NEW YORK — A U.S. probe into the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests has concluded that there is evidence the crime was plotted by senior Salvadoran army officers, including the defense minister, a newspaper reported today.
The inquiry by a panel of House Democrats concluded that Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce--the current defense minister and former army chief of staff--and other top officers planned the attack a day before it happened, the New York Times reported.
The planning session occurred at the Salvadoran military academy, the paper said, citing a copy of a memo signed by Rep. John Moakley (D-Mass). The memo was distributed over the weekend to other members of the House task force.
It is the first time high-level officers have been accused by name of involvement. The House panel previously has accused Salvadoran army personnel of trying to cover up the involvement of senior officers.
The six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were slain in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 16, 1989. A motive has not been established, but members of the Roman Catholic order have been outspoken critics of human rights violations by the Salvadoran military.
Two lower-level officers have been convicted in the killings. Seven soldiers were cleared.
According to Moakley's memo, the mastermind of the plot at the academy was Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo, who at the time commanded the air force and now is a military attache at El Salvador's embassy in Israel.
The memo said others present were Gen. Juan Orlando Zepeda, now the deputy defense minister; Col. Francisco Elena Fuentes, commander of the army's 1st Brigade; and Col. Alfredo Benavides, head of the academy and one of two men convicted in September.
"The reactions of the others ranged from support to reluctant acceptance to silence," the memo said.
Ponce told the paper that he had nothing to do with the plot and was not at the academy that day.
"I definitely had no prior knowledge," he said.
The memo said evidence of the meeting came from a military official who was at the academy that day and another person who said the senior officers were there.