The values of a republic clash with the logic of empire. This conflict played out in July in a Florida courtroom. Three Salvadoran-born residents of the United States brought suit against General José Guillermo García and General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova under the Torture Victims Prosecution Act of 1992 and the Alien Tort Act of 1789. The federal jury found the generals complicit in the rape, mutilation, and torture of the plaintiffs, and awarded them $54.6 million in damages. In a similar trial eighteen months before, a jury failed to convict García and Vides, perhaps because the victims could not tell their own story. The bodies of Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel, and laywoman Jean Donovan had been buried under the earth of El Salvador, whose people they served with selfless devotion. In the second trial, however, Juan Romagoza, a medical doctor, Carlos Maurice, a university professor, and Neris Gonzalez, a church social worker, appeared in court. They gave first-hand witness to the horrific tortures they had suffered at the hands of the Salvadoran military in the 1980s. The plaintiffs painted graphic scenes of the killing fields of El Salvador. They told of entire villages wiped out by American-trained battalions and how each new day revealed tortured bodies left on the streets by military death squads. Expert witness Terry Karl, a political scientist at Stanford, testified that mass terror is never an accident: "Men in uniforms holding command responsibility ran these operations directly out of headquarters," she said. The guilty verdict electrified the courtroom. In tears, Neris Gonzalez said, "we three represent all those Salvadorans who could not cry out for justice." The two former generals could not quite believe what was happening to them. García appeared stunned. He had once been a favorite of the U.S. embassy; in 1980, he had pushed through an American-inspired land reform, despite objections from his fellow officers. The United States permitted García to come to this country as a political refugee under the dubious claim that he had a legitimate fear of persecution. The case of Vides was more complex. Under his command, the National Guard carried out scores of political assassinations. An official 1983 report to the U.S. Secretary of State found Vides complicit in an organized cover-up designed to protect the national guardsmen who had killed the four American churchwomen in December 1980. Vides’s record made him ineligible for a U.S. visa. Yet Vides had a way around normal immigration procedures. Under a law dating back to World War II, the CIA can settle one hundred collaborators a year in the United States, no questions asked. During the trial, García and Vides went through the ritual of pleading they had not known about the abuses and, in any case, could not have exercised effective control over their troops in the chaos of war. This argument seemed to hold sway during the first trial. This time, their real defense relied on compelling evidence that a seamless weld connected the strategies of the Salvadoran military to American foreign policy. If the armed forces of El Salvador had consistently employed torture and murder, had not the United States made that possible by providing them with an uninterrupted flow of tanks, helicopters, rifles, and cartridges, along with hundreds of American military advisers? Had not President Ronald Reagan awarded each of the defendants the Legion of Merit, the highest honor our government can bestow on a foreign leader, "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services"? Whatever these two generals may have done, their defense attorney suggested, they had obviously done what the United States had wanted them to do. As ambassador to El Salvador in 1980, I was called to testify at the trial, although it was unusual to give evidence against two former U.S. allies. I believe the jury reached the proper verdict. García and Vides did preside over a reign of terror in which some sixty thousand unarmed civilians were killed by the Salvadoran troops sworn to protect them. Yet I am also convinced that the decision against García and Vides represents selective justice at its most discriminatory. What kind of country puts the foreign agents of its policy in the dock, but confers honors and high public office on the domestic architects and executors of that policy-men such as Elliott Abrams, now of the National Security Council, Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state, and John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the UN? Republics practice equal justice for all. Empires reward the viceroys and leave the sepoys to their fate. It is a matter of historical record that between 1981 and 1989, key American officials misled or lied to Congress and the American people about events in El Salvador, and elsewhere in Central America. Here I do not refer to the occasional evasion or shrouding of the truth sometimes necessary to give a policy time to work, but to a pattern of official statements that for years covered up massacres and protected assassins. This framework of deception not only denied Congress the ability to make informed policy choices, it convinced the Salvadoran military high command that despite American public rhetoric about human rights, they enjoyed Washington’s backing for their campaign of terror. When the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the Center for Justice and Accountability brought these cases to court, they also placed on trial the strut of empire that seeks to dictate the internal arrangements of other countries through proxy armies and covert action. At a crucial time in our history, the guilty verdict against the Salvadoran generals reminds us that the world of foreign policy is also a world of law, a world of ethics, and a world of responsibility.

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2002-09-27 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.