The Miami Herald
October 26, 2000

Former military leader denies role in deaths of nuns

Salvadoran avoided inquiry


 Gen. José Guillermo García, a top military official in El Salvador during part of its
 ruinous civil war, Wednesday portrayed himself as a peace-loving patriot and said
 he did not investigate the killings of four American churchwomen only to avoid the
 appearance of military interference in the probe.

 ``You cannot imagine what it is like to have the finger pointed at you for
 something you have not done,'' García, 67, told a West Palm Beach federal jury
 during a rambling monologue, ending his second day of testimony in a
 wrongful-death case brought by the families of the four churchwomen murdered in
 El Salvador 20 years ago.

 ``I want to say to you that our families have suffered,'' said former Defense
 Minister García, alluding to codefendant Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 62, the
 former National Guard director.

 García, of Plantation, entered the United States on a political asylum claim after
 resigning in 1983 because, he testified, he refused to use the incendiary weapon
 napalm on left-wing guerrillas. His wife and children preceded him.

 It was then-Salvadoran President José Napoleon Duarte who told García not to
 investigate the murder for fear of tainting the process with military intervention,
 García testified.

 To prove their claim under the 1992 Torture Victim Protection Act, the plaintiffs
 must show that the generals ordered, tolerated or failed to prevent, investigate
 and/or punish crimes committed by their subordinates.

 The women's relatives listened in amazement.

 ``I couldn't believe it,'' Mike Donovan said later. The Palm Beach Gardens
 accountant's sister was Jean Donovan, a Catholic lay missionary raped and shot
 along with nuns Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel on Dec. 2, 1980.

 Five Salvadoran National Guardsmen were convicted of the crimes.

 Ford's sister, Irene Ford of Brooklyn, N.Y., dissolved into tears after the jury left
 the courtroom.

 ``The real victims are the women . . . and the people of El Salvador,'' said Ford,
 58. ``I lost my best friend.''

 García spent much of the day narrating and interpreting a collage of old
 Salvadoran government propaganda films: choppily edited and lacking identifying
 information or context, yet complete with melodramatic voice-overs and
 horror-movie and martial music.

 One showed a map of the Caribbean and Central America with an animated arrow
 pointing from Cuba to El Salvador. Another splashed the word ``Terrorismo''
 across the screen in red typeface that looked like dripping blood.

 During footage of soldiers goose-stepping around a San Salvador stadium, García
 declared: ``Since so many negative things have been said, it's good that you can
 see the relations of the armed forces and the people.''

 He took credit for military restraint at the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Romero,
 assassinated in March 1980 -- by government troops, it's generally believed.

 News footage presented at the trial showed insurgents with handguns firing into a
 crowd of thousands of mourners, with the sound of exploding smoke bombs.
 Thirty-nine mourners died, most trampled in the ensuing panic.

 García said he refused to permit insurgents to provoke a government response
 and, thus, create propaganda for themselves.

 Carl Hersh, the ABC News photographer whose footage of the Romero funeral
 was shown in court, said he doesn't doubt that García was involved in keeping
 soldiers away from the Plaza Barrios that day.

 ``The international press was out in force, and they would have been incredibly
 stupid for them to have [attacked] -- not that that always stopped them,'' said
 Hersh, who didn't attend the trial but said by phone that he recalled the day very
 well. Hersh now runs Close-Up Productions, a South Miami documentary
 production company.

 García had his lawyer, Kurt Klaus Jr. of Miami, displayed hand-illustrated
 pamphlets that, he said, proved he tried to sensitize El Salvador's 14,000 military
 and security officers to human rights. But he couldn't control them all, García

 Mike Donovan, brother of one of the victims, said he was not impressed.

 ``It's the typical refuge of the former dictator: `I was a patriot and I sacrificed
 everything for the people.' Give me a break!''