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Salvadoran generals go to trial again

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

A legal battle coming to trial May 7 continues to hold two ex-Salvadoran generals accountable for war crimes during their country’s bloody, 12-year civil war.

Four Salvadoran refugees now living in the Unites States will face two generals they hold responsible for horrific tortures they suffered at the hands of the Salvadoran National Guard from 1979 to 1983 -- the same generals who were found not liable last November in the 1980 rape and murders of four American Catholic missionaries.

“This time, instead of four American victims who died 20 years ago, we have live torture victims who survived and are determined to seek justice,” said James K. Green, a Florida attorney who is part of a nationwide legal team working pro bono to bring this case to trial.

On Nov. 3, a jury in West Palm Beach’s federal civil court found ex-Generals José Guillermo García and Eugenio Vides-Casanova not liable for the 1980 torture, rape and murder of Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan. The women’s families, who brought the suit, are appealing the verdict.

In the case scheduled for trial May 7, Salvadoran torture victims Juan Romagoza Arce, Neris Gonzalez, Carlos Mauricio and Jorge Montes seek unspecified damages for the sadistic tortures inflicted on them by the National Guard while Garcia served as minister of defense and Vides-Casanova ran the National Guard as his immediate subordinate.

The generals now live in South Florida, where they retired in 1989. Neither could be reached for comment, and their attorney, Kurt Klauss of Miami, refused to comment. During their previous trial, the generals denied both ordering prisoners tortured and having definite proof that torture and murders of civilians occurred.

Not true, say the plaintiffs, whose tales of shootings, rapes, burning, electric shock and beatings fill a 28-page brief. All now legally reside in the United States.

Romagoza Arce, a former physician, places Vides-Casanova in his cell twice during the doctor’s torture-filled 23-day detention. Romagoza’s hands were injured so severely that he lost his ability to perform surgery. He now runs an AIDS clinic in Washington and is a U.S. citizen.

Romagoza Arce and co-plaintiffs believe their work with the poor, often under the auspices of the Catholic church, marked them as leftist sympathizers.

Carlos Mauricio was a professor at the University of El Salvador in 1983 when the military abducted and tortured him. Soldiers kidnapped teenage Catholic volunteer Jorge Montes in 1981, beat and drugged him. Catholic lay worker Neris Gonzalez was abducted, detained, brutally beaten and raped at the hands of the National Guard in December 1979, when she was eight months pregnant. Her unborn child died from the injuries two months after birth.

As in the churchwomen’s action, plaintiffs in the new case argue that the generals bore “command responsibility” and rely on the Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1992 federal statute allowing victims to use U.S. courts to hold high government officials accountable for subordinates’ actions.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001