July 22, 1998
Salvadorans who killed nuns in '80 freed from prison

SAN VICENTE, El Salvador (AP) -- Two former national guardsmen convicted in the rapes and murders of three American nuns have been paroled from prison, complicating efforts to investigate allegations that the murders were ordered by high-ranking officers.

A five-man squad kidnapped, raped and killed Roman Catholic nuns Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Maura Clark and layworker Jean Donovan on December 2, 1980. A third member could be released Wednesday.

The two guardsmen were released Tuesday under a new law intended to ease prison overcrowding. Each had served 17 years of a 30-year prison sentence.

The two other former guardsmen convicted in the case did not qualify for release because one previously had been convicted on weapons charges and the other had participated in a prison disturbance.

The crimes caused outrage in the United States, which strongly supported the Salvadoran government during the 1980-1992 civil war. The women apparently were killed because military-backed death squads suspected them of sympathizing with leftist guerrillas.

"The families of the churchwomen have felt that the government of El Salvador should certainly not have released these men before closely questioning them on the matter of higher orders: Who ordered this crime and who covered it up," said William Ford, Ita Ford's brother, in a telephone interview from his home in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.

U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration and the U.S. State Department previously had criticized the plan to parole the guardsmen, a process that has been delayed by appeals from prosecutors.

Former Guardsman Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura quietly left La Esperanza prison, 4 miles (6 kilometers) north of San Salvador, while Sgt. Luis Colindres -- who commanded the guard squad -- walked out of a prison in San Vicente, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast of San Salvador.

"I have always worked in accordance with the law," Colindres told reporters at the prison gates, breaking a 14-year silence on his conviction. He refused to back up claims by other members of the squad that they received orders from "higher ups" to murder the four women.

"Unfortunately, as a low-ranking officer, one must often keep to the sidelines," Colindres said, without elaborating.

The New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights reported earlier this year that one of the convicted guardsmen quoted Colindres as telling the squad: "Don't be worried. This is an order that comes from higher levels, and nothing is going to happen to us."

A 1993 U.N. commission report determined that the director of the national guard at the time of the slayings, Col. Eugenio Vides Casanova, and Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, had tried to hide the killings. It also concluded that Vides Casanova knew that the guardsmen had killed the women on the orders of superiors.

The victims' families and supporters were angered earlier this year when they learned that both former officials were living in the United States.

William Ford said both men "should certainly be called to testify under oath in front of Congress about what they know about the orders to murder the women and the subsequent cover-up."

Vides Casanova has denied those accusations, saying "my conscience would never be able to rest if I knew their orders to kill came from above."

In June, the Salvadoran government said it could not reopen the probe into the slayings despite evidence that those who orchestrated the killings were never punished.

Chief Prosecutor Manuel Cordova said the 10-year statute of limitations on murder had expired, so "technically it is not possible to reopen the case, independent of the evidence, complaints or information that has been received."