Defense minister linked to killings in El Salvador

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- An inquiry by a special panel of House Democrats into the killings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989 has concluded that there is strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the crime was plotted by senior Salvadoran army officers, including the current defense minister, according to an internal report.

A six-page internal memo concludes that Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, now defense minister and then army chief of staff, and other officers planned the attack at a meeting at the Salvadoran military academy the day before the killings, which caused an international outcry and hardened the resistance of El Salvador's leftist guerrillas to negotiations with the government.


The House task force has previously accused Salvadoran army personnel of trying to cover up the involvement of senior officers, but the report for the first time identifies high-level officers it asserts were involved.

The findings extend responsibility for the killings substantially beyond the two, lower-level officers found guilty in the affair and raise embarrassing questions for Salvadoran government negotiators at the very moment a peace accord to end the civil war is going into effect. The memo could also threaten the prospects for future U.S. military aid to San Salvador, which is supported by the Bush administration but opposed by many congressional Democrats.


The memo is signed by Representative John Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., chairman of the Speaker's Special Task Force on El Salvador. It is being distributed this weekend to the 19 other Democratic representatives who make up the task force.

Mr. Moakley said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley had appointed a Democratic task force rather than a bipartisan select committee to avert months of negotiations over the parameters or objectives of the inquiry.

But he said that Republican congressmen had repeatedly accompanied task force members on their trips to El Salvador and had also signed the panel's statement of preliminary findings in February 1990. Administration officials have called subsequent interim reports, issued in April 1990 and January 1991, generally fair.

In a telephone interview, General Ponce denied that he had had anything to do with the plot.