Former Salvadoran guard chief testifies he couldn't halt abuses
BY YVES COLON
WEST PALM BEACH -- The former commander of El Salvador's National
acknowledged Thursday that torture, kidnappings and other human rights
violations took place during his command two decades ago, but he insisted that
they occurred without orders from superior officers.
``Certain people would go about violating certain laws,'' former
Eugenio Vides Casanova testified in a federal courtroom, where he is a defendant
in a case brought by the families of four American church women slain near San
Salvador's airport on Dec. 2, 1980.
HARD TO CHANGE
``It was difficult to make these types of changes in an organization
with a tradition
that goes back 50 to 60 years.''
Five National Guardsmen were convicted of the crime in 1984, but
were ever brought against officers. Three of the five later told a human-rights group
that they acted under orders from superiors.
Although he commanded the troops who committed the crimes, Vides
insisted that he neither gave such orders nor knew of them. He said he was aware
of abuses while in office, but was never able to establish specifically who was
``These people [who committed these acts] were not known,'' Vides
said through a translator. ``They would always act in such a way that all
responsibility would fall on the armed forces.''
Vides Casanova and former Gen. José Guillermo García,
El Salvador's defense
minister at the time of the killings, were brought to trial under the 1992 Torture
Victim Protection Act, which lets victims or their relatives sue individuals who
may have known of crimes but did nothing to stop them.
Relatives of the families of Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and
Dorothy Kazel and
lay missionary Jean Donovan are seeking punitive and compensatory damages
from the two men, who have lived in retirement in Florida for the past decade.
Vides Casanova lives in Palm Coast and García in Plantation.
Mike Donovan, the brother of Jean Donovan, said it was a milestone
``human rights abusers sitting in a witness stand in a U.S. courtroom.
``They finally have to answer for what they did,'' said Donovan,
an accountant who
lives in West Palm Beach. ``They can no longer rely on an ineffective judiciary in
their county. They're finally being held accountable. The message is being sent
out there that Florida is not a retirement center for international criminals.''
The killings took place at a time when El Salvador was divided
by civil war. More
than 75,000 casualties were recorded during that period, including Archbishop
Oscar Romero and six Jesuit priests killed at the University of Central America.
An international Truth Commission found that 85 percent of the
committed by the military and its allies in paramilitary death squads.
All day, prosecutor Robert Montgomery pressed Vides Casanova about
was notified of the churchwomen's murders and his role in the investigations that
followed. He said he first learned of the murders when he saw photographs in the
On a courtroom screen Montgomery displayed pages of a 1993 report
former federal judge Harold R. Tyler Jr., who was appointed by former Secretary of
State George Schulz to investigate the murders.
In the report, Tyler concluded that there had been a coverup of
and the identities of the murderers by high level Salvadoran Army and National
Montgomery also showed cables from embassy officials pointing
out that Vides
Casanova shrugged off responsibility for his soldiers' behavior.
``In his answers to us, Vides Casanova attempted to distance himself
completely as possible from all investigations of the crime,'' the report stated.
`IT'S ALL OUT'
Vides Casanova said he cooperated with investigators, and that
he was made
aware only two years ago of the report, which named the officers who covered up
the killing. He said their cover-up was not approved by higher officers.
``I have never intervened in covering up anything,'' he said.
``I feel sorry that people
under my orders were responsible of this crime.''
Lawyer Bill Ford, whose sister was among the slain, traveled from
to assist in the trial.
``For 20 years the Salvadoran government has been saying that
these reports of
abuses were just fantasies made up by the left-wing press,'' Ford said. ``Now, it's
all out. Vides Casanova couldn't control his own men.''