Two events dedicated to issues of justice and human rights in Central America took place in New York City this week: A screening of the documentary Justice and the Generals at the Open Society Foundation, and a discussion of U.S. response to Latin American immigration called “Forced to Flee” hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Both used the history of U.S. entanglement in Central American conflicts as a call for greater responsibility in addressing the violence and injustice still afflicting the region.

The story of Justice and the Generals begins with the December 1980 rape and murder of the four North American churchwomen in El Salvador. Though the five Salvadoran National Guardsmen who committed the acts were sentenced to a maximum of thirty years in prison, the victims’ families and their legal team at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights continued searching for evidence that the orders came from higher up in the chain of command. In 1998, their hunch was confirmed, despite years of insistence by the U.S. State Department to the contrary. In fact, they learned that the generals who may have given the orders, José Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, had since been enjoying a comfortable retirement in Florida.

The trial that ensued took place not in an international tribunal, but in a civil court in West Palm Beach. Ford v. Garcia hinged upon the principle of command responsibility—did the generals know or should they have known about the crime? Did they fail to prevent it, renounce it, or punish those who were most directly responsible? Surprising nearly everyone involved, the jury ultimately decided that the generals could not be found guilty, since, according to the defense, the chaos in El Salvador at the time prevented military leaders from having effective command of their subordinates. The plaintiffs found this to be erroneous—the generals had been the most powerful figures in the Salvadoran military, which was the most powerful institution in the country at the time. Garcia himself had even testified that there were never acts of insubordination to his orders. Despite the verdict in Ford v. Garcia, the same generals were found guilty under the doctrine of command responsibility in a subsequent case. The ultimate conclusion: Garcia and Vides Casanova knew or should have known about the torture of at least three million Salvadorans committed by those responsible to them.

However, the chain of accountability may not necessarily end with the generals.

Given the U.S. involvement in funding and training the Salvadoran military, should American leaders be implicated in the doctrine of command responsibility as well? Based on the dialogue at the Q&A session after the screening, most of those in attendance seemed to think so. Several attendees, including the lawyers who worked on the cases, expressed their conviction that the Reagan administration should be held accountable for the activities of the Salvadoran military.

The violence enabled by U.S. policies during this time period continues even today, in the form of gang activity and the forced migration it causes, according to Scott Greathead, one of the lawyers who worked on Ford v. Garcia. The United States is “largely responsible” for what have become immigration push factors in Central America, he said, describing how Salvadoran civil war refugees sought refuge in Los Angeles, formed gangs, and were eventually deported back to El Salvador, taking their new affiliations with them (a video detailing this can be found here). In his opinion, which was shared by many others in the room, this is one of the main factors driving up homicide and migration rates.

Meanwhile, the “Forced to Flee” discussion took up the Central American immigration crisis and its underlying causes. WOLA Senior Associate for Mexico and Migrant Rights Maureen Meyer reminded those in attendance that although the sense of urgency among the public has dissipated, the problems in Central America that result in migration have not. She noted that in May, El Salvador saw its highest homicide rate since 1992, the year the civil war ended. Though violence continues to force people to flee their home countries, more migrants are now being apprehended in Mexico than in the United States, which conceals the gravity of the problem from those north of the border. Already vulnerable migrants are put at further risk because of the questionable human rights practices of the Mexican authorities. In fact, there are many who argue that this interdiction policy is a violation of international law.

Speakers identified action steps for addressing this crisis. Eleanor Acer from Human Rights First expressed the need for more pro-bono representation of migrants in immigration courts. Former U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Julissa Reynoso argued that it is crucial that Congress pay better attention to Central America and the root causes of its troubles. WOLA itself researches policies that have been most effective and then advocates for legislation that reflects this research.

Lack of funding, however, continues to hinder the work of these and other groups. Though President Obama requested $1 billion to address problems in Central America, Reynoso noted that Congress did not follow through. Justice and the Generals and “Forced to Flee” both made clear the role of the United States in this crisis. It’s time we commit to addressing the injustices faced by people in Central America, if for no other reason than the role we played in creating them.

Catherine Larrabee is an intern at Commonweal and a student at Boston College.

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