RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judge cleared the way Friday for a former Salvadoran colonel to face charges in Spain that he helped plan the 1989 slayings of six Jesuit priests during El Salvador's civil war — a notorious crime that prompted international outrage.
The approval of extradition for Inocente Orlando Montano Morales marks a significant step in efforts to prosecute high-level Salvadoran military officials on charges of murdering the priests, most of whom were Spanish natives. Montano has been the only one within reach of Spanish authorities because of legal issues in El Salvador where most of them still live.
Federal Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank ordered that U.S. Marshals take custody of Montano so he can be turned over to Spain, pending final approval by State Department. The step is largely seen as a formality because lawyers for the diplomatic agency already reviewed the case before turning it over to federal prosecutors.
"In short, the government's evidence shows (Montano) was a decision-maker and member of a group of officers who collectively ordered the unlawful killings of Jesuit priests," Swank wrote.
Montano, 73, has denied involvement in the killings. His lawyer also questioned a Spanish court's findings on the nationalities of five priests who were supposedly Spanish and whether the "terrorist murder" counts against Montano align with similar charges in the U.S.
Swank rejected those arguments, writing the defense was asking her to "disregard the Spanish magistrate's interpretation and application of Spanish law ... This is no small request."
The judge also cited evidence that Montano provided the location of a priest considered to be a primary target during a meeting before the killings, and later threatened a witness' wife to help conceal the crime. Montano served as the country's vice minister of public security and was part of an inner circle of powerful military officers.
Patty Blum, a human rights lawyer who helped persuade Spanish authorities to take up the case, praised the judge for advancing a complex case with international implications.
"It's a significant finding about the role of these kinds of illegal acts committed conspiratorially by military regimes," said Blum, a senior attorney for the nonprofit Center for Justice and Accountability.
The unusual extradition fight began in 2011 when a Spanish judge issued an indictment charging Montano with the murder counts. Nineteen others were charged by Spain, with most still living in El Salvador.
Blum said efforts to bring the others to Spain are essentially at a "stalemate" because of questions by Salvadoran authorities about international warrants, as well as El Salvador's amnesty law for the war that ended in 1992.
Court documents say that early on the morning of Nov. 16, 1989, members of the Salvadoran military killed the six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at a university in the country's capital. The priests had been calling for discussions to end the fighting, with one of them serving as an intermediary between the government and a leftist group.
The killings sparked international outrage and helped erode U.S. support — which had included money, weapons and training — for the right-wing Salvadoran government.
While two officers served short sentences in El Salvador, Montano and other high-level officials were never charged by authorities there in the priests' killings.
Montano arrived in the U.S. in the early 2000s and worked for six years at a candy factory in a Boston suburb. He was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to nearly two years for immigration fraud and perjury. He served his time in a federal prison in North Carolina, which is why his extradition fight played out in the state.
A lawyer who represented Montano during the extradition process, James Todd, said he couldn't comment on the ruling.