By White, Robert E.
Commonweal , Vol. 127, No. 21
On Friday, November 3, in Palm Beach, Florida, two retired Salvadoran military officers, both former defense ministers, General Jose Guillermo Garcia and General Eugenio Vides Casanova, were cleared of any liability in the murder of four American women on December 2, 1980, by Salvadoran national guardsmen. The women were Maryknoll sisters, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke; Dorothy Kazel, an Ursuline; and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary.
November 3, 2000, almost twenty years after the four women were murdered, was a day of profound disappointment for the families of the American churchwomen. "I thought the evidence was overwhelming," said William Ford, brother of Ita Ford. The families were represented pro bono by two prominent Florida attorneys, Robert Montgomery and Robert Kerrigan. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, through its research and persistence, was instrumental in bringing the civil case to trial in federal district court under a 1991 federal law, the Torture Victims Protection Act.
As U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1979 to 1981, I was called to testify at the trial. Copies of the telegrams I sent as ambassador during this period were projected onto a large screen to allow the judge and jury to read them. These diplomatic communications, declassified for the trial, described my efforts to persuade Garcia and Vides Casanova to put an end to the military death squads. I told the court that the generals' refusal to root out the worst offenders in the security forces had led directly to the escalation of violence, the deaths of as many as sixty-five thousand civilians, including the American churchwomen, and the intensification of El Salvador's civil war.
In these telegrams, I further described my efforts to impress on Garcia, Vides Casanova, and other high-ranking Salvadoran military that their failure to curb official violence not only brought shame on the Salvadoran military and its partner, the United States, but constituted a serious threat to the stability of the government then led by civilian reformer Jose Napoleon Duarte.
In one telegram, I describe the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of a meeting with Garcia in which I tried to persuade him to cleanse the security forces of their worst offenders. This plea was met with his claim that the military was innocent of any abuses. When I pressed him, Garcia finally admitted that perhaps 1 percent of his troops might be involved in death squads. I then pointed out that with 16,000 men under arms that meant that, at a minimum, 160 uniformed criminals were murdering civilians with total impunity. Despite his admission, Garcia refused to make any commitment to take action against the soldiers.
In a later cable, I wrote, "Garcia admitted that the excesses were grave and said that he had a good idea who was responsible." The telegram goes on to say that Garcia "was sure that there were individual cases of security force participation in death squads." Robert Montgomery, lead counsel for the families of the murdered churchwomen, bore down on these telegrams because they spoke to the issue of command responsibility (the legal doctrine under which the generals had been charged), that is, that the generals knew about the abuses and did nothing to stop them. At the trial, I affirmed that the Salvadoran military had a hierarchical structure and that if the defendants "gave the explicit order to stop the killing, then it would stop." Of course neither Garcia nor Vides Casanova ever gave such an order.
Garcia and Vides Casanova pleaded innocent to the charges, stressing that the Reagan and Bush administrations would not have supported the Salvadoran army had they not been carrying out U.S. policy successfully. Attorney Kurt Klaus, representing Garcia and Vides Casanova, rested the generals' defense on the theory "that these men were doing basically what the U.S. government wanted them to do." It was a telling point.
Immediately following the 1980 U. …