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Salvadoran generals found guilty in torture victims’ lawsuit

West Palm Beach, Fla.

More than 20 years after enduring beatings, rapes and other horrific abuses, three Salvadoran-born torture survivors found justice in a U.S. courtroom. A federal jury found retired generals José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova liable for the torture inflicted by security forces they commanded during El Salvador’s bitter 12-year civil war.

The historic verdict marks the first time a U.S. court has held a commander responsible under the Torture Victims Protection Act for atrocities committed on his watch, according to Sandra Colliver, who heads the Center for Justice and Accountability. The San Francisco-based center filed the suit in 1999 and worked with the trio of lawyers who fought the case before U.S. Judge Daniel Hurley.

“This verdict confirms that both U.S. citizens and aliens can sue for torture and extrajudicial killings. This is about justice,” Colliver said.

The 10-member jury spent 20 often contentious hours deliberating before ordering the generals to pay $54.6 million to plaintiffs Juan Romagoza, Neris González and Carlos Mauricio, said jury foreman Arnie Esbin.

“We had some terrible times, said Esbin, a semi-retired newspaper editor. “There was some yelling, screaming and crying.”

García served as El Salvador’s defense minister from 1979 to 1983. Vides Casanova reported to him as director of the notoriously brutal National Guard before succeeding García in the top military post in the U.S.-backed government that fought leftist guerillas from 1980 to 1992.

Both generals have lived in Florida since 1989; García was granted political asylum when he claimed he received death threats in El Salvador. He and Vides are now permanent legal residents. Gonzalez, Romagoza and Mauricio all fled to the United States after surviving torture between 1979 and 1983.

The generals were not present in court when the verdict was published, nor was Romagoza, who was flying back to Florida from his home in Washington when the verdict came in. González and Mauricio clutched hands with attorney Beth Van Schaack and wept as each guilty verdict was read. At least two jurors cried. González, tears streaming down her face, blew kisses to the jury and mouthed, “Thank you, thank you.” Audible sobs erupted from the packed courtroom as spectators hugged each other.

The case hinged on whether the generals knew or should have known of the abuse and acted to prevent or punish it, a legal concept known as “command responsibility.” Defense attorney Kurt Klaus had argued that the generals were not responsible for the acts of rogue troops during a civil war that plunged the country into chaos and said the outcome left him “disappointed.”

“The only people who know what really happened in [the torture chambers] are the people who were there. And we don’t even know who actually committed the torture,” Klaus said.

The generals never contested that the torture occurred, though they repeated used the term “supuesto” or “supposedly” when their testimony referred to the torture. They have repeatedly maintained their innocence and testified they actually worked hard to prevent human rights abuses on their watch.

The generals were found not liable in a similar case in October 2000 for the notorious 1980 rape, torture and murder of four American missionaries: Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clark, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay worker Jean Donovan. Five low-ranking National Guardsmen were convicted of those murders in El Salvador; at least one claims to have acted under orders.

The difference lay in “having live torture survivors instead of four dead women” tell their stories to the jury, according to plaintiffs’ attorney James Green.

Three jurors wept as González told of being a church volunteer educating poor farmers when National Guardsmen raped and beat her in 1979. Though she was eight months pregnant, her abusers placed a metal bed frame over her pregnant belly and seesawed on top of her, then gang-raped her nightly in a room where “The Human Slaughterhouse” was painted on the door in blood. Her infant son was born prematurely and died of his injuries. Jurors awarded her $21.5 million.

“I am happy, so very happy,” González told reporters outside the courtroom. “The money is nice but it’s not the most important thing. It is knowing that now we have justice.”

Mauricio, a professor of agriculture, was kidnapped in 1983 and blindfolded, strung up by his arms and beat for eight days in a cell at the national police headquarters in San Salvador, where he was accused of being a subversive. He suffered permanent vision damage from the beatings and was awarded $13.1 million.

“This is amazing, this is just fantastic. This could never have happened in my country,” said Mauricio of the verdict. El Salvador granted a general amnesty as part of the 1992 peace settlement that ended the war. No Salvadoran officer has ever been tried for war crimes in that country.

Romagoza testified that Vides Casanova visited the cell where he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks for 24 days in 1980. Soldiers wrapped wires tightly around his fingers to cut off circulation, robbing the surgeon of the ability to operate. His torture occurred in the San Salvador’s National Guard headquarters -- about 100 feet from Vides’ office. Romagoza received an award of $20 million in damages.

The awards include compensation for the suffering the trio endured and punitive damages designed to punish the generals. Attorney Kurt Klaus, who successfully defended the generals in the 2000 case, said the men lack the funds to either pay the claims against them or appeal the verdict.

“They have nothing. García lives with his kids. Vides’ wife still works,” Klaus said. The generals did not respond to requests for interviews, but García told The Miami Herald he would have to “win the lottery” to pay the damages. He testified that he lives with a daughter in Plantation, Fla., his only income a $700 monthly pension from the Salvadoran military. Before each case, Klaus advised the generals to flee the country rather than defend the charges.

Attorney James Green, one of three lawyers to bring the case against the generals, said he plans to delve into the generals’ finances.

“Going after the money, that’s the next step,” Green said. Attorneys will review any steps the generals may have taken to hide assets.

Reports from El Salvador say the current government is not pleased with the verdict. “The vice president of El Salvador issued a statement saying leave these things be, let it go,” said Richard Krieger, who runs the International Educational Mission in Boynton Beach, Fla. That organization tracks some of the 1,100 suspected human rights violators living in the United States, included García and Vides Casanova.

“I’d like to see them sent back to El Salvador,” Krieger said.

A former State Department official hailed the verdict. “I think it’s a terrific victory,” said Princeton Lyman, who spent 37 years in the Agency for International Development and the State Department. “It shows that the U.S. won’t be sanctuary for people like this. They can’t get here and live a nice life and have no way for the law to reach them.”

For Abraham Sofear, legal adviser on international law to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and now a professor at Stanford University, the verdict confirms what the U.S. government believed during the Salvadoran civil war, which left 75,000 Salvadorans dead, most of them unarmed civilians.

“There was strong of suspicion that a lot of bad stuff was going on there. Our own ambassador [Edwin Corr] said that the generals would have had to be blind and deaf not to know what was going on,” Sofear said.

Corr volunteered as a defense witness in both cases, arguing that the generals could not control troops given the chaotic state of El Salvador, a country the size of Massachusetts. However, Corr did not arrive in El Salvador until 1985, when García had already been gone for nearly two years.

Marianne Armshaw is a writer and photographer living in Florida.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002