Torture victims press new case against Salvadoran ex-generals
SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- Two former Salvadoran generals are
settling back into their lives as Florida retirees, cleared by a U.S. jury of responsibility
in the brutal 1980 slayings of four American churchwomen during their country's bloody civil war.
But Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova should not
comfortable. They face a second trial that promises to be more dramatic than the
first: In the new trial, not related to the nuns' case, the victims survived to tell
their blood-curdling stories.
"The nuns are dead and they can't say what happened to them, but we are
alive," said plaintiff
Neris Gonzales, 45, of Chicago. "The generals will be very nervous, and the jury can't help but be
affected by that."
The new case has been brought by San Francisco-based human rights group
for Justice and Accountability on behalf of Gonzales and three other U.S. residents from El
Salvador who blame Garcia, 67, and Vides Casanova, 62, for their abductions and torture by
security forces during the country's 12-year war, which killed more than 75,000 people before it
ended in 1992.
The suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, is set for trial in
federal court in Florida.
While the case has not generated the intense media scrutiny that accompanied
churchwomen case, the victims hope their first-hand accounts of life in torture
chambers and detention centers will heighten awareness of Washington's role in
promoting state-sponsored violence and terror in El Salvador during the Cold
War 1980s, when vast amounts of U.S. military aid went to Central America to
"The people of the United States are going to say, 'How is it possible
helped these dictators?"' said plaintiff Jorge Montes, 38, who claimed he was
beaten and tortured by the Salvadoran military in 1981.
Garcia and Vides Casanova deny all allegations, claiming they had nothing
with the plaintiffs' ordeals. But the four torture victims and their lawyers hope
the case will shame the United States into reconsidering its policy of opening
America's doors to human rights abusers.
Gonzales was eight months pregnant when she was abducted and taken to a
National Guard post on December 26, 1979. According to the suit, her captors,
who suspected she had ties to leftist guerrillas, balanced a metal bed frame on
her abdomen and made seesaw motions by standing on either end. Her baby died
at two months of injuries sustained in utero.
Carlos Mauricio, 48, of San Francisco, was hung by his wrists and beaten
during his 2-1/2 weeks of captivity. "I am sure the jury will be shocked by what
happened to me," he said.
The plaintiffs contend they were targeted by El Salvador's government because
of their work with church, school and other groups suspected of collaborating
with leftist guerrillas.
The case involving the U.S. churchwomen ended on November 3 with a
unanimous verdict that the ex-generals were not responsible for the abduction,
rape and murder of nuns Ita Ford, 40, Maura Clarke, 49, and Dorothy Kazel, 40,
and lay missionary Jean Donovan, 27. The women's relatives, who sought $100
million in compensation, are seeking a new trial.
Both defendants have been living in retirement on the Florida coast since
1980s. Garcia was El Salvador's defense minister and Vides Casanova headed the
National Guard from 1979 to 1983, then succeeded Garcia as head of the
U.S.-trained and funded military.
El Salvador's 1993 amnesty law protects them from prosecution in that country.
But the plaintiffs believe Garcia and Vides Casanova should be held liable under
the military doctrine of "command responsibility," which holds superiors
responsible for the crimes of their subordinates when they are aware of
systematic human rights abuses but do not stop them.
The suits brought by the churchwomen and torture victims both were filed
under the 1992 Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Claims Act, the
U.S. statute also used in human rights cases against former Philippines President
Ferdinand Marcos and Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
"Garcia and Vides Casanova knew about the existence of clandestine torture
facilities in El Salvador in the late 1970s, and they never did anything to
investigate or close them down," said Shawn Roberts, an attorney with The
Center for Justice and Accountability, the San Francisco-based group that
brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs.
While a Salvadoran court convicted five lower-ranking guardsmen in the
churchwomen case, the victims' families long believed that the soldiers' superiors
The ex-generals' lawyer, Kurt Klaus Jr., said his clients were pro-democracy
reformers who did the best they could under the circumstances to end
death-squad killings and other human rights abuses.
But he said they could not have foreseen or prevented all violations. "It's
Gen. Westmoreland wasn't responsible for what Lt. Calley did," Klaus said,
referring to the U.S. massacre of civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam war.
But Notre Dame University law professor Juan Mendez, who investigated human
rights abuses in El Salvador in the 1980s, said superiors kept tight control of
their troops during the long civil conflict.
"The military forces were not a ragtag gang of wild and undisciplined soldiers,"
Mendez said. "The situation was one of total control."
Roberts said the torture victim case was part of a larger movement seeking
bring to justice those who commit atrocities -- if not in their home countries,
then in any country that will accept jurisdiction, according to human rights
"My philosophy is that unless there some effective way of holding people
accountable for what took place, (human rights abuses) will come and rear their
ugly head again in some kind of conflict," Roberts said.
Copyright 2000 Reuters.