Stanford political science professor helps deliver justice long overdue

Stanford political science Professor Terry Karl speaks to reporters outside a Boston courthouse. (Photo courtesy Terry Karl)
Stanford political science Professor Terry Karl speaks to reporters outside a Boston courthouse. (Photo courtesy Terry Karl)

Political science Professor TERRY KARL is playing a key role in delivering justice in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two others. On Nov. 16 of that year, armed men in uniforms burst into their shared residence and killed everyone inside, including a housekeeper and her daughter.

The murders signified a turning point in the Salvadoran civil war and ratcheting up international pressures on the government, and the U.S. Congress quickly cut off aid to the Salvadoran military. This led to the signing of a peace agreement, in which Karl helped to advise U.N. negotiators.

A federal court in Boston earlier this year sentenced INOCENTE ORLANDO MONTANO to 21 months in prison for violating U.S. immigration laws. In an expert report prepared for Montano’s prosecution, Karl argued that at least 1,169 human rights abuses – including 65 extra-judicial killings of named individuals, 51 reported disappearances and torture of 520 victims – were carried out by units under Montano’s command.

“The Jesuit massacre was not an aberration,” Karl wrote in her 48-page report. “Throughout Montano’s 30-year military career, he ordered, abetted and assisted, and/or commanded troops that participated in a strategy of disappearance and arbitrary detention, rural massacres of civilian non-combatants, the forced disappearance of children, and the toleration of military-led death squads operating inside units under his command.”

Karl was especially moved by her memories and experiences working in that country. “I saw a lot of bodies,” she said in a phone interview. “I saw a lot of people who had suffered torture. I constantly saw families who were looking for ‘disappeared’ loved ones.”

As a political science professor during that period, she was outspoken against U.S. aid to the military and government of El Salvador: “I knew the military was corrupt,” said Karl, who earned her doctorate from Stanford in 1982 and became director of the university’s Center for Latin American Studies in 1990.

After trying for years to seek accountability in El Salvador for the murders of their family members, some of the victims’ families asked for Karl’s help. She began her research into those crimes in 1989 and has since provided expert testimony on a series of trials against El Salvador’s military high command.

“We’re fortunate to have won them all. This has been a long process,” she said.

Col. Montano’s sentence could set the stage for his extradition to Spain – five of the six priests were born there – where he is charged with conspiracy to murder along with the rest of the high command and the soldiers who carried out the killings. The U.S. government would have to grant the request, which could happen soon, said Karl, who is assisting in the extradition effort.

The U.S. trials have had an important effect inside El Salvador. Today, an amnesty law that has long allowed suspects in war crimes to remain free is being challenged in that country’s supreme court with a decision expected soon. The U.S. rulings may help to overturn the amnesty law.

Karl, who holds the Gilded Professorship in Latin American Studies, noted that three of the priests – IGNACIO ELLACURÍA, IGNACIO MARTÍN-BARÓ and SEGUNDO MONTES – were offered visiting professorships at Stanford several days before their murders.

“The priests would be grateful,” Karl said, “to know that their murders helped turn the world against the El Salvadoran military.”