Envoys wrote of Salvador abuses
Cables to U.S. tied officers to killings
BY ELINOR J. BRECHER
Dozens of once-secret State Department documents entered as evidence
in a West Palm
Beach federal court trial show that American diplomats believed Salvadoran government officials
were involved in human rights abuses in that country, even as the Reagan administration publicly
denied their involvement.
In cable after cable, U.S. diplomats left little doubt that they
believed Defense Minister Gen. Guillermo
García was in a position to stop abuses by the Salvadoran armed forces, suggesting that he be
scolded for lapses that included torture and the machine-gunning of civilians.
García and retired Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova,
once Salvadoran National Guard chief --
and García's successor when he retired in 1983 -- are facing allegations in a civil case that they were
complicit in the 1980 rape and murders of four American churchwomen by National Guardsmen.
The churchwomen's families sued García and Vides Casanova
in 1999 under the
1992 federal Torture Victim Protection Act after learning that both men were living
The 10-member jury began hearing evidence in the case Oct. 11
and is expected
to begin deliberations as early as Wednesday.
Government human rights abuses were central to the debate in the
involving U.S. military aid to El Salvador.
But this trial is the first time an American jury, using U.S.
documents, will be
asked to judge what role Salvadoran officials had in the murders of civilians during
that country's bloody, 12-year civil war.
``The documents show that U.S. officials looking at this case
and others tried to
avoid'' linking evidence of abuses to ``internalized problems'' within the Salvadoran
government, said Robert O. Varenik, a Lawyers Committee for Human Rights
director. The group joined the families in their case. ``The Reagan administration
was inclined to give [the regime] the benefit of the doubt, despite evidence to the
The Reagan administration, in semi-annual reports to Congress,
repeatedly that, while rights abuses continued in El Salvador, the country's
leadership was struggling mightily to control death squads, and military and
police extrajudicial killings.
The cables and memos create doubt.
In one cable, dated June 12, 1982, Assistant Secretary of State
calls the torture of a 40-year-old teacher an example of the ``Salvadoran security
system at its worst,'' and recommended that U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton
``seek appointment with both President [Alvaro] Magaña and Defense Minister
García'' and tell them that, ``No government should permit subjection of its
citizens to this kind of humiliation, pain and degradation.''
Earlier, in a Nov. 7, 1981, cable, Hinton urged Washington to
lean on García to
stop what he called ``a disturbing new aspect of [the] persistent problem of
violence'' by the armed forces.
``It is particularly disturbing to have detailed reports of Salvadoran
women and children along the Rio Lempa and in Chalatenango,'' Hinton wrote.
``Indeed, our own officials were witnesses to a machine gun attack on apparently
unarmed civilians by helicopter.''
Among his suggested talking points: ``U.S. public opinion and
support for [the Reagan] administration could be rapidly eroded unless García and
company keep their forces under strict control.''
In a Feb. 1, 1982, cable, Hinton again suggested that U.S. officials
responsible for what was taking place: ``When Under-Secretary [James] Buckley
was here, he warned all concerned that the new horror stories were to be avoided
if we were to have a chance of pushing through supplementary help for [the]
Salvadoran economy and military. . . . Now comes military folly in massacre in
San Salvador of 17 persons. . . . García should be read the riot act while in
Some of the cables offer gruesome details of government atrocities.
On June 10, 1982, an American official in San Salvador described
ordeal in nauseating detail. He called the man -- also a Green Cross volunteer --
by the pseudonym ``Francisco Castro,'' seized by the National Police and
dragged to a soundproofed torture cell.
There, the cable said, his tormentors subjected him to ``a classic
wheel rack.'' They tied a bag of lime over his head, then punched him in the
stomach so he'd inhale the caustic powder. They also subjected him to a
procedure they called ``The Carter,'' derisively, after the human-rights-promoting
American president. ``The Carter'' involved ropes, pulleys and wires, and
destroyed the victim's testicles.
The U.S. official, describing his meeting with Castro, said he
was ``in extreme
pain, lacked emotional control, and shook with fear at irregular intervals. . . . He
complained of . . . muscle strain and ringing in the ears. His air passages were
inflamed and he had difficulty breathing. His testicles were crushed. He had
difficulty walking and urinating.''
But the cable saw an upside: ``The police did release him rather than kill him.''
Three years into El Salvador's civil war, this was considered progress.
Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford, 40, and Maura Clarke, 49; Ursuline
Kazel, 40, and lay missionary Jean Donovan, 27, disappeared near the San
Salvador airport on Dec. 2, 1980. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave two
In 1984, a civil court sentenced five National Guardsmen to 30
years each for the
women's kidnapping, rape and murder. Two remain incarcerated. The others were
released in 1998.
García lives in Plantation. Vides Casanova lives in Palm
Coast, near Daytona.
Monday, Vides testified he became a resident alien on Aug. 21, 1989. It's thought
García arrived that year too.
The documents cover the years between 1979 and 1993. They predictably
Carter-administration diplomats agonizing over human-rights violations. Several
show U.S. Ambassador Robert White, a Carter appointee, openly critical of
García's inability or unwillingness to curb human-rights abuses in the Salvadoran
``There is something of an Alice in Wonderland air to conversations
military officers here,'' White wrote the State Department Oct. 27, 1980. ``Garcia
. . . [knows] perfectly well that some middle and low-level members of the military
are involved in death squads and other right-wing violence. . . . There is almost no
way to break through the pose García and company have adopted.''
The documents show that after Ronald Reagan became president,
continued to carefully track government-sponsored terror, and frequently urged
García to do more to stop the abuses.
But the same cables also urged secrecy, lest outraged U.S. citizens
human-rights certification that Congress had required to keep military aid flowing.
Example: the June 12, 1982, dispatch from Enders. In it, Enders
to warn Salvadoran officials that ``before long [victims] might tell their stories to
the press. The repercussions . . . in the U.S. could be devastating both in terms
of public attitudes and the certification process, unless it is clear that [the
Salvadoran government] has taken more than adequate steps to end abuses . . .
free victims, jail perpetrators.''
He urged that these steps receive ``maximum publicity.''
Concern about how the U.S. public might react to information about
churchwomen's murders was evident in another set of embassy cables, these
discussing a secrecy-shrouded document known as the Special Embassy
This was a transcript of a taped, April 1981 conversation between
Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán, who led the unit that killed the women, and a
National Guard lieutenant wearing a wire for the embassy in San Salvador.
In the conversation, Colindres confessed the unit's crime to the
mentioned a sixth assailant who was never identified or arrested, admitted
stealing money from the women, torching their van, and telling his immediate
superior and an internal investigator about the incident.
Though they spoke only indirectly about upper-level command involvement,
Reagan administration insisted to Congress that the tape proved the buck
stopped with Colindres.
Congress, however, was never given access to the tape, and the
cables show that
embassy officials were concerned that its release would create as many doubts
as it supposedly answered.
In a July 1983 memo, State Department official Carl Gettinger,
develop the ``special evidence,'' warned that the Reagan administration needed to
be prepared to explain the tape, should it ever become public.
``Should the existence of this recording -- or worse, its contents
-- become public
knowledge, we must be able to explain the relationship [of the two men] if we are
to successfully defend our longstanding -- and correct -- belief that Colindres was
the decision-maker,'' Gettinger wrote to colleague Jeffrey H. Smith.
But, he continued, ``the current condition of the recording .
. . means our
understanding of it, and thus our explanation of it in the event one is required, is
He concluded that Colindres' admission to his superior, Maj. Lizandro
Velasco, points to a cover-up. Colindres was one of the three Guardsmen
released in 1998.
``Within the National Guard there was a concerted effort from
very early on to
block the investigation into the murder of the Americans,'' Gettinger said.
``Direction of that effort appears to have reached at least the level of Major
Vides Casanova had appointed Zepeda to investigate the murders
they happened. He found no evidence of National Guard involvement.
On Monday, defense lawyer Kurt Klaus showed the jury piles of
from U.S. military brass to Vides, commending him on his efforts toward
improving the military's human-rights performance, and assuring him he could
count on further U.S. training for his troops.
``We want to provide you well-trained, well-motivated leaders
for your fight for
Democracy,'' wrote John W. Vessey, Jr, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on
July 29, 1983.
But on Oct. 24, 1983, State Department official Tony Motley cabled
that diplomats should ``stress [to Vides] the need to keep the aid flowing by
strong action on human rights and eliminating the death squads and the
prosecution of those responsible for violations.''
On Sept. 29, 1984 -- a year after Vides ascended to defense minister
official cabled Washington: ``Vides told me Lopez Sibrian,'' a military assassin
who killed two American labor-union officials at the San Salvador Sheraton Hotel
Jan. 3, 1981, ``was a good guy. I said he [Lopez Sibrian] was crazy and guilty as
hell and nobody like that could be a good guy.''