Senior officers ordered murder of nuns,
jailed ex-soldier says
By GLENN GARVIN
Herald Staff Writer
QUEZALTEPEQUE, El Salvador -- Every time he opens his mouth, Daniel Canales
believes, he moves his appointment with death a few days closer.
And still he won't be quiet.
``If I don't talk about this, I would feel like I was drowning,'' he said.
After 17 years in prison for his part in the 1980 rape-murder of four American
churchwomen, Canales is finally saying what many critics of U.S. policy claimed all
along: The murders were committed at the orders of senior military officers closely
tied to Washington.
``It's sad to me that those men are living well in Florida, and I'm here
paying for it,''
Canales said in a prison interview this week. ``It's not fair. It's not justice.''
Canales is one of five enlisted men who drew 30-year sentences for the
American nuns Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel and church social worker
The women were abducted at a military checkpoint outside El Salvador's
international airport on the night of Dec. 2, 1980, then driven to a deserted dirt road
where they were raped and shot.
The five soldiers were arrested several months later, mostly on the strength
fingerprint and ballistic evidence collected by the FBI, and eventually were convicted
after one confessed and implicated the others.
But families of the murdered women -- and many other critics of the Salvadoran
government -- always insisted the enlisted men must have had orders from above.
The U.S. and Salvadoran governments were collaborating in a coverup of the roles
of senior officers, they argued, to avoid jeopardizing the multibillion-dollar aid
Washington was sending to help fight a Marxist insurgency.
Canales says the critics are right, at least about the participation of
``We were soldiers,'' he said. ``And you know how it is for soldiers. We never made
decisions for ourselves.''
The soldiers said nothing about following orders during their 1984 trial,
nor for years
afterward. But when lawyers for the families of the murdered women were allowed
to interview them for the first time in March of this year, four of the soldiers
allegedly said the killings had been ordered by superiors.
Agrees to see reporters
When two American reporters were permitted to visit the grimy penitentiary
Quezaltepeque this week, Canales gave this account of the evening of Dec. 2, 1980:
Canales was lounging on his bed in the national guard barracks at the airport,
for his duty shift to begin at midnight, when the barracks phone rang. He listened idly
as Sgt. Luis Antonio Colindres answered the phone and said, ``Yes, sir'' several
times to whomever was on the other end. Finally, Colindres said, ``Yes, my colonel,''
and hung up the phone.
``That was when the sergeant started calling off names of soldiers and
telling us to
come with him,'' Canales said. ``He called my name, and I said, `Hey, I'm on guard
duty tonight.' He said, `No, you aren't -- these are orders.' ''
Canales didn't hear the sergeant use any names during the phone conversation,
refused to speculate which colonel he might have been talking to.
Two retired officers in Florida
But his complaint about ``men living in Florida'' offers a clue. Two Salvadoran
colonels at the time, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia,
have retired to Florida.
Garcia, at the time of the killings, was defense minister, while Vides
head of the national guard. Both men were accused in a 1992 U.N. report of
orchestrating an official coverup of the details of the killings.
Vides Casanova, now living in the Florida town of Palm Coast, flatly rejected
allegations Friday, saying, ``Never did I know of anyone involved in this case other
than those five people who were arrested.''
``My conscience is completely clean,'' he told The Herald. ``I would not
kinds of accusations based on just `I heard someone say: Yes, my colonel.' ''
According to Canales, 14 soldiers set up two checkpoints on the highway
airport. The mission, the sergeant told them, was to arrest some ``American
``The sergeant told us, `We're here because we have an arrest order against
women for involvement in political activity in El Salvador,' '' Canales said. ``He said
they were `American women.' He didn't say they were nuns.''
A signal of flashing lights
A few minutes later, a jeep at the other checkpoint flashed its lights,
the signal that
the American women had been stopped. Canales, Colindres and the other three
soldiers in their group quickly drove over to find a van containing four women
dressed in street clothing.
``I remember they said, `We're religious workers,' nothing more,'' Canales
``They weren't crying or anything; they didn't seem scared. I didn't think too much
about it. As far as I knew, they were just being detained.''
The sergeant ordered his men to drive the women and their vehicle toward
settlement called Rosario de Paz, a few miles away. It was only when they reached
Rosario de Paz, Canales said, that the sergeant said the women were involved with
Marxist guerrillas and were going to be killed.
Canales said the idea repelled him.
``I'd never committed anything as stupid as this,'' he said, ``and I did
not want to take
the life of a human being.''
Posted as sentry
Initially, it looked like he wouldn't have to. He was posted as a sentry
in Rosario de
Paz, while the other soldiers took the women a couple of miles down the road.
But two hours later, a passing patrol told Canales that the sergeant wanted
join the others. The women, fully clothed and mouths gagged, were still alive,
gathered around a jeep when he arrived. A few minutes later, the other soldiers
marched the women single file into the darkness. Moments later, Canales said he
heard several bursts of shots.
Canales insisted he didn't kill any of the women and that he didn't see any rapes.
In any event, Canales admitted, he didn't lodge any objections. ``To go
army is to sign your own death warrant,'' he said.
Relatives of the murdered women said Canales' account is grounds for reopening
the case, both in El Salvador's courts and the State Department's files, which they
believe should be made public.
President Armando Calderon Sol told The Herald on Friday that any decision
reopening the case would be up to a judge, and he would play no role in it. But, he
said, his personal opinion is that the Salvadoran civil war and the many crimes
committed during it should remain a closed book.
``We have to move on and build a future,'' the president said. ``We shouldn't
but we should forgive.''
But he added: ``I know it is easy for me to say that, and it will be much
the families [of the victims] to do.''
Herald staff writer Juan O. Tamayo contributed to this report.