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Jurors hear of horrors of Salvadoran civil war

West Palm Beach, Fla.

In the continuing trial of two retired Salvadoran generals for crimes against humanity, the case shapes itself around one a pertinent question: What did the generals know and when did they know it?

Despite a veritable monsoon of human rights complaints, reports and accusations brought by international organizations and the U.S. government, Gens. José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova have repeatedly denied that there is proof from “reliable sources” that human rights abuses took place on their respective watches. The generals have been charged in a civil proceeding with allowing their subordinates to kidnap, rape and torture thousands of unarmed civilians.

García served as El Salvador’s Minister of Defense -- then the country’s most powerful position -- from 1979 to 1983. Vides served under him as head of the notoriously brutal National Guard before taking over as head of the military from 1983 to 1989. Both men moved to Florida, where they and their families have lived since 1989. The U.S. government granted García political asylum after he claimed he received death threats in El Salvador, though he continued to travel there frequently.

The generals were found not liable in a similar case, decided in Florida in October 2000, in which surviving family members charged them with responsibility for the torture, rape and murder of four American Catholic missionaries: Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clark, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay worker Jean Donovan. An appeals court upheld the not liable verdict earlier this year.

This time the generals face three Salvadoran-born accusers who say they survived horrific tortures meted out by the generals’ subordinates during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. Juan Romagoza, a physician, was providing medical care to the poor when he was kidnapped, detained and tortured in late 1980; Carlos Mauricio, a college professor, suffered torture and detention at the national police headquarters in 1983; and Neris González, then eight months pregnant, was a Catholic church worker when National Guard troops kidnapped, raped and tortured her in 1979.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs spent nearly 10 days presenting testimony from experts that captured for the jury the horror that was El Salvador during its 12-year civil war. Jurors viewed explicit photos of tortured bodies taken by Fr. Paul Schindler during his 10-year stint as a missionary in El Salvador.

“If I awoke to pounding on the front door, I knew it was a bad morning,” Schindler told the jury. “Someone had been taken overnight.”

The case for the plaintiffs wove together thousands of reports of human rights abuses delivered to the generals and the government of El Salvador from organizations such as Amnesty International, the U.N. Truth Commission, the Organization of American States and the U.S. government. Asked if the generals knew of human rights abuses, former U.S. Ambassador Robert White answered flatly: “They knew. There was no way they could not have known.” White served as ambassador to El Salvador under the Carter administration.

In two days of testimony, expert witness Terry Karl, a Stanford University political science professor, painted a picture of a military unrestrained by civilian oversight and protected by a code of silence among officers, who saw the military as a path to riches and power.

Karl quoted extensively from declassified government cables, including a 1982 report from U.S. Ambassador Dean Hinton to Secretary of State Al Haig warning that stories of human rights violations could endanger the flow of military aid to El Salvador, which would reach $200 million by 1983: “As I have said before, we are hostage to malevolent forces seemingly beyond our control. While García talks good game, I no longer trust or believe him.”

As of press time, the case was expected to climax with testimony from González, who endured torture so brutal that her son, born with broken bones and other severe injuries, died within weeks.

All three plaintiffs now live in the United States. Romagoza testified earlier that Vides saw him at least twice during his detention, including a visit to the torture chamber where Romagoza lay beaten, naked and bleeding.

Carlos Mauricio held the jury spellbound as he recounted his torture in secret cells within the National Police headquarters.

As in the nuns’ case, the accusers must bring convincing proof not only that they suffered torture, but that the generals knew or should have known that subordinates were committing human rights abuses. This principle, known as “command responsibility” forms a linchpin of cases brought under the Torture Victims Protection Act. The trio of lawyers for the alleged torture victims must show that García and Vides had effective control over troops and nonmilitary personnel and thus could have stopped the abuses that left 75,000 dead -- most of them unarmed civilians, according to the U.N. Truth Commission.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Kurt Klaus repeatedly suggested that the accusers are motivated by money, since the suits ask that damages be awarded, and that they are pawns of the Center for Justice and Accountability, the San Francisco-based legal rights organization that helped investigate their cases and bring the suit. The center won a $66 million judgment against an Indonesian general for victims of the East Timor atrocities.

Klaus told one reporter that the generals have few financial resources. “They have no money. I don’t know what [the plaintiffs] think they are going to get,” he said.

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

Related Web site

Center for Justice and Accountability

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002