Case not closed

The 2012 Alexander Law Prize recognizes the work by human rights attorney Almudena Bernabeu to bring to justice those responsible for the killing of the Jesuits in El Salvador.

Case not closed
Tenacious: Almudena Bernabeu has pursued crimes in El Salvador across continents and decades. Photo by Javier Zurita

Early in the morning on Nov. 16, 1989, a military hit squad entered the campus of the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador and took six Jesuit priests—including university rector Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.—from their quarters and murdered them on the lawn outside. Soldiers also killed the Jesuits’ cook, Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter, Celina.

At Santa Clara, the killings hit close to home—and the Mission Campus became a refuge for the one Jesuit from the UCA, Jon Sobrino, who was away from El Salvador when the killings took place. The murders provoked international outrage. But those responsible were never brought to justice.

There was a trial, of sorts—but the men who confessed to pulling the triggers were acquitted since they were just following orders. Two officers were convicted, but they were released within 15 months following a blanket amnesty in 1993.

In May 2011, though, a new chapter in this tragic tale began: Arrest warrants were issued by a Spanish judge for top leaders of El Salvador’s military during the civil war, accusing them of orchestrating the crime. The lead private prosecutor is Almudena Bernabeu, attorney with the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA), a not-for-profit human rights law firm based in San Francisco. Bernabeu has new evidence and witnesses who have not testified before.

Arrest warrants have been issued for 20 men. Two of the former Salvadoran officers indicted are in the United States: Lt. Hector Ulises Cuenca Ocampo, who was in the Bay Area working for the Transportation Security Administration but went into hiding; and Col. Inocente Orland Montano, who resides in Massachusetts and on Sept. 11, 2012, pled guilty to charges of lying on U.S. immigration forms. That could lead to him being extradited to Spain.

As an attorney, Bernabeu has spent 15 years pursuing justice for victims of human rights abuses across Latin America, Africa, and the world. For that work she was recognized with the law school’s Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize, presented at a ceremony on campus in March.

Bernabeu is also lead private prosecutor on a case in Spain representing survivors of the Guatemalan genocide (including Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum). She and her team’s exhausting and exhaustive work to find new evidence is featured in the 2011 documentary Granito: How to Nail a Dictator.

Prior to her work at the Center, Bernabeu worked with two NGOs affiliated with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, helping with asylum and refugee clients from Latin America, North and Central Africa, and the Balkans. She has also worked pro bono for Amnesty International-Spain and was an investigator for the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

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