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Salvadoran officers face trial

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

After 20 years of grief, family members related to four women, Americans renowned since their deaths in El Salvador, sit shoulder to shoulder on a crowded courtroom bench. An imposing presence, the relatives, relentless pursuers of truth, sit across the aisle from the two El Salvadoran ex-generals they hold responsible for the brutal deaths of their much-loved, long-mourned relatives.

Their names of those who were killed are familiar to many: Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan.

While some describe the missionaries as saints or martyrs, the media and the U.S. government have dubbed the four as simply “churchwomen.”

The four missionaries served El Salvador’s rural poor on behalf of the U.S. Catholic church until they were kidnapped, raped and savagely murdered by members of El Salvador’s National Guard. The 20th anniversary of their deaths occurs in just a few weeks. Killed Dec. 2, 1980, they were victims of a bloody civil war that would eventually claim 75,000 lives.

The trial, which opened Oct. 11, marks the first time high-ranking Salvadoran military officials face legal action for alleged war crimes. It is the result of a 1992 federal statute that allows victims and their families to hold high government officials accountable for the actions of subordinates and could help define the legal principles for similar cases.

The murders of the American women “shocked the conscience of the American people” and temporarily stemmed the flow of military aid to a country awash in violence, according to Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador during the Carter administration.

White, a prominent witness in the trial of ex-Gens. José Guillermo García and Eugenio Vides Casanova has testified here about the climate of violence and wholesale slaughter by the military in El Salvador at the time of the murders -- violence that markedly increased following the election of a pro-military president, Ronald Reagan, in November 1980.

Family members say they are glad to finally have a day in court. They seek the meager best a flawed legal system can offer: a guilty verdict that assigns “command responsibility” to the generals and could help convince the Justice Department to end their comfortable retirement in Florida by deporting them.

The families are grateful to their pro bono legal counsel, Florida lawyers Robert Montgomery and Robert Kerrigan. The lawyers base their arguments in the case on years of research and legal help from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, a legal group that has collected the reams of crucial and recently declassified information entered as evidence during the trial.

The emotional toll mounts each day, as the jury ponders the story of El Salvador in 1980. That blood-soaked year brought the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero followed by violence that spiraled out of control, culminating in the exhumation of the women’s bodies from their common grave on a dusty Salvadoran hillside on Dec. 4, two days after the murders.

Family members Bill Ford, Julia Clarke Keogh, James Kazel and Michael Donovan tirelessly give interviews to the representatives of the world press that crowd the court each day. Prayer, they say, helps them get through. Though the passage of 20 years may help them compartmentalize the grief, reliving the deaths resuscitates the deep pain.

The world knows their sisters through the horrific circumstances of their deaths. The families remember the joy, commitment and exuberant humanity that defined the women’s lives.

“My sister loved the poor of El Salvador,” remembers Julia Clarke Keogh. “Maura couldn’t turn her back on someone in need. These women were truly good people who gave up their lives doing what they believed in.”

Michael Donovan recalls Jean’s love of horses and the lazy Connecticut summers they spent at the beach. She left a successful career as an accountant and put her engagement on hold to “give something back to God,” Donovan said.

Every Christmas, James Kazel replays Dorothy’s tremendous joy in the holiday and in his six children who still miss her most keenly during that season. His wife, Cleveland writer Dorothy Chapon Kazel, wrote a short book about her sister-in-law and lifelong friend.

Ita Ford believed one person could make a difference, her brother, Bill Ford, remembers. Petite and vivacious, she was a skilled editor who gave up a career editing children’s books to join the Maryknoll missionaries.

“Sometimes, someone will come up to me and say, ‘You had a saint in your family’ and I recoil,” Bill Ford said. “My sister wasn’t a plastic figure. She was a vital human being. Yet, in a way, she belongs to everyone now.”

The families lay the murders at the door of García and Vides Casanova. Both men commanded Salvadoran forces during the civil war. García, as defense minister, oversaw armed forces and internal police subordinate commanders, including Vides Casanova, who ran the notorious National Guard.

The generals deny wrongdoing and are expected to claim, when attorney Kurt Klaus begins their defense later this month, that rogue elements in the military, including the notorious death squads, acted without their orders or knowledge in the murders. Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Kerrigan questioned García under oath Wednesday morning. The general denied any involvement in or foreknowledge of the women’s murders, but said the women were not subversives and should not have been killed. He admitted that Salvadoran armed forces committed abuses, but denied knowing of any civilian massacres. (See accompanying story.)

