Colonel guilty in massacre Salvadoran jury acquits most co-defendants.

September 30, 1991|By Boston Globe

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Salvadorans from all walks of life reacted with quiet satisfaction to the murder conviction of Col. Guillermo Benavides in the 1989 army massacre of six Jesuit priests and two women at the Central American University.

Many people said yesterday that the televised criminal trial of Benavides and seven subordinates, as much as the jury's verdict against him, was a major step forward for a country whose dominant military establishment has been immune to civilian authority.

"This is the first time in my life that one of the untouchables has been judged," said a 48-year-old truck driver who gave his name only as Porfirio. "I hope it serves as an example, because so many crimes in this country have been left in mystery."

But to U.S. human rights advocates and Jesuit officials who attended the trial, the rest of Saturday's verdict was a travesty of justice. Benavides' seven subordinates had at one time confessed, yet six were acquitted on all charges and one, Lt. Yussi Mendoza, was convicted of a single murder charge.

Moreover, these observers said, the conviction of Benavides, a member of the powerful military academy class of 1966, makes it unlikely that the government will pursue allegations that the slayings were ordered by top army officials and that an elaborate cover-up was staged to hide their role.

The massacre occurred during an army raid on the Jesuit-run campus, which the army viewed as a hotbed of leftist thought. State evidence showed that Benavides, who was not at the scene, ordered his men to clean out the campus of "terrorist masterminds" during an urban offensive by the rebels.

"This verdict was an important step of breaking the cycle of military impunity, but there are many unanswered questions," said Michael Posner of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in the United States. "I'm afraid it will be much harder now to bring international pressure to bear on the case."

Spokesmen for the U.S. Embassy, which played a major role in investigating the murders and prodding the government to bring the men to trial, had no immediate comment.

The Jesuit murders have been a critical factor in recent congressional opposition to U.S. military aid to El Salvador, and the outcome of the trial is expected to influence upcoming debate on the latest Bush administration request for such aid.

Whatever the colonel's true role in the events of Nov. 16, 1989, many Salvadorans yesterday found some justice in the verdict after years in which torture and murder by the security forces were common, unchallenged practices.

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