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Generals’ trial evokes memory of killing years in El Salvador

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

The trial of two Salvadoran ex-military leaders for the wrongful deaths of four American missionaries has conjured the ghosts of 75,000 dead. To attend the civil proceeding is to relive a vicious, bloody civil war and remember those dead.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in December 1980, and hundreds of campesinos slaughtered in 1981 at El Mozote and the Sumpul River, opposition political leaders and teenage boys, health workers and labor organizers: All are invoked.

But the spirits that linger near the high ceiling of the overcrowded federal courtroom in West Palm Beach are the four that brought the parties together for a historic legal battle.

Twenty years after their brutal killings, the world once again considers the deaths of Maryknoll nuns Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan. The four American missionaries served El Salvador’s rural poor. On the night of Dec. 2, 1980, the Salvadoran national guard kidnapped, raped and executed them, leaving their bodies on a remote road to be buried by frightened campesinos.

The trial also invokes recent U.S. history and the way events in El Salvador played out under two very different presidents.

When the crime was discovered two days after it occurred, President Jimmy Carter broke into regular TV programming to announce the brutal slaughter to an outraged nation. But Carter was by then a lame duck leader. Pro-military president Ronald Reagan, a vigorous opponent of Latin American leftists, had been elected just weeks before. Reagan would pump $7 billion over 10 years into the military’s coffers to prevent a Nicaraguan-style leftist takeover. The decade would end with the killing in 1989 of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America.

The murders “shocked the conscience of the American people” and briefly delayed the resumption of military aid to El Salvador. Five low-ranking National Guard members were convicted in 1984 of the crime. Yet questions linger: Did superior officers order the killings? Did they cover up the crime? Could they have prevented it?

“For 20 years, we’ve been trying to find out what happened to these good women,” Bill Ford, brother of Ita Ford, testified. “I want a judgment that says these men are liable for what happened to my sister.” The families brought the civil lawsuit under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1991 U.S. statute that allows victims and their families to seek damages from those who bear “command responsibility” for the war crimes of subordinates.

This case is historic because the defendants have actually come to court to mount a defense. They are not required to attend. Other lawsuits filed under the 1991 act -- fewer than a dozen -- have proceeded without the defendants present or have been settled out of court.

The 10-member jury, four men and six women, will decide whether former Gens. José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova are guilty under the act. The families hope to use a liability verdict as a lever to pry the generals from their comfortable Florida retirement and have them deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

García headed the Salvadoran military and security forces as Minister of Defense from 1979 to 1983; Vides served under him as head of the notorious national guard. Both retired to Florida in 1989; García and his family were granted political asylum.

Both deny any wrongdoing and testified repeatedly that they had no foreknowledge of the crime and never conspired to cover it up. While both admit knowing that their troops committed abuses, García refers to infamous massacres such as Mozote as “a military operation.” They say they did the best they could under the circumstances, often pointing out during testimony that “there was a state of war,” and “things were difficult,” and “we didn’t have the resources.” Many abuses were actually the work of “infiltrators” from the left and right.

García delivered an impassioned speech last Wednesday prominently mentioning his religious faith and talking about forgiveness. At times, he seemed to suggest that he forgave the families for accusing him falsely.

“You will notice that the general didn’t ask for forgiveness,” Scott Keogh, nephew of slain nun Maura Clarke, said.

Since the trial began Oct. 10, much of the testimony has focused on El Salvador’s violent past, particularly the time preceding the women’s murder. Attorneys for the families have taken pains to put their kidnapping, torture and execution in historical context. The civil war pitted a right-wing-controlled military against the leftist guerrilla groups Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the FMLN. Civilization broke down under increasing repression from a military that was, by all accounts “out of control.”

The murdered women’s relatives maintain that García and Vides are liable for the climate of violence and near-impunity enjoyed by the Salvadoran military as they practiced wholesale slaughter at the time of the murders.

