The New York Times
May 13, 1999
2 Salvadoran Generals Sued by Families of Slain Churchwomen

          By PAMELA MERCER

          MIAMI -- The families of four American churchwomen who were
          murdered while on mission in El Salvador more than 18 years
          ago have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against two senior Salvadoran
          military officers who are now retired and living in Florida.

          The complaint, filed Tuesday, says both officers were responsible for the
          torture, rape and murder of the three nuns and a church lay worker in
          1980, an incident that sparked international outrage and led to furious
          debate in the United States about the wisdom of its support of the
          Salvadoran government.

          The four women, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita C. Ford and
          Dorothy Kazel, were detained on the night of December 2, 1980, at a
          military checkpoint near the international airport in San Salvador. The
          next day, their bodies, with bullet holes in the head and signs of physical
          and sexual assault, were discovered along a back road by local peasants.

          The murders occurred at a time when the Salvadoran security forces, and
          allied death squads, were engaged in a brutal campaign of torture and
          killings against real and perceived sympathizers of the country's guerrilla
          groups. The targets included religious leaders and others who were
          critical of the army's actions.

          The families of the women decided to file the lawsuit, which seeks
          unspecified damages, after they learned last year that the two defendants,
          Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, El Salvador's defense minister at the time,
          and Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, then a colonel who was
          director general of the National Guard, were living in the United States.

          Coming in the midst of deepening American involvement in the civil war,
          the killings led the Carter administration to halt aid to El Salvador briefly.
          Assistance resumed, however, when U.S officials decided that the
          Salvadoran government was doing everything in its power to investigate
          the crimes. During the civil conflict, which began in 1979 and lasted
          about a dozen years, American assistance to El Salvador grew to about
          $7 billion.

          In 1984, five members of the national guard were convicted of the
          murders and sentenced to 30 years in prison. For years, both the U.S.
          and Salvadoran governments maintained that the guardsmen bore sole
          responsibility for the killings.

          In March 1998, four of the guardsmen broke their silence and admitted
          to a group of American human rights lawyers that they had killed the
          churchwomen, acting on orders given to them by their superiors. They
          later repeated the admission to The New York Times.

          Although the guardsmen did not mention Garcia or Vides by name, the
          lawsuit charges that, as commanding officers, both men were in a position
          to know about the murders before they were committed and both tried to
          cover up the involvement of senior officers.

          "From the specific accounts of the abduction and murder, it is clear that
          the women were obviously targeted," said Robert Weiner, with the
          Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which is assisting the lawyers for
          the families of the churchwomen. "We had every indication that there was
          some sort of reporting being disseminated throughout the intelligence
          channel before the killing. These two men headed the intelligence

          Garcia, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, denied the accusations contained in
          the lawsuit.

          "I am far removed from any likelihood of having had knowledte, much
          less, been involved, in the act," he said. "This case has taken on a
          dimension, I don't know if it's personal or political."

          Garcia added that those who had killed the nuns were trying to create a
          rift btween El Salvador and the United States.

          Vides, who lives in Palm Coast, about 25 miles north of Daytona Beach,
          was not available for comment.

          The charges contained in the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in
          West Palm Beach, are consistent with accusations made over the years
          by human rights organizations, most notably, by a 1993 U.N. Truth
          Commission report. Last year, the United States released declassified
          documents that indicated that both Garcia and U.S. officials believed that
          the murders had been committed at the behest of other senior officers,
          including Vides, who received two Legion of Merit awards from
          President Ronald Reagan.

          Despite lingering suspicions, the two generals were granted resident visas
          to the United States in November 1989. Robert G. Kerrigan, the lawyer
          for the families, said the statute of limitations for filing the lawsuit would
          expire 10 years from that time.

          After their confession last year, two of the four guardsmen, as well as
          their commanding sergeant, were released on parole for good behavior.
          The Salvadoran government said that it does not plan to investigate the
          case any further. The State Department has said that issue of whether or
          not the five guardsmen acted alone has not yet been resolved.

          To the families of the churchwomen, the U.S. government's attitude,
          which they say flies in the face of mounting evidence, is reason enough to
          file suit.

          "We brought the suit to expose these people and to bring pressure on our
          government to expel these people," said William Ford, Ita Ford's older
          brother. ''This country has no place being a retirement place for

          Rep. James McGovern said that he and Rep. Joseph Moakley, a fellow
          Massachusetts Democrat who investigated the murders of six Jesuit
          priests and two other people in 1989 in El Salvador, planned to ask the
          Clinton administration to release all documents pertaining to the case so
          that the plaintiffs in the suit can use it during the trial.

          Speaking of the lawsuit, McGovern said he hoped it would send a
          message to other people who are accused of atrocities and who seek a
          safe haven in the United States.

          "Shame on the United States government for allowing this to happen," he

                     Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company