e-mail us
García: ‘These are matters of opinion’

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

Ex-Gen. José Guillermo García made history merely by taking the witness stand in a Florida federal courtroom Oct.18.

The civil lawsuit that charges García and a former subordinate with responsibility for the 1980 deaths of four American missionaries -- three nuns and a lay volunteer -- marks the first time a top Salvadoran military leader answered questions under oath in a U.S. courtroom about roles in the bloody Salvadoran civil war that left 75,000 dead.

The suit, brought by the families of the four dead women, alleges that García and his former subordinate, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, bear responsibility for the deaths because they allowed their troops to torture and murder with impunity. The lawsuit seeks compensation, but for the families, a deeper hope is that the generals will be deported.

García and Casanova have lived quietly in retirement in Florida since 1989. The U.S. government has granted García political asylum.

Since Oct. 11, the jury has listened spellbound as witnesses recreated the Salvadoran military’s horrifying reign of terror. Focusing on the period from 1980 to ’81, witnesses told of death squads murdering with impunity, wholesale massacres of unarmed campesinos, of torture, rape and kidnapping perpetrated by the extreme right wing, a synonym for the military.

Mutilated bodies littering the roadside became a common sight. Armed men raided hospitals, machine-gunning patients in their beds and murdering doctors and nurses. The military published a death list of political opponents, academics, priests and others marked as left-wing sympathizers. The families’ lawyers have revealed a paper trail of evidence. It includes several international reports blaming the Salvadoran military for 85 to 95 percent of the deaths during the bloody civil war.

Testimony from Robert White, the Carter administration’s ambassador to El Salvador at the time the four women were murdered, seemed to conjure up the ghosts of so many murdered in 1980. That year brought the March murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and ended with the Dec. 2 killings that have landed the generals in court: the deaths of Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan.

White had repeatedly tried to convince García to halt the military’s abuses and had warned the State Department that continued military brutality toward the people would radicalize them, paving the way for a leftist takeover.

García claimed he never heard about any of this. In more than six hours on the witness stand, García contradicted himself several times, giving long-winded, often obscure answers when plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Kerrigan peppered him with questions.

No, the American missionary women were not subversives and should not have been killed, he said. He insisted, however, there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. He never heard of torture taking place, or kidnappings. He had never seen anyone murdered.

He admitted that the military had committed human rights abuses, and that he gave no orders to stop the killing or to investigate a single incident of a civilian death at the hands of the military.

“Why didn’t you investigate?” Kerrigan asked repeatedly.

“I didn’t have the means. … I lacked the personnel,” said García, who commanded 16,000 men and was El Salvador’s “top cop.”

García, 67, served as minister of defense from October 1979, when a new government supposedly dedicated to democracy took office, until April 1983. He headed the armed forces as well as El Salvador’s internal security apparatus.

Former Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova served directly under García and headed the country’s notorious national guard. Both generals deny any wrongdoing. Defense attorney Kurt Klaus was expected to follow the prosecutions’ questioning with opening statements and to mount a defense.

García, a short, slight figure whose jet black hair is winged with silver, often responded, “I don’t remember,” or “There was a condition of war,” when asked about specific cases of human rights abuse.

At times, the exchange between lawyer and defendant took on a “through the looking-glass” quality, as García responded that the “massacres” Kerrigan mentioned could not have occurred, since massacres were illegal and he, as head of the military, could never have accepted such an action.

“To understand them that way would be to accept illegal acts on the part of the army,” Garcia said.

Kerrigan questioned García closely about notorious, well-documented massacres at Mozote, where 600 unarmed country people, most of them children, were shot to death by soldiers using high-powered rifles. Kerrigan also questioned him about Sumpul River, where soldiers from Honduras and El Salvador killed hundreds of civilians, using military helicopters to strafe them from the air and by bayoneting infants.

“For me, as minister of defense, the information I received was that [Mozote] was a military operation. It was not presented [to me] as it is here,” García said.

He was confident any orders he issued would be followed, García testified, but never ordered his troops to stop shooting teachers, government opponents, trade union members, religious or medical personnel -- all targeted by the military and routinely found dead on the road sides.

“It was not necessary. That was the obligation of the armed forces not to kill or persecute,” García said.

He later contradicted himself. “I knew there were killings, but they couldn’t be proven,” he said.

He stressed repeatedly that, while individual abuses occurred, he never ordered them. Nor did he investigate alleged war crimes reported in the press since the information needed to be confirmed and “authorized.” Such steps, he said, were difficult in time of war.

Though he commanded 16,000 troops and received millions of dollars in U.S. military aid each year, García never appointed anyone to investigate alleged atrocities because “he lacked the means … the personnel.”

U.S. ambassadors, including White and Dean Hinton, repeatedly warned García that the military was responsible for wholesale violence against civilians and asked the general to control his troops, according to State Department cables entered as evidence earlier in the trial. Yet García flatly denied ever discussing the subjects with either ambassador.

Some of the most damning testimony came from a U.S. brigadier general’s 1981 report sharply critical of the Salvadoran military. The report said the military “protected its own” by “ignoring, suppressing, covering and covering up” unprofessional acts. The report warned of “a predisposition for violence” and “an acceptance of and numbness to the use of force.” The military would not recognize right-wing extremism as a threat, according the report.

“These are matters of opinion,” García said.

The relatives of the murdered women find García’s testimony incredible.

“He must have been the only human being in El Salvador who didn’t know about the thousands of mutilated bodies found on the roads between 1980 and 1981,” said Bill Ford, older brother of the murdered Ita Ford.

Plaintiff’s attorneys were expected to call Vides Casanova Oct. 19, as NCR went to press.

District Judge Daniel T. K. Hurley has told the jury that the case could be in their hands by Oct. 26.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2000