April 3, 1998

Were Salvadoran guardsmen ordered to kill nuns?

                      U.S. questions their claims

                      WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials
                      question the veracity of four former Salvadoran
                      guardsmen who, for the first time, say that they
                      raped and killed 3 U.S. nuns and a lay worker in
                      1980 on orders from superiors.

                      Government sources told CNN that the
                      guardsmen have repeatedly offered to give more
                      information on the crime in return for amnesty.
                      One source said the offer does not necessarily
                      mean the guardsmen are lying, but that it does
                      raise questions.

                      The guardsmen made their admissions in interviews with Scott
                      Greathead and Robert Weiner of the New York-based Lawyers
                      Committee for Human Rights, which represents families of the
                      victims. George Black, research and editorial director of the
                      committee, confirmed the comments, which were reported in
                      Friday's editions of The New York Times.

                      "I can confirm it's an accurate report," Black said Friday, adding
                      that he could not provide details of the guardsmen's admissions.

                      The Times quoted one of the guardsmen as saying his superior told
                      them, "Don't be worried. This is an order that comes from higher
                      levels, and nothing is going to happen to us."

                      That superior, Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, was also
                      convicted, but he is held in a separate prison and declined to talk
                      to the investigators.

                      U.N. report claimed a cover-up

                      El Salvador and the United States have always maintained that the
                      men acted on their own, but human rights groups insisted that the
                      murders were ordered, approved and directed by the military.

                      U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin repeated that
                      position Friday during a briefing.

                      "A U.S. federal judge went down there and conducted an
                      exhaustive review of the killings, concluding that the guardsmen
                      were not -- I emphasize the word 'not' -- following orders from
                      senior officers," Rubin said.

                      "If, however, there is any new evidence that emerges, we would
                      want to see the Salvadorans vigorously urge the
                      investigate and, if warranted, to prosecute those implicated."

                      In 1993, a U.N. report concluded that Col. Carlos Eugenio Vides
                      Casanova, director of the National Guard in 1980, and Minister of
                      Defense Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia had organized an official
                      cover-up of the incident.

                      According to public record, both men were granted residence in
                      the United States and live in Florida.

                      Government sources said that if there is credible evidence of their
                      involvement in the incident, there should be a probe of how they
                      received their visas. As of now, the officials say, there is no reason
                      to question their residency.

                      'An order from above'

                      The slayings of the nuns -- Maryknoll nuns Ita Ford, 40, Maura
                      Clarke, 49, and Dorothy Kazel, 41, and lay worker Jean
                      Donovan, 27 -- came during a bloody civil war launched the
                      preceding year by leftist guerrillas against a repressive military

                      The United States was engaged in the early stages of a
                      decade-long, $7 billion effort to prevent the guerrillas from coming
                      to power. The war finally ended in 1992 after claiming the lives of
                      nearly 70,000 people.

                      The former guardsmen were convicted of murder in 1984,
                      sentenced to 30 years in prison and have twice been declared
                      ineligible for amnesty offered at the end of the war because their
                      crime was classified as non-political.

                      Those convicted were Daniel Canales Ramirez, Carlos Joaquin
                      Contreras Palacios, Francisco Orlando Contreras Recinos and
                      Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura.

                      One guardsman told the Times, "What I remember is that we were
                      told that we had to carry out a special service" by Sgt. Colindres
                      Aleman. He added that "when we consulted with him as to why, he
                      said it was an order from above."

                      'The system just didn't work that way'

                      The Times said the four former guardsmen stressed that they did
                      not know who in the chain of command issued the original order to
                      kill the women.

                      William Ford, brother of Ita Ford and an attorney, said the
                      statements confirmed what the victims' families had always

                      "I've had dozens of conversations in El Salvador over the years
                      with people who said it would be simply unthinkable for any group
                      of low-ranking guardsmen to kill four North American women
                      without having been ordered to do so, that the system just didn't
                      work that way," Ford told the Times.

                      Reuters contributed to this report.