Justice Sought in Trial of Salvadoran Generals
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. –– The two former Salvadoran generals--now comfortable
Florida retirees--sit impassively in the federal courtroom here, listening
carefully as a Spanish interpreter informs them of the testimony alleging their responsibility in the brutal 1980 executions of four American churchwomen in El
In this historic civil trial, unfolding here for the past three weeks,
Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 62, the former director general of the Salvadoran
and Jose Guillermo Garcia, 67, the former Salvadoran defense minister, have denied any wrongdoing in the deaths. But if the families of the slain women, who have
worked 20 years toward this moment, have their way, the quiet retirement the two men have enjoyed for the past decade will be shattered.
"We want a jury verdict that these generals are the people liable for
the deaths of the sisters, and then we will go to the INS [Immigration
and Naturalization Service]
to get their visas revoked," said William Ford, a New York trial lawyer who is the brother of slain nun Ita Ford and has led the families' struggle. "The United States
should not be the retirement venue of choice for murderers."
The trial, which is about to enter its final week, has been an unsettling
review of the alleged atrocities that took place in El Salvador during
the country's bloody
12-year civil war from 1979 to the early 1990s, when a reported 75,000 people were killed. The slain also included Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero and
six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America.
The case represents the first time defendants have faced the charges
against them and testified in their own behalf in a suit filed under the
1992 Torture Victims
Protection Act, according to the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The law allows victims of war crimes or their families to sue top-level
government officials who "authorize, tolerate or knowingly ignore" violence committed by their subordinates, U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley told the jury of
six women and four men.
"This is the first case in the United States under the act where the
defendants have come to court to present their case," said Michael H. Posner,
executive director of
the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which has worked with the families for the past 20 years. "It's important in terms of getting at the truth and establishing
some official acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
"It's also a case," he said, "where the two senior military leaders
of a government are being held responsible for their failure to address
a systemwide breakdown
under a doctrine called 'command responsibility,' which means that they knew, or should have known, that soldiers under their command were committing gross
human rights crimes and they failed to investigate those crimes and to stop further crimes from occurring. This case is basically testing whether they have ultimate
responsibility for the whole pattern of violence that occurred."
The case of the four churchwomen remains a flash point in the history
of the Salvadoran civil war. A photograph showing villagers using ropes
to exhume their bodies
from a dusty grave was disseminated around the world and heightened awareness of the then-escalating chaos. Church workers were targeted by the so-called death
squads because they were viewed as sympathetic to the poor and to rebel forces in the countryside.
On Dec. 2, 1980, Ford and Maura Clarke, who were nuns with the Maryknoll
order, along with Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean
were detained by Salvadoran National Guardsmen as they left the airport in San Salvador. They were taken to a village about an hour away, where they were raped
and shot to death, their vehicle burned and their bodies left to be buried by villagers who found them.
Five low-ranking National Guardsmen were tried and convicted in the
case in 1984. A subsequent international Truth Commission established by
the United Nations
decided that Garcia and Vides Casanova obstructed the slaying investigation. The three-person panel also stated that the military committed 85 percent of the
executions and other crimes during the war.
In 1988, four of the convicted men told human rights investigators that they were acting on orders from superiors.
Last year, the families filed the civil suit in federal court after
they learned the former generals were living in the United States. Although
they have requested
compensatory and punitive damages, and a figure of at least $1 million has been mentioned, they say they are not motivated by the money.
"We're trying to get some justice--the same as people after World War
II, the Holocaust victims and their families," said James Clarke of Lantana,
Fla., the brother
of Maura Clarke. "It was really the only avenue open to us."
The trial so far has featured testimony from a priest and a nun, human-rights
workers, and two former U.S. ambassadors to El Salvador, including Robert
the envoy in 1980 who said Garcia and Vides Casanova had not done enough to investigate the slayings and had participated in a government cover-up.
"We knew pretty well what had happened--we knew from the first day," said White.
White testified that someone had tacked a sign on the church workers'
house in Chalatenango the month before their deaths, stating that the inhabitants
communists who must die, and that a military helicopter had followed the women.
Last week, Edwin G. Corr, who served as the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador
from 1985 to 1988, testified on behalf of Vides Casanova, calling him "a
honorable man" who "made a tremendous contribution to the restoring of democracy and the reduction of human-rights abuses in El Salvador."
Garcia, who now lives in Plantation, Fla., and Vides Casanova, who lives
in Palm Coast, conceded in testimony that human rights abuses occurred
during the war,
but insisted they ordered no deaths and did not obstruct investigations. Both said they were sorry for the losses the families suffered.
On the stand, Vides Casanova said he did "everything humanly possible
to correct . . . deficiencies [in the Salvadoran military]. But it is not
easy to change a tradition
of 50 years overnight or to make democracy in a country."
In his testimony Thursday, Garcia agreed, citing the confusion of the time and the complexity of the emotions that rent the country.
"For a person who doesn't know what really happened in El Salvador," Garcia said through an interpreter, "it is easy to form a solution 20 years later."
© 2000 The Washington Post