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Justice & The Generals
El Salvador
Around the World
About the Film
U.S. Law - Background
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Trial History: Romagoza et al. v. García et al.
by Amanda Smith

On December 12, 1980, Juan Romagoza Arce, a doctor providing medical care at a church clinic, was abducted, detained, and tortured in El Salvador by members of the Salvadoran National Guard for three and a half weeks. Dr. Romagoza was beaten, stuck with needles, tortured with electric shocks and burned with cigarettes. Dr. Romagoza was eventually released and was granted political asylum in the United States on April 21, 1987. Dr. Romagoza became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1995.

On December 26, 1979, Neris Gonzalez, a lay worker and catechist with the Catholic Church in El Salvador, was abducted, detained, tortured, and raped in El Salvador by members of the Salvadoran National Guard for a period of approximately two weeks. Ms. Gonzalez was eight months pregnant during her detention. As a result of her torture, Ms. Gonzalez's infant son was born with multiple injuries, broken bones and indentations on his face. He died two months after his birth as a result of these injuries.

On or about June 13, 1983, Carlos Mauricio, a professor at the University of El Salvador, was abducted from the University, taken into detention at the National Police Headquarters, interrogated and tortured for one and one-half weeks.

In May 1999, these Salvadoranss filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Florida seeking damages for torture, and other grave human rights violations against General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova (the Director-General of the Salvadoran National Guard from 1979-1983 who then became Minister of Defense) and General Jose Guillermo García (Minister of Defense from 1979-1983). The lawsuit alleges that García and Vides Casanova (both of whom live in retirement in Florida) exercised command responsibility over members of the Salvadoran Military and Security Forces engaged in unlawful acts constituting torture; crimes against humanity; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and arbitrary detention. The legal basis for the suit rests on two federal statutes: the Alien Tort Claims Act ("ACTA") and the Torture Victim Protection Act ("TVPA"). Under both of these statutes, a military commander may be held responsible for abuses by subordinate forces if the commander knew or should have known about and failed to take all reasonable measures to prevent , investigate or punish the abuses. This doctrine of "command responsibility" is well-recognized in international law.

The defendant generals in the Romagoza case are the same as the defendants in the Ford v. García case. The Romagoza case differs from the churchwomen's case in important ways. First, in the Romagoza case, the victims themselves will be able to present testimony about what was done to them and by whom. Additionally, in the Romagoza case, the plaintiffs were tortured inside headquarters and posts of the National Guard and National Police, making it more difficult for the generals to assert that the abuses were carried out by rogue soldiers out of their control.

The Romagoza case was originally scheduled to go to trial on January 7, 2002. However, in light of the arguments pending before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the Ford v. García case, the trial judge in the Romagoza case has postponed trial.
Amanda Smith About the Author
Amanda Smith graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1997 and joined Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison LLP in San Francisco in 1998. Her practice focuses on general complex litigation and policyholder-side insurance coverage litigation. Amanda maintains an active pro bono practice, including litigation of cases under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act in conjunction with the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law.

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Learn about three key human-rights cases being tried in U.S. courts.

Trial History: Filartiga v. Pena-Irala

Case History: Ford et al. v. García et al.

Trial History: Romagoza et al. v. García et al.

Torture Victims
Protection Act
Civil trials have an important role to play as a means of enforcing human rights norms. Such cases do not require official approval. They can be brought by individuals who have control over the lawsuits and thus are less subject to political vagaries.

Command Responsibility   Military commanders are responsible for the acts of their subordinates. If subordinates commit violations of the laws of war and their commanders fail to prevent or punish these crimes, then the commanders also can be held responsible.