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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
"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."
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.
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
"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