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Truth slips out about U.S. involvement

Retired Gens. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and José Guillermo García avoided any punishment this time for their alleged role in the rapes and murders in El Salvador of the four churchwomen -- Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan. A jury in West Palm Beach, Fla., handed down its decision just weeks before the 20th anniversary of the notorious slayings. The two men, who once headed El Salvador’s brutal military and now are retired in Florida, may face further legal action.

It is not seeking cheap consolation to look beyond the verdicts in a South Florida court and see a significant step toward establishing accountability for horrible human rights abuses in Latin America.

The verdict aside, the recent trial is significant because it established, in large part through previously classified government documents, the level of brutality displayed by the Salvadoran military during the 1980s with the apparent approval of U.S. administrations and U.S. military advisers on the ground in El Salvador. It is further significant because it points to a greater need, the need for a U.S. truth commission similar to those that have been convened in countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, countries that were the targets of U.S. military aid and victims of U.S. complicity with bloody regimes.

The United States and others have hailed the efforts at truth telling in countries throughout Latin America that had gone through spasms of unspeakable violence and political upheaval.

Often missing in the process, however, was any accounting for U.S. involvement in unsettling coups, in training some of the bloodiest military marauders in the history of the hemisphere and in financial and military entanglements that served to prop up brutal regimes responsible for massive human rights violations. That our involvement in such episodes has largely avoided sustained scrutiny and widespread public outrage here at home does little to address the demands of justice.

As in Guatemala and El Salvador, a truth commission here should have access to government documents that spell out our involvement during those awful periods of oppression. It should also have the power to subpoena military personnel, CIA operatives and former government officials, many of whom now are free to spin noble fantasies about U.S. involvement during that period from cushy offices of well-endowed think tanks.

The four women, whose plight became a cause célèbre because of their American citizenship, stand in for the thousands of anonymous deaths of poor Salvadorans and others in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. The women have become, in death, symbolic of truths far larger than themselves. Their deaths continue to motivate many in pursuit of justice.

Winning legal convictions of those responsible for the deaths is not necessary as a vindication of their work.

Truth telling here at home, however, is necessary if we are to do justice to the memory of these women and so many others who lost their lives while taking the courageous walk with the most powerless of our neighbors.

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000