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Salvadoran generals battle civil suit brought by torture victims

West Palm Beach, Fla.

Two former Salvadoran generals who led their country’s military during a bloody civil war are back in federal court, charged in a civil suit with crimes against humanity for allowing subordinates to kidnap, rape and torture unarmed civilians.

Unlike a similar proceeding that found them not liable in October 2000, the generals face not the families of four murdered American missionaries, but three live witnesses who say they endured horrific tortures but survived to tell their stories.

The Salvadoran-born plaintiffs sued the retired generals under U.S. and international laws allowing torture victims to seek redress in U.S. courts from those who bear “command responsibility” for the criminal acts of subordinates.

The plaintiffs, Dr. Juan Romagoza, Neris Gonzales and Carlos Mauricio, are longtime residents of the United States. They seek unspecified damages for torture they allege at the hands of Salvadoran military forces during a 12-year civil war that ended in 1992, leaving 75,000 dead -- most of them unarmed civilians, according to the United Nations and international human rights organizations.

The jury must decide whether Gen. José Guillermo García and Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova bear ultimate responsibility for those actions.

García served as minister of defense from 1979 to 1983. Vides-Casanova served under him as head of the National Guard, an internal security force, then succeeded García as head of the military. Both men retired to Florida in 1989.

In October 2000, a federal jury found them not responsible for the 1980 torture, rape and murder of four Roman Catholic missionaries, all Americans: Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford, and Maura Clark, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan (NCR, Oct. 20-Nov. 17, 2000). That decision was upheld on appeal.

The generals have repeatedly denied responsibility, claiming they never had proof that troops were torturing and murdering civilians. They say the chaos of the war prevented them from controlling rogue troops and deny receiving or knowing of numerous reports that subordinates executed a systematic “reign of terror” targeting unarmed civilians -- reports delivered to them by U.S. government representatives and international human rights organizations.

“These guys were part of the reform movement,” defense attorney Kurt Klaus said.

Jurors stopped scribbling in their notebooks as Romagoza described 24 days of torture and interrogation at National Guard headquarters. Twice, he told the jury, Vides Casanova saw him in his naked, emaciated and severely beaten state. Once, the general visited his torture chamber, Romagoza said.

Asked by Green if he recognized the defendant, Romagoza pointed at Vides Casanova, who sat flanked by García and his attorney.

“That man,” he said in Spanish. “The one in the middle.”

The U.S. government apparently had few doubts the generals condoned death squads and torture. Robert White, who served as U.S. ambassador to El Salvador under President Jimmy Carter, repeatedly warned the generals they risked losing U.S support if abuses didn’t stop.

White testified for nearly four hours June 25, using declassified government cables to recall El Salvador’s turbulent war years. Billions in U.S. military aid flowed into the country to help fight an armed leftist insurgency. Instead, White testified, the generals presided over “a gross and consistent pattern of human rights violations.”

“Our whole policy was based on the belief that they had command responsibility and could exercise it,” White testified. “It was our analysis that there was a gross and consistent pattern of human rights violations.”

Asked if the generals knew of the abuses, White answered: “They knew. There was no way they could not have known.”

The trial is expected to run through mid-July.

Marianne Armshaw is a writer and photographer living in South Florida.

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002