The Miami Herald
October 31, 2000

Envoys wrote of Salvador abuses

Cables to U.S. tied officers to killings


 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
 in Florida.

 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 early 1980s
 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, certified
 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 Thomas Enders
 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 massacres of
 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 Congressional
 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 hold García
 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 the teacher's
 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 Inquisition-type
 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 Sister Dorothy
 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
 days later.


 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 show
 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
 armed forces.

 ``There is something of an Alice in Wonderland air to conversations with top
 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, U.S. officials
 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 block the
 human-rights certification that Congress had required to keep military aid flowing.

 Example: the June 12, 1982, dispatch from Enders. In it, Enders advised Hinton
 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 the
 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 Sub-Sergeant
 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 lieutenant. He
 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, the
 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, who helped
 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
 unacceptably weak.''

 He concluded that Colindres' admission to his superior, Maj. Lizandro Zepeda
 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 shortly after
 they happened. He found no evidence of National Guard involvement.


 On Monday, defense lawyer Kurt Klaus showed the jury piles of laudatory letters
 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 Washington
 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 -- another
 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.''