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

A former Salvadoran Defense Minister linked to the 1980 slayings of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen has lost a years-long battle to remain in the United States, sources connected to the case told NCR.

In a Dec. 15 decision that has not yet been made public, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals upheld and finalized a deportation order for former Salvadoran Gen. José Guillermo García, according to Patty Blum, the legal advisor for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability.

Blum and the CJA legal team have tried to bring García to justice since 1999 when they began representing Salvadoran torture victims, including Dr. Juan Jose Romagoza Arce, who has testified against García.  

Blum called García "the most powerful man in El Salvador during a reign of state terror in which tens of thousands of innocent Salvadorans were slaughtered."

By its ruling, the board affirmed the findings of Immigration Judge Michael Horn that García participated in some of the country’s most shocking crimes while serving as Minister of Defense from October 1979 to April 1983, Blum said.

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Horn found that the Department of Homeland Security had established that García protected death squads and "assisted or otherwise participated in" 14 assassinations, six massacres, and the torture of three individuals in addition to the torture and killings of countless civilians by forces under his command, including:

  • The 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero, which García failed to investigate;
  • The 1980 Rio Sumpul massacre of about 600 civilians – including the slashing to death of children with machetes - which García denied and never investigated;
  • The 1980 murders of Maryknoll Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan, who were raped and shot at close range and whose deaths García made no serious effort to investigate;
  • The 1981 El Mozote massacre in which the army systematically executed 1,000 villagers, including more than 250 children – a crime García denied and refused to investigate, calling the worst massacre of civilians in contemporary Latin American history a Marxist fabrication.
  • The 1980 torture by forces under Garcia’s command of Dr. Romagoza, who was subjected to electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault and being hung by his hands from the ceiling.

Horn wrote that these atrocities were the result of García’s "deliberate military policy" and his fostering of "an atmosphere of impunity in which members of the armed forces would not be investigated, prosecuted, sanctioned, or discharged for atrocities visited upon civilians."

García, Horn concluded, took no measures to stop the atrocities despite the fact that almost daily "dead bodies bearing signs of torture were heaped in piles on the streets of the capital city, along well-traveled highways, in shopping centers, and in parking lots of prestigious hotels. Tortured corpses, some beheaded, some dismembered, were left to decay in the Playon Body Dump, accessible only with the consent of the military."

In its decision to uphold García’s deportation, Blum said the appeals board also relied on its precedent-setting ruling this past March in the case of another former Salvadoran Defense Minister, Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, whom Romagoza also testified against.

That ruling upheld a deportation order for Vides Casanova, based in part on the principle of "command responsibility." The court found that Vides Casanova, as head of the National Guard from 1979 to 1983 and Minister of Defense from 1983 to 1989, "participated in the commission of particular acts of torture and extrajudicial killing of civilians" including the murders of four U.S. churchwomen by the fact that they "took place while he was in command."

The court’s interpretation of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 set a major precedent since it did not require "direct participation" by a commander. It was enough that he knew about them but "did not hold the perpetrators accountable."

García, who’s been living in Florida for 25 years after being granted political asylum, can appeal the board’s ruling to the federal Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court of Appeals, an action Vides Casanova took, although it did not prevent his deportation. He was sent back to El Salvador within a month of the appeal board’s ruling.

However, if García is also deported back to his native country, there is no indication he would face charges there. So far, Vides Casanova has not had to answer to a Salvadoran court for his actions due to the country’s amnesty law that has protected war criminals despite a 2012 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the amnesty cannot cover war crimes.

Blum commended Homeland Security officials for their "vigorous effort" to deport both García and Vides Casanova, especially given the fact that both generals were close U.S. allies.

Both men – each a recipient of a Legion of Merit award during the Reagan administration - have argued that their actions were consistent with official U.S. policy, evidenced by the Merit awards and the fact that the U.S. never cut off aid to El Salvador while they held power.

The Carter administration didn’t cut off aid after Romero’s assassination, sending a clear message that not even the murder of the top church official would stand in the way of U.S. military support.

The Reagan administration not only dramatically increased the aid but also helped both García and Vides Casanova downplay the churchwomen's murders, with U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick calling them "not just nuns," but "political activists," and Secretary of State Alexander Haig making the outrageous claim that they may have run a roadblock, and "there may have been an exchange of fire."

While highly critical of the Salvadoran generals, the court rulings have not touched on the full extent of the U.S. role with the Salvadoran military.

There is no mention that El Salvador was a top client of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, now named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which trained thousands of Salvadoran officers including García and others linked to the murders of Archbishop Romero and the four churchwomen and the El Mozote massacre. 

García, who took part in a 1979 coup encouraged by the U.S., graduated from SOA’s counterinsurgency program in 1962.  And Vides Casanova was invited to be a guest speaker at the school in 1985 after his role in the churchwomen’s murders was known. 

What’s more, training manuals used at the school and disseminated throughout Latin America through U.S. Army Mobile Training Teams advocated torture and assassination -- which are among the crimes for which García and Vides Casanova have been cited.

Its Counter Intelligence manual actually targeted priests and nuns: "The terrorists tend to be atheists, devoted to violence. This does not mean that all terrorists are atheists. In Latin America's case, the Catholic priests and the nuns have carried out active roles in the terrorist operations."  

While Garcia awaits deportation to El Salvador, a federal magistrate is weighing a decision to extradite another member of the Salvadoran high command -- former Col. Inocente Orlando Montano – to Spain for trial in the 1989 Jesuit massacre.


Related: Former colonel faces extradition for charges of plotting Jesuits' slayings


U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Swank held a hearing Aug. 19 in the case in which Montano is accused of being one of 20 officers who executed a plot that killed six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter.

The extradition would allow the Spanish Court to begin a historic trial on the massacre, which has been thwarted by El Salvador, which refuses to extradite the others charged in the case, citing the amnesty law.

[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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