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Justice Denied
by Robert E. White

The following are excerpts from the article featured in the December 1, 2000 edition of Commonweal magazine.

Covering the corpses after assasination
Covering the bodies of the slain priests
The history of the American intervention in El Salvador during the 1980s is best written through the names of its victims. In March 1980, an official death squad assassinated Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, whose weekly sermons broadcast throughout Central America gave hope for change to those who had lived so long without hope. Almost a decade later, in November 1989, the American-trained Atlacatl battalion rolled a tank onto the grounds of the University of Central America. Army officers ordered soldiers to kill six Jesuit priests. The crime of the Jesuits had been to open the eyes of their Salvadoran students to the reality of the unjust society in which they lived. The soldiers then killed two witnesses: the housekeeper, Elba Julia Ramos, and her daughter, Celina Ramos.

Maryknoll nuns
Clockwise from top left: Kazel, Donovon, Clarke and Ford
Over the course of the decade, some 65,000 civilians died at the hands of the Salvadoran security forces and their associated death squads. Among this number were four Americans: Maryknoll nuns Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline sister, Dorothy Kazel, and a Maryknoll volunteer, Jean Donovan.

As the Reagan administration took office I received a telegram from a high-level State Department officer informing me that Secretary of State Alexander Haig wanted me to file a report stating that the Salvadoran military were "making progress on the nuns case." After a barbed conversation with the State Department official, I wrote a telegram that said "I will have no part of any cover-up. All the evidence we have, and it has been reported fully, is that the Salvadoran government has made no serious effort to investigate the killings of the murdered American churchwomen."

In late October, in a Florida federal district court, two former Salvadoran ministers of defense, General Jose Guillermo Garcia and General Eugenio Vides Casanova, were tried for contributing to the deaths of the American churchwomen and, in a gross miscarriage of justice, were cleared.

I was called to testify at the trial. Copies of the telegrams I had sent as ambassador during this crucial period were projected onto a huge screen to enable judge and jury to read these reports. These diplomatic communications, declassified for the trial, described my efforts to convince Garcia and Vides Casanova to put an end to military death squads. I told the court that the refusal by Garcia and Vides to root out the worst offenders in the security forces had led directly to the escalation of violence, the deaths of many thousand including the American churchwomen and the intensification of El Salvador's civil war.

In their defense, Garcia and Vides Casanova pleaded their case on the grounds that the Reagan and Bush administrations would not have supported them had they not been carrying out U.S. policy successfully. "Our theory of defense," said attorney Kurt Klaus, "is that these men were doing basically what the U.S. government wanted them to do." It was an important point.

It may have been because the jury, like most Americans, still have faith in their government that the two Salvadoran Generals escaped punishment. Had not General Garcia received letters of commendation for high U.S. officials including the Legion of Merit, the highest honor our government can bestow on a foreign dignitary? Had not General Vides Casanova also received the Legion of Merit and a letter of commendation from President Reagan? For almost two weeks the jurors had received a crash course on El Salvador during the 1980s - torture, murder and state terror killed 65,000 civilians and drove over a million terrified poor people to the United States. If the jurors found Garcia and Vides Casanova guilty they would be, at the same time finding the United States guilty of aiding and abetting these uniformed criminals.

Robert E. White, a former ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador, is president of the Center for International Policy in Washington D.C. The Center for International Policy, established in 1975, promotes U.S. foreign policy based on peace, international cooperation, demilitarization and respect for basic human rights.


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