e-mail us


Florida verdict raises issue of U.S. guilt


Three of the victims of the America-led war in El Salvador finally received some justice from a federal jury in West Palm Beach, Fla. On July 23 the jury gave them $54.6 million for torture inflicted on them under the direction of two former generals, José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova.

The generals, who fled to Miami after the war, were stunned, as was their attorney. They escaped blame two years ago in the same courthouse for their involvement in the 1980 murder in El Salvador of four American churchwomen.

The verdict, which could help the thousands of torture victims now in the United States, goes back to the enactment of the Torture Victim Protection Act in 1991. I worked diligently to have that bill enacted into law. I testified in the U.S. Senate on behalf of the American Bar Association, which had endorsed the measure. The law builds upon a similar law passed by the very first session of Congress in 1789. That law said that federal courts could process any personal injury case based on a violation of international law. Since torture is now forbidden by international and world law, it follows that federal courts can give compensation to the victims of torture.

It was Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who more than any other Senate member expedited the passage of the Torture Victim Protection Act. I wrote an article in the Human Rights Quarterly at that time to the effect that the United States, unlike any other nation, had pledged that it would go after the torturers of the world.

The three victims are a surgeon, a church volunteer and a college professor. The judgments of $14.6 million in compensatory damages and $40 million in punitive damages against Vides and García should be collectable, at least in part, unless the generals skip the country. Legal steps are now being taken to stop that and to prevent the transfer of assets outside the United States. Vides is married to an heiress from one of the powerful families that once controlled El Salvador.

The Torture Victim Protection Act will now be used in several other cases involving victims from Chile, Argentina and the Balkans. It is estimated that there may be up to 1,000 torturers in the United States.

The Florida verdict is significant, since it is one of the first judgments since World War II in which a civilian jury held military commanders responsible for torture. It is particularly significant for El Salvador, where no officers have been court-martialed for abuses and where a broad amnesty was given to all combatants after the peace accords. This is still true even though a truth commission concluded that the military forces and the death squads associated with them were responsible for 85 percent of the abuses.

The verdict against the two generals in charge of the slaughter of 75,000 citizens, including 17 priests and Archbishop Oscar Romero, brings back all the horrible memories of the war led by the Reagan administration. The murder of six Jesuits, professors at the University of Central America, the economic decimation of the countryside and all the unspeakable injustices have been deeply meaningful to Catholics in the United States.

The verdict against the generals raises the issue of whether the U.S. government should also give damages to the 5 million citizens of El Salvador. The United States helped rebuild Japan and Germany after World War II. El Salvador was not even an enemy of the United States, but in the name of fighting communism the United States financed the war that Vides and García directed. They have to pay for their violations of international law. Is not the U.S. government equally guilty?

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University School of Law.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002