The generals, the families allege, tolerated systematic and widespread abuses of noncombatants, focusing on Roman Catholic lay workers, priests, nuns and missionaries who worked with El Salvador’s poor and were thus considered leftist sympathizers. The civil suit also alleges the generals helped cover up senior officers’ involvement in the murder and obstructed investigations.

The year that would end with the murder of the women and the slaughter the following week of three labor organizers, including two Americans, at the Sheraton Hotel, should have dawned with great hope. In October 1979, a bloodless coup by young military officers instituted a revolutionary junta government. They hoped to institute democratic reforms, economic justice for the landless poor and freedom from oppression for all. Instead, they watched their government drown under an ever-swelling tidal wave of violence.

Immediately following the coup, that wave began to gather strength. Rural violence escalated. March brought the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador. Gunmen opened fire on thousands of mourners attending his memorial service. (García showed a “news” video from the government TV station purporting to show that leftist guerrillas were responsible, though independent news agencies at the time fingered the military.)

Witness after witness, including former U.S. Ambassador Robert White and Undersecretary of State for Human Rights Pat Derien, both Carter appointees, recounted tales of bloodshed, brutality and horror.

“Disappearances” became commonplace. Heavily armed troops, often carrying U.S.-issued assault weapons, kidnapped, tortured and murdered with impunity, trying to crush the growing popular outcry against repression. Convinced they were facing an imminent communist takeover, and that FMLN guerrillas were in fact Soviet-backed agitators, the military cracked down harder. Just days before the women were murdered, six opposition party leaders were abducted by armed men in broad daylight from downtown San Salvador. The military was universally blamed. Their murdered bodies were found within days. Funeral services were planned for early December.

The deaths of these “four good women” can only be understood as part of a violent convulsion that ripped through El Salvador for 12 years, ceasing only when the United Nations finally brokered a 1992 peace deal between the military and the leftist insurgents. The families do not forget that they share the pain of a nation.

“My sister is dead. Nothing can bring her back. We are doing this for all the other people who suffered,” said Julia Clarke Keogh.

“What do you want out of this lawsuit?” defense attorney Kurt Klaus asked Bill Ford, older brother of Ita Ford.

“Justice,” he snapped.

The families filed the suit in May 1999, months after discovering that García and Vides had been in the United States since 1989. In an interesting sidelight with ominous shadings for the celibate and childless elderly, Florida law would have allowed the families no recourse. Under the torture victims’ act, federal guidelines apply, and the families can seek punitive and compensatory damages, in effect suing on behalf of their sisters as if the women were parties to the suit. Florida law allows only a spouse or child under age 25 to sue for damages. Since damages are calculated on income lost due to the victim’s early death, those who live in voluntary poverty are “worth” less under the law. While state laws differ, attorneys in the case say that many other states also restrict compensation in the death of a childless, unmarried person.

“Under Florida law, no attorney would take the case because there would be no damages,” said Florida attorney Robert Kerrigan. He and cocounsel Robert Montgomery represent the families and have worked on the case pro bono for nearly two years.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has worked for years on what the U.S. government calls “The Case of the American Churchwomen.” That the lawsuit was filed at all is due largely to their efforts to track down and interview witnesses and convince the U.S. government to declassify relevant documents.

In 1998, the committee’s attorneys traveled to El Salvador to interview the guardsmen convicted in the women’s murders. They confirmed that they had acted under orders.

Whatever the jury’s decision, the families believe they have already won.

“Just in bringing these guys into a courtroom where they have to answer under oath is historic,” said Bill Ford.

James Clarke, brother of Maura Clarke, agreed. “After 20 years, you are almost tempted to give up, to say they got away with it and we’ll never know. It’s a miracle we got them into a courtroom, that people understand what happened there.”

Mike Donovan still tears up when he sees the smiling portrait of his sister, Jean, taken not long before she volunteered to go to El Salvador as a lay missionary.

“Murderers should not be allowed to retire to Florida,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000