The families hold no illusions that their historic civil suit will give them justice. “We’ll never have what some people call closure. Nothing will bring my sister back,” said Bill Ford.

Intense and focused, Ford, a New York trial lawyer, has for 20 years relentlessly pursued the truth about his sister’s murder. He has wanted to know who ordered her death and what role the U.S. government played in maintaining the generals’ power.

In the years since their sisters died, Ford and Julia Keogh, both New Yorkers, have traveled to Washington to speak to Congress and attend briefings about purported “progress” of investigations into the killings. Many family members have lectured publicly about El Salvador and the murders. Keogh said she spoke “everywhere I could,” addressing colleges, churches and civic groups to raise awareness that millions of dollars in U.S. military aid helped create El Salvador’s bloody reality.

“I’d ask people, ‘Is this how you want your tax money spent?’ ” she said. Members of her audiences, often parishioners at Catholic churches in Nassau County where she lives, would accuse her of lying about the government’s role. The county is known for its staunchly conservative Republicanism.

In 1984, five National Guardsmen were sentenced in El Salvador to 30 years in prison for the murders. Three have since been released. In 1998, four of the five admitted to American attorneys from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights that they acted on orders from superiors.

“Our sisters were not murdered on a whim of Salvadoran low-ranking national guardsman. They were targeted and killed by a murderous military machine that saw those working with the poor as enemies of the military,” Ford said.

In what was surely the most reckless calumny of the time, Jeane Kirkpatrick implied that the women got what they deserved for meddling in politics and not being real nuns. It was a remark former ambassador Robert White described as “an incitement to murder.”

Some family members still struggle with anger and disillusion over the U.S. government’s role in El Salvador and the incoming Reagan administration’s response to the tragedy. On March 17, 1982, Alexander Haig spoke before Congress and painted the women as pistol-packing guerrillas who ran a security blockade while trading shots with Salvadoran military. It’s a memory that sparks Bill Ford’s anger.

“Al Haig was willing to smear my sister and the other women, even though he knew what he was saying wasn’t true,” Ford said. “Haig was a bad man working for a bad policy.”

Haig later said that he was only repeating what the Salvadoran government had told him at the time of his testimony, a claim Ford dismisses.

“The FBI and the U.S. government knew the truth,” he said.

Neither do the families realistically expect a money settlement, despite the lawsuit’s requested compensation for “extrajudicial killing, summary execution and torture.”

“I doubt we’ll ever see a penny,” said James Clarke, Maura’s Clarke’s brother.

“I want the truth to come out. I’ll leave the payment up to God,” said Michael Donovan. “But I want them to know that they can’t murder people and then retire here.”

The generals have spent more than a decade in retirement in the Sunshine State. Both came to the United States in 1989, joining wives and children already settled here. The generals have made a popular retirement choice. With its generous legal protections for homes, property and other assets, Florida often attracts former Central and South American military officers fleeing their pasts with each change of government. Others living in Florida include Anastasio Somoza and a large contingent of his government. The right-wing leaders fled here when the Sandinistas chased them from Nicaragua.

Vides Casanova, 62, is a permanent U.S. resident. García, 67, was granted political asylum after a hearing in Miami that called no witnesses and received no evidence beyond García’s report that he received verbal death threats. Fear of death notwithstanding, he has traveled to El Salvador repeatedly since his asylum petition was granted.

Ironically, their presence in the United States opened the legal door to prosecution. The lawsuit invokes the Torture Victims Protection Act, the statute that allows victims and their families to hold high government officials accountable for the actions of subordinates.

Fewer than 10 lawsuits have been filed under the 1992 act, and only a handful of them have gone to trial. In none of those suits did the accused appear in court.

García and Vides Casanova face at least one other legal challenge. The Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights legal organization based in San Francisco, filed a companion lawsuit to the one filed by the families of the four women. It is expected to go to trial in May 2001. Other suits are pending.

Michael Donovan no longer flinches when lawyers show the 10-member jury a photo of the exhumation of his sister’s body. “It’s the other photos, the ones of Jean smiling -- the Jean I remember -- that still hurt,” he said.

Asked if the little sister he remembers from childhood is still present, Ford grows silent for a moment.

“She’s still with me,” he said. “She is very much still here.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000