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Trial of Salvadoran generals opens in Florida

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
West Palm Beach, Fla.

The former head of El Salvador’s armed forces once admitted to U.S. officials that security forces he commanded participated in paramilitary death squads, according to testimony here in a trial linked to the murders of four U.S. churchwomen 20 years ago.

It has long been suspected that a right-wing death squad related to the Salvadoran military was responsible for the deaths of the women and others who opposed the government.

On trial in U.S. District Court for wrongful death charges are Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, former minister of defense for El Salvador and a former subordinate, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who led El Salvador’s National Guard under Garcia’s command. The trial opened Oct. 11.

The charges were brought by the families of the women who were kidnapped, raped and brutally murdered on Dec. 2, 1980. The women were Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan.

Robert White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, reading from recently declassified cables he authored in 1980, testified Oct. 12 that the former minister of defense for El Salvador had admitted to White and a U.S. army official that he (Garcia) “knew security forces were participating in death squads.” The admission reportedly came shortly before the women were murdered.

White also told the court that Garcia ignored U.S. requests to bring to trial Roberto D’Aubuisson, a notorious ex-officer known as “The Blowtorch,” who is widely believed responsible for the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, known as an advocate for the poor and a critic of the military, in March 1980. Garcia twice released D’Aubuisson from jail.

The families brought suit under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1992 federal statute that allows victims and their families to bring suit against those who bear “command responsibility” for the criminal actions of subordinates. To prove their case, plaintiff attorneys Robert Montgomery and Robert Kerrigan must show that the generals knew of or should have known of the criminal actions, failed to prevent the crimes, failed to discipline those responsible, or covered up the actions.

Garcia, 67, and Vides Casanova, 62, deny any wrongdoing. Both retired from the Salvadoran military and have lived in Florida since about 1989. Garcia obtained political asylum in 1991, claiming he had received anonymous death threats in El Salvador, according to court documents. It is not clear whether the U.S. government or any politician assisted in his asylum claim.

During his testimony, White recounted his tenure as ambassador to El Salvador for the Carter administration. Montgomery read from White’s secret reports to the State Department. “Injustice permeates this society,” White wrote in the secret March 1980 report. He described “the intense hatred of the masses ... created by the insensitivity, blindness and brutal ruling elite.”

White testified about his failed attempts to convince Garcia to weed out the most brutal murderers among his troops, who also participated in death squads and tortured and killed those suspected of sympathizing with the leftist opposition to the government.

“No evidence was required,” White said. “They killed with impunity. ... To my knowledge, no military person was ever punished for any crime.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000