Former Salvadoran defense minister, tied to killings of Oscar Romero and churchwomen, deported back to El Salvador

Jose Guillermo Garcia talks with media at El Salvador International Airport in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, Jan. 8, 2016. (Reuters/Jose Cabezas)
Jose Guillermo Garcia talks with media at El Salvador International Airport in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, Jan. 8, 2016. (Reuters/Jose Cabezas)

Linda Cooper


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For 25 years, Florida provided Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia safe haven from the brutal violence in his native El Salvador, where as defense minister he played a key role in the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero, four U.S. churchwomen and 1,000 defenseless peasants of the village of El Mozote.

But then the United States, the country that gave him refuge, switched gears and declared that he should be deported. And on Jan. 8, U.S. immigration officers, acting on court rulings that Garcia had participated in torture and extrajudicial killings, stuck him on a plane with 130 other Salvadorans being forcibly expelled.

The plane landed in mid-afternoon at San Salvador's international airport, which was renamed in Garcia's absence in honor of his most famous victim, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

Waiting for Garcia were television reporters and cameras and a small crowd confronting him with the ghosts from his past, many carrying signs calling him "assassin" and "torturer."

Among the crowd were Mirna Perla and Dr. Juan Romagoza.

Perla is a former Salvadoran Supreme Court magistrate, whose husband Herbert Anaya was assassinated in front of their young daughter. Anaya served on the Non-Governmental Human Rights Commission, one of two popular organizations that Romero had fostered, the other being the Mothers of the Disappeared. Perla, herself, was tortured with electric shocks when she was pregnant.

Romagoza, a surgeon, was so savagely tortured in 1980 when Garcia was defense minister that he could never again perform surgery. When he was released from prison, he weighed less than 80 pounds and had to be physically carried out by his uncle.

Romagoza was "beaten, shocked with electrical probes all over his body, sexually assaulted with a stick and hung from the ceiling for several days," according to a U.S. immigration court's summary of his testimony in the Garcia deportation case.

Related: US upholds deportation order for former Salvadoran defense minister linked to slayings of Romero, churchwomen

His testimony in that case and before the U.S. Congress was a key reason Garcia was aboard the plane chartered by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Romagoza told NCR that to witness the man who was once the most powerful person in the country and responsible for so much suffering being forcibly returned to El Salvador was "a unique therapeutic moment."

It was a special moment, he said, to be standing with other "victims of the war and relatives of the disappeared and shouting with them and longing for justice in our own country."

Garcia's face, he said, was "the face of genocide," but it "changed from arrogance to fear upon seeing the victims waiting for him and hearing them shouting: 'Murderer, the people are waiting for you.' "

The family of Maryknoll Sr. Ita Ford, one of the four U.S. churchwomen raped and murdered on Dec. 2, 1980, "is enormously gratified" to see Garcia finally deported, said Mary Anne Ford. Her late husband Bill Ford, Ita's brother, had taken Garcia and another Salvadoran Defense Minister, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, to court in 2000, arguing that the generals bore command responsibility for the women's murders.

Garcia was defense minister and Vides Casanova was the head of the National Guard whose members were arrested for the executions of Maryknoll Srs. Ford and Maura Clarke*, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan.

"My only regret is that Bill is not here to see it," Ford said. When a federal jury cleared the generals, she said, her husband never gave up hope that justice would be done, saying, "We're down for the day but not out."

He did live to see the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability successfully sue the generals in 2002 on behalf of Romagoza and two other torture victims, incorporating the argument of command responsibility. But when he died in 2008, the two generals were still "living the life of Riley in Florida," she said.

Her husband was "stupefied" upon first learning that "these absolute villains" responsible for his sister's murder "were living here in the lap of luxury."

Garcia entered the U.S. after claiming he and his family were being threatened. The Bush administration granted him political asylum in 1989, at the same time it was deporting hundreds of poor Salvadorans to an uncertain fate.

That same year, Vides Casanova was admitted despite the fact that the State Department had documents showing he was likely "aware of, and for a time acquiesced in, the cover-up" of the murders of the four U.S. churchwomen.

According to former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, Vides Casanova's record disqualified him for a U.S. visa, but the Bush administration got around immigration policies under a law dating back to World War II where "the CIA can settle one hundred collaborators a year in the United States, no questions asked."

"Here and there, there were some congressmen and senators," she said, who were there for the families, but by and large it was not the government, but individuals, "too many to mention, who accompanied the families of the churchwomen in those dark years and who continue the work of justice."

"The only question now," she said, "is whether the amnesty law will be overturned," referring to the 1993 Salvadoran law that has shielded war criminals from prosecution.

Both Garcia and Vides Casanova face an uncertain future, now that U.S. courts have highlighted their war crimes.

Vides Casanova was deported last spring after the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals found he had covered up torture and murder by his troops, including those of the four churchwomen.

The same court upheld findings that Garcia had protected death squads and "assisted or otherwise participated in" 14 assassinations, six massacres, and the torture of countless civilians including Romagoza.

The court also found that Garcia failed to investigate the murders of Romero and the churchwomen, or the 1980 Rio Sumpul massacre of about 600 civilians and the 1981 El Mozote massacre in which the army systematically executed 1,000 villagers, including more than 250 children -- a crime Garcia not only refused to investigate, but denied ever happened, calling it a fabrication by Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas for propaganda purposes. In fact, it was the worst massacre of civilians in contemporary Latin American history.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court has taken under advisement a suit challenging the amnesty law, filed by the Central American University's Human Rights Institute in the wake of the 1989 Jesuit massacre, in which an elite U.S.-trained Salvadoran military unit killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenaged daughter.

The amnesty law was pushed through the legislature by the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in 1993 -- just 5 days after the U.N. Truth Commission announced that the Salvadoran military and its death squads had committed 85 percent of the war's worst atrocities.

Pressure has been mounting for the Supreme Court to act ever since an FMLN* candidate defeated ARENA's candidate in the last presidential election.

And the deportations of Garcia and Vides Casanova "is changing the landscape," said Patty Blum, the legal advisor for the Center for Justice and Accountability who represented Romagoza.

"These are the two top guys," she said, and implicated in the most shocking cases. "And now that they're back in El Salvador, everything that's happened and everything that people are trying to make happen is reopening."

She pointed to Romagoza as one of those not only seeking justice but making a real difference. "He fled to the United States, opened up an incredible healthcare clinic in Washington D.C., which is now a major service delivery clinic for the Latino community, and testified in several court cases involving Garcia and Vides Casanova."

Several years ago he returned to El Salvador, set up a small clinic and after the FMLN came into power, was appointed to the public health ministry and opened scores of new clinics.

Although unable to perform surgery, Romagoza is working with his fellow countrymen to excise the legal impediments to bringing the likes of Garcia and Vides Casanova to justice, so the country can heal from the brutal violence that claimed more than 75,000 lives.

*An earlier version of this story misspelled Clarke's last name and included an incorrect acronym.

[Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.]

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