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Home : News : Nation and World
Judge's ruling links Salvadoran military chief to atrocities in 1980s
Catholic News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Documents detailing a 2014 court decision ordering deportation of a now-80-year-old former defense minister from El Salvador directly connect his leadership to human rights abuses and a reign of terror against the country's civilians including a Salvadoran archbishop and women religious during the 1980s.

Living in South Florida as a retiree since 1989, the former defense minister, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, and one other former Salvadoran had previously been sued unsuccessfully -- under the 1992 U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act -- in the murder of four Catholic missionaries in 1980.

Garcia was again later sued by four survivors of the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s, but Garcia has remained in Florida.

But in late February of this year, the Justice Department concluded "removal proceedings," ordering Garcia's deportation. The details of the ruling were only made public in early April as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by The New York Times.

In what is being considered an expansive and highly detailed 66-page decision, Judge Michael C. Horn of Immigration Court in Miami states that the minister of defense in El Salvador was essentially the most powerful position in El Salvador at that time, and that Garcia "assisted or otherwise participated" in numerous atrocities during the war including:

-- The March 24, 1980, murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, considered a key figure for peace at the time, as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador. Archbishop Romero was an ardent voice against violence and publicly denounced the circumstances that led to unfair economic conditions for the poor of El Salvador.

-- Numerous massacres, disappearances and death squad operations against unarmed civilians by Salvadoran armed forces especially between 1980 and 1983. The ruling notes that the U.N. Truth Commission for El Salvador found that civilian and military groups "engaged in a systematic murder campaign with total impunity, while State institutions turned a blind eye."

-- The 1980 assassination of four American missionaries -- Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay  missionary Jean Donovan -- as they left the airport outside of San Salvador. The women were kidnapped, raped and killed on a rural road before being buried in a shallow grave. In 1984, five national guardsmen  were convicted of the killings and served long jail sentences.

-- The 1981 El Mozote massacre in which some 1,000 individuals in the village of El Mozote were systematically executed, including men, women  and children in what has been called the worst massacre of civilians in contemporary Latin American history. In 2012 the Salvadoran government official accepted responsibility for the massacre, admitting that the state "engaged in a conscious and systematic process of denial over the last 27 years."

The new ruling means that Garcia joins another retired Salvadoran in Florida, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, a former director of the Salvadoran national guard, who was accused of similar human rights abuses and also has been cleared this year for deportation. In 2002, both men were found guilty in a civil trial for the torture of three Salvadorans, and ordered to pay $54.6 million to the victims.

The conflict in El Salvador lasted from roughly 1979 to 1992 and more than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed, according to the United Nations. Many civilians left the tiny Central American country and fled for protection to the United States, Europe and Australia, among other places. Others were "disappeared" and have never been found.

Horn's ruling states: "The court finds that members of the Salvadoran Armed Forces carried out hundreds, if not thousands, of additional killings of noncombatant men, women and children between 1980 and 1983.

"Priests, nuns, doctors, teachers, academics, judges, lawyers, journalists, displaced persons and farmers were among those executed by members of the armed forces."

The ruling concludes that the Salvadoran armed forces were under Garcia's control both as a matter of law and a matter of fact, and that instead of championing reform and higher standards of conduct once assuming responsibility for the armed forces, Garcia fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran armed forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives.

"Instead of instituting changes that would decrease the incidents of killings and torture by the military, (Garcia) failed to stamp out death squads within the security forces," the ruling notes. "Likewise, despite contemporaneous evidence that members of the military had been involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a man who could have been an ally in bringing about change and peace in El Salvador, (Garcia) failed to adequately investigate."

The court said Garcia's personal conduct relative to the Salvadoran human rights abuses at that time was not merely indirect but rather "active, direct and integral to the commission of extrajudicial killing and torture."

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, established by Amnesty International to ensure the U.S. doesn't serve as  a safe haven for alleged human rights violators, issued a response to the Horn's ruling, noting his judgment on the El Mozote massacre is particularly important in light of the recent reopening of an investigation in El Salvador of the massacre.

"Judge Horn found that Garcia's conduct in failing to investigate or punish other extrajudicial killings enabled the El Mozote massacre to take place," the statement reads. "Judge Horn ruled, in concurrence with (former U.S.) Ambassador (Robert) White's testimony, that Garcia failed in his responsibility to protect Salvadoran citizens and, in contrast, established policies that would create victims."

The center noted that Garcia can request relief from removal and to appeal the ruling.

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