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Salvadoran war crime suspect arrested in Mass.

Sought in slayings of six Jesuit priests

Inocente Orlando Montano was living in Everett. Inocente Orlando Montano was living in Everett.
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / August 24, 2011

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Federal agents in Massachusetts yesterday arrested a former Salvadoran military colonel accused of colluding in the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, charging him with lying about his past in order to stay in the United States.

A federal judge ordered Inocente Orlando Montano, 69, who has been living in Everett, held in custody last night, and will probably determine today whether he can be released on bail with electronic monitoring.

Prosecutors say Montano tried to flee the country last week, seeking safe haven in El Salvador, after a Globe story revealed that he had been living for years in the Boston suburb.

Montano is one of 20 former Salvadoran government officials and members of the military indicted in May by a Spanish court in the slayings of the clergy, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, an infamous war crime carried out by the Salvadoran armed forces during the country’s brutal 12-year civil war.

Whether Montano will be extradited to stand trial in Spain in the killings is an open question. A spokesman for the State Department could not be reached last evening for comment.

Despite accusations that he was complicit in one of the most notorious war crimes since World War II, Montano was charged yesterday only with making false statements on an immigration form, a crime that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

He was discovered in Massachusetts by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that in 2008 filed suit against the 20 defendants in Spain, leading to the new indictments in May.

“We are pleased that US authorities finally acted and arrested Montano, even though the action was only related to immigration fraud,’’ Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer for the center, said in a statement. “This arrest gives Spanish authorities an opportunity to formally request Montano’s extradition, which, if the US observes, would once and for all result in a trial and justice for this terrible crime.’’

Montano appeared in federal court yesterday in handcuffs, dressed in tan pants, a checkered shirt, and shoes with no laces. He held a cane and took small, unsteady steps. His lawyer, public defender Oscar Cruz Jr., said Montano is recovering from bladder cancer and an infection.

Montano has held a job in Revere since 2003, according to Cruz, though he declined to say where his client worked. Montano lived in Everett with his wife, and he also has a sister in Saugus and a sister in South Carolina, Cruz said.

“He’s just concerned with his family’s safety,’’ Cruz said. Montano also has four children in El Salvador.

Montano yesterday was formally accused of repeatedly lying on his annual application for temporary protected status from the Department of Homeland Security, which he first filed in 2002. The status is available to those who are temporarily unable to return to their home countries because of ongoing wars or disasters. The status was offered to Salvadoran natives in the early 2000s after a series of earthquakes.

He has answered no to questions about whether he was ever part of a military unit, received military or weapons training, or been part of any unit that had used or threatened to use weapons against other people.

In fact, Montano served in the Salvadoran military from 1963 to 1994, retiring as a colonel, according to court documents. In 1989, at the time of the Jesuit massacre, Montano also held a government post as vice minister for public safety.

A United Nations commission in 1993 named Montano among a group of high-ranking officials who allegedly colluded to order the assassination of Father Ignacio Ellacuria, the Spanish-born rector of the Central American University in San Salvador, whom the military suspected of sympathizing with leftist rebels. The elite military unit dispatched to execute Father Ellacuria was told to leave no witnesses.

In an interview in June with a Salvadoran Internet newspaper, Montano denied the charges, saying the only high-level meetings in which he participated concerned the defense of San Salvador, which was under rebel attack at the time.

The Globe published a front page article last Wednesday on Montano’s whereabouts in Everett and the charges in Spain.

Federal prosecutor John Capin said in court yesterday that Montano left Massachusetts late last week, apparently intending to make his way back to El Salvador through Mexico, but was intercepted by federal agents in Virginia.

At some point last week, though Capin would not say when, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement revoked Montano’s temporary protected status, leaving him no lawful standing to be in the country.

He said Montano was aware of the international indictment and suggested Montano was looking to return to his native country, which has a law that provides amnesty for crimes committed during the civil war.

Montano was fitted with an electronic tracking bracelet last week and monitored by immigration agents, Capin said, until he was arrested yesterday and brought to court to face the new criminal charges. Capin would not elaborate on how Montano returned from Virginia or where he was at the time of yesterday’s arrest.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.