RALEIGH, N.C. — The once-feared man who commanded the National Police in El Salvador when a 12-year civil war killed 75,000 people was wheeled into a federal courtroom Thursday, hunched over and pale.
The colostomy bag Inocente Orlando Montano Morales has worn since bladder cancer surgery wasn’t visible under his orange jumpsuit. The judge said he didn’t need to stand.
Montano has “a number of life-threatening or limiting conditions,” U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle said Thursday. He said he’s leaning toward releasing him from jail while he reviews extradition laws for the U.S., El Salvador and Spain.
“I think the only safe disposition is to allow his family to care for him until his habeas petition is resolved,” said Boyle, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
More than a year after a lower-level judge ordered his extradition to Spain to face terrorist murder charges, the former Salvadoran colonel hasn’t come close to answering allegations that he helped plot the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, five of whom were born in Spain, along with their housekeeper and her daughter.
Montano is now 75, and his failing health is casting doubt over whether he’ll live long enough to face trial. “He can raise his arms only with great effort, and even then, not enough to reach his head,” his lawyers told the court in April.
Boyle said he may let Montano live with a sister in South Carolina, and would issue a written decision later. He recently tried to send Montano to a prison hospital, but there were no available beds.
Montano’s infirmities belie the power he once wielded in the inner circle of U.S.-trained military officers that had key government positions during the civil war that ended in 1992. Montano oversaw the National Police as vice minister of public security, according to court documents.
The right-wing government and FMLN rebels had begun peace talks, with Father Ignacio Ellacuria serving as intermediary, when top officers decided the priests were siding with the leftists. Montano met with other top officers, and the group decided to kill Ellacuria and leave no witnesses, the documents say.
There had been other atrocities, but outrage over the priests’ massacre led to a U.S. congressional investigation, which found that most of the Salvadoran counter-insurgency force that carried out the murders had been trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Money and weapons sent by the Reagan administration declined, hastening the war’s end.
Montano, who denies involvement in the killings, has been behind bars for about four years.
He 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, serving his time in a federal prison in North Carolina. He’s been held since then in state jails pending extradition to Spain.
A federal magistrate in North Carolina, Judge Kimberly Swank, ruled that evidence presented by U.S. prosecutors showed Montano helped plot the killing of the priests. She approved the extradition request in February 2016, pending final State Department approval.
Montano’s lawyers then challenged the decision, and Boyle rejected prosecutors’ arguments that the matter had already been settled.
Montano’s lawyer James Todd said Thursday that U.S. immigration officials have filed a detainer against him so that if he isn’t extradited to Spain, he can more easily be deported to El Salvador, where changes to a long-standing amnesty law could expose him to prosecution.
Meanwhile, his defense is pleading for his health care. They say he has diabetes, his colostomy makes him susceptible to bacterial infections in jail, and he suffers neck pain after fainting and hitting his head during a head-count in jail.
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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of the judge’s first name to Terrence, not Terrance.