The US Supreme Court cleared the way Wednesday for a former high-ranking Salvadoran official to face charges in Spain that he helped plot the killings of Jesuit priests during his country’s civil war.
The high court announced that it denied a request by Inocente Orlando Montano Morales to halt his extradition, offering no other details. Spain wants to try Montano, a former colonel in El Salvador’s armed forces, in the 1989 killings of the six priests, five of whom were Spanish. His transfer could occur at any time.
The State Department, which has final say over extraditions, signed a warrant in October allowing authorities to send Montano to Spain if the Supreme Court didn’t step in, according to Montano’s lawyer. Defense attorney Jay Todd told the court last month that “if a stay is denied, the government can extradite Mr. Montano at any time.”
Todd didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday. Montano has denied involvement in the killings.
Last week, the Trump administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, argued the extradition would promote good relations with an important ally against terrorism. Francisco’s filing with the Supreme Court said lower courts have thoroughly considered and rejected Montano’s arguments against extradition, including questions about evidence and objections to how Spanish “terrorist murder” charges against him were weighed by U.S. courts.
Court documents say Montano was among an inner circle of military officers accused of plotting to kill the priests, who were helping broker peace talks. The killings sparked international outrage.
A federal magistrate judge in North Carolina ruled in 2016 that evidence presented by U.S. prosecutors showed Montano took part in the plot. Another federal judge subsequently agreed with the extradition, and a federal appeals court refused to block it.
Todd argued in his Supreme Court appeal that lower courts didn’t look closely enough at flaws in evidence used by Spanish authorities. Another question raised by Todd was whether the five priests maintained their Spanish citizenship. Todd has also cited the precarious health of Montano, a 76-year-old cancer survivor.
Montano arrived in the U.S. in the early 2000s and worked at a candy factory near Boston. He was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to nearly two years for immigration fraud and perjury. He served that time in a federal prison in North Carolina, where his extradition case subsequently unfolded. In recent weeks, he’s been held by federal authorities in South Carolina.