The Miami Herald
October 19, 2000

Salvadoran ex-official denies role in killings


 In a voice that four bereaved families have been waiting nearly 20 years to hear,
 former Salvadoran Defense Minister José Guillermo García promised to tell the
 truth in a West Palm Beach federal courtroom Wednesday, then denied he knew
 about widely publicized killings committed by security forces he commanded.

 Was he aware of the December 1981 El Mozote massacre, which left 1,000
 peasants dead? lawyer Bob Kerrigan asked.

 No, said García, 67. A ``military operation''; not a massacre.

 Did he know that security forces and paramilitaries were murdering doctors,
 nurses, medical students -- even patients in their hospital beds?

 No, said García.

 ``There were innocent children and babies being killed, and you never heard a
 complaint in 1980?'' Kerrigan demanded, referencing the year in which security
 officers raped and shot four American churchwomen in El Salvador.

 ``There were abuses that cannot be denied,'' García said. ``But not massacres.''

 If he had known about atrocities, he would have tried to prevent them, by better
 educating and training troops, he said.

 But he said he couldn't have prevented the deaths of Sisters Ita Ford, Maura
 Clarke and Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan, crimes for which five
 low-level soldiers served prison time.

 ``Do you now think that you should have known in 1980 that killings were taking
 place by the armed forces?'' Kerrigan asked.

 ``I really don't understand how you can ask me that,'' García snapped. ``It was a

 He blamed a ``culture of death'' in El Salvador not just for the 75,000 casualties in
 the country's 12-year civil war, but for ``20 killings a day'' in crime-related violence
 this year.

 He admitted he saw news reports about the ``abuses,'' but absent official orders
 to investigate, he didn't. In any case, García said he lacked ``the means'' to do

 The churchwomen's families are suing García and ex-National Guard Director
 Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 62, in civil court. The suit relies on the
 internationally recognized ``theory of command'' principle that holds superior
 officers liable for their subordinates' misdeeds, if they knew about or could have
 prevented them.

 Vides Casanova testifies today. Both men live in Florida.

 Attempting to show no one below them moved without direction or consent from
 military brass like García and Vides Casanova, the plaintiffs introduced Brig. Gen.
 Fred Woerner's fall 1981 El Salvador Strategy Assistance Team report.

 ``Staff procedures are highly centralized in the persons of the principal staff
 officers to such a degree that deputies are constrained even from making
 recommendations in the absence of the principal,'' the report reads. ``The concept
 of delegation of authority is virtually nonexistent.''