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Army Colonel Convicted in Murders of Jesuit Priests

September 29, 1991

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ A jury on Saturday found an army colonel guilty of the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. But it acquitted eight other military men.

A lieutenant was found guilty of murdering the housekeeper’s daughter.

The conviction of Army Col. Guillermo Benavides was a landmark. Though the rightist armed forces have been blamed for the abduction, torture and murder of thousands of suspected leftists during nearly 12 years of civil war, no army officer had been tried for the politically motivated abuse of a citizen’s human rights.

The massacre of the priests strained Salvadoran relations with the United States, which has funded the government war effort. Congress made successful prosecution of the priests’ murderers a condition for continued aid. The jurors - three women and two men who for fear of eventual reprisal had been hidden from public view during the three-day trial - informed 4th Criminal Court Judge Ricardo Zamora of their verdict after 5 1/2 hours of deliberation.

Zamora has 30 days to pass sentence. Benavides and Lt. Yusshy Mendoza, convicted of the murder of 15-year-old Celina Ramos, face sentences of 20-30 years in prison.

Benavides, director of the National Military College on Nov. 16, 1989, when the priests were killed, was accused of ordering the priests’ murder. The other eight defendants - one of whom is a fugitive and was tried in absentia - formed part of a 35-man detail that raided the Central American University earlier the same day.

The slain priests were administrators and professors at the Jesuit-run school. Several had long been considered leftist subversive ideologues by the far right, which includes many military officers.

After the defendants’ arrest in January 1990, several made detailed confessions. Two of the lieutenants testified that Benavides explicitly ordered them to kill the Jesuits and to eliminate any witnesses.

The defendants, in green uniforms, listened to the verdicts while sitting in a row before the judge, prosecution, defense and about 100 spectators.

Seven of the nine accused were acquitted of all charges, including murder, acts of terrorism and conspiracy.

Father Jose Maria Tojeira, Jesuit Provincial for Central America, said of the verdict: ″I’m not overly bothered by the acquittal of those of lower rank, though I believed there was sufficient evidence to convict them. I believe it is correct that the jury placed the blame going upward in rank, and we should keep looking up the ranks for more of those responsible.″

Congressman Joe Moakley, D-Mass., head of U.S. congressional task force following the case, has accused the armed forces of a widespread cover-up to protect other high-ranking officers he contends were implicated in a conspiracy to kill the priests.

Five of the six slain priests were Spanish-born and naturalized Salvadoran citizens. The sixth was a native Salvadoran.

Spain, as well as the United States, aided the investigation. A commission of Spanish legislators attending the trial also said it believes other high- ranking military men should be tried for an alleged role in the massacre.

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