The Miami Herald
October 13, 2000

Ex-envoy testifies of generals' abuses


A completion of duty.

 That's what Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador during the Carter
 administration's last year, called his mission as he testified Thursday in the civil
 trial of two former Salvadoran security-forces chiefs. They are accused of
 complicity in the rapes and murders of four American churchwomen in 1980.

 It was White's duty to warn State Department officials about the military's
 excesses and abuses, as he did in lengthy cables shown to a Palm Beach
 County federal jury. Those cables discussed ``the daily total of dead, many
 among them teenagers bearing marks of brutal torture.''

 It was his duty to assure Washington that communists couldn't overthrow the
 Salvadoran government, despite U.S. obsessions to the contrary -- again, the
 subject of cables offered as evidence.

 And it was his duty to remain civil with Gen. José Guillermo García, former
 defense minister, and Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former national
 guard director, even as ``They knew perfectly well that I knew the military ran
 most of the death squads, but they just insisted it was not so,'' White said.

 As El Salvador devolved into bloodshed and chaos, it was as if they all were Alice
 in Wonderland characters, testified White, 74.

 ``Short of calling [the generals] liars, which would have broken the relationship, it
 was impossible to break through the veneer because they didn't want to bring the
 death squads under control. I tried to keep it on a civilized plane, but it did test
 you, because they knew I was not stupid, and I had access to information.''

 The women's families hope White will help bring the generals to justice, through a
 suit organized by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The lawsuit alleges
 that García and Vides Casanova knew about or failed to stop the murders, and
 failed to investigate or punish the killers.

 It seeks monetary damages from García, 67, and Vides Casanova, 62, under the
 1992 Torture Victim Protection Act.


 Bob Montgomery, attorney for the plaintiffs, asked White to interpret his
 dispatches, in which his fears and frustrations with the military mount almost
 daily, even as he strains to believe that a peaceful outcome remains possible.

 ``Probably the most serious threat to a moderate solution would be the
 assassination, whether by the ultra-left or by the ultra-right, of Archbishop [Oscar]
 Romero, the most important political figure in El Salvador and a symbol of a better
 life to the poor,'' he wrote.

 Romero was gunned down March 24, 1980.

 White was among the first to hear that the women had vanished Dec. 2 near the
 San Salvador airport, and was on the scene when peasants dug up their bodies in
 a rural area the next day.

 In a video news clip, White is heard to tell the locals: ``I think you should get a
 judge and people should stand guard over this thing while I go get on the phone to
 García and raise holy hell.''

 Days later he cabled that he couldn't find out which military unit might have done

 ``The idea that the security forces authorities do not know and/or could not find
 out what detachment was stationed at a definite point outside the airport strains
 credulity to the breaking point.''

 Two of the women -- Sister Maura Clarke and Catholic lay worker Jean Donovan --
 had stayed with White and his wife, Maryanne, the night before they died, along
 with the Rev. Paul Schindler, who's expected to testify later in the trial.

 Robert White is due back on the stand Monday.

 White said that while none of the church workers paid much attention to a sign
 tacked on their parish house in Chalatenango in November, warning that all inside
 were communists and would die, they did fear the soldiers in the area. That fear
 grew after a military helicopter ``tracked'' them.


 He said that after they disappeared, García asked if Clarke, Donovan and Sisters
 Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel were wearing habits.

 This worried him, White said, because they weren't. He had seen a Salvadoran
 military training film that portrayed ``good nuns'' in habits and ``bad nuns'' --
 sympathetic to the peasants -- in blouses and slacks.

 The women died a few weeks after Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980
 presidential election. Almost immediately, White said outside the courtroom,
 ``emissaries'' purporting to be advance-team members of the Reagan
 administration arrived in El Salvador.

 White said the emissaries apparently assured the generals they would be free to
 pursue their agenda ``with impunity.'' That agenda, White said, included terrorizing
 and slaughtering not just left-wing guerrillas, but anyone else who opposed the
 military or the interests of the country's ruling ``14-family'' oligarchy.

 ``I expected to be replaced and reassigned,'' White told the court. ``Usually,
 career ambassadors stay over a lengthy period [in a new administration], but my
 resignation was accepted immediately.''

 White suggested during a break that his testimony was a way to help close that
 violent chapter in history.

 ``It's very important that this case be finished -- that the military in other countries
 understand that this country [the United States] isn't a refuge for killers.''

 García lives in Plantation; Vides Casanova is in Palm Coast north of Daytona