the El Salvador case because it involves “crimes against humanity,” and because five of the eight victims were Spanish nationals, including Jesuit rector Ignacio Ellacuría. 

The Jesuit-massacre prosecution has been delayed while Spanish legal authorities await Salvadoran cooperation with extradition requests for nine of the defendants. The nine were briefly arrested in August of 2011 before being released a week later by the Salvadoran Supreme Court.  Another defendant has agreed to testify in Spain in exchange for some leniency.

Other recent developments in the case include the indictment by the United States of another defendant, retired Salvadoran colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, for federal criminal immigration fraud and perjury charges related to his immigration status.  A sentencing hearing is expected in spring of 2012. 

A summary of the case brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability, including biographical sketches of the victims and defendants, is at CJA's website.

A press release on the Alexander Law Prize, including a short biography of Bernabeu, is at SCU's news website.

An ABC story on her work and receipt of the Alexander Law Prize is at

March 15, 2012

Tags: Alexander Law Prize, Jesuit martyrs, Jesuits

Printer-friendly format