February 15, 2002

The Brutal Murder of Four Missionaries in El Salvador in 1980 Becomes a Landmark Human Rights Test For The American Legal System in Justice and the Generals

In late 1980, the bodies of four American women were exhumed from a crude grave in war-torn El Salvador. The women —three Catholic nuns and a lay missionary— had been abducted, raped and murdered. An investigation led to the trial and imprisonment of five Salvadoran National Guardsmen convicted of committing the crime.

Photo: Alain Keler/Sygma

In 1980, four American churchwomen were found raped and murdered in war-torn El Salvador, a brutal crime that registered shock waves throughout the Americas. “Justice and the Generals” traces the 20-year search for justice that eventually led to a Florida courtroom. Sister Madeline Dorsey (center, bending over), who worked closely with the women, is interviewed in the documentary.

But who was behind the murders? The families of the victims believed the orders to kill came from high up in the military, but after 20 years of pressuring the State Department for information, they still had no direct evidence of higher orders. They did, however, have enough circumstantial evidence to take two Salvadoran generals to trial. In a second case, a group of Salvadoran torture survivors are set to bring the same two generals to court as well. In an unusual legal move, both cases are being decided not in international war tribunals, but in American civil court.

These historic cases —which not only herald a radical change in the way human rights violations are redressed but also provide disturbing insight into the political forces that can shield the military from any legal responsibility —are the subject of Justice and the Generals. The 90-minute documentary, presented by Thirteen/WNET New York, premieres Thursday, February 21 at 10 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

The murders of Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, nuns of the Maryknoll Congregation in New York; Dorothy Kazel, a nun in the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland; and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary from the Cleveland Mission, registered shock waves throughout the Americas. Yet, as Justice and the Generals suggests, the United States took only nominal action to discover the truth behind the killings. "The State Department was interested in protecting its client state in El Salvador," Ita Ford's brother, Bill Ford, says in the film. "They wanted this matter just swept aside as soon as possible."

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Ford took his case to Congress. Five months after the crime, under Congressional pressure, the Salvadoran authorities finally arrested five National Guardsmen. Although the guardsmen were eventually convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison, it was clear to Ford that these low-level soldiers were trigger-men but not decision-makers. From what Ford had learned so far on his own trips to El Salvador, the churchwomen had been killed for allegedly aiding the poor, who were often identified with Communist insurgents. Convinced that the convicted soldiers were simply taking the fall, he set out to discover who had ordered, paid for, directed, and covered up the murders. Working with him were Scott Greathead and Robert Varenik of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

As it traces Ford's steps, Justice and the Generals presents a harrowing picture of the bloody 12-year civil war that claimed 75,000 lives. With the Salvadoran military receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid and the leftist guerillas reportedly being supported by Cuba and the Soviet Union, El Salvador became a key Cold War battleground. Atrocities, torture and murder became a part of daily life. The churchwomen's co-workers tell heart-breaking stories of massacres and the casual dumping of bodies. The film also recalls the assassination of popular Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who was gunned down after begging the military to stop the killing. U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White —a key witness at the trial— is seen describing a military that regularly committed human rights abuses and a government he predicted would fail from its utter lack of moral authority.

By the mid-1990's, with the war finally over and amnesty declared for all human rights abusers, declassified U.S. government records revealed that the State Department had withheld information pointing to higher level involvement in the murders. The new information provided enough ammunition to allow Ford and other relatives to bring suit against two senior Salvadoran generals, José Guillermo García and Eugenio Vides Casanova, who, in a remarkable development, had retired to Florida.

Armed with new evidence, the plaintiffs proceeded under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which gives a course of action in the United States for people who have been victims of torture or extrajudicial killings anywhere in the world.

In late 2000, the two generals finally faced the families of the victims in a courtroom in West Palm Beach, Florida. Without direct evidence implicating them, the generals were charged not with killing or ordering the killings of the women, but with responsibility for the crimes under the command responsibility doctrine. The doctrine holds that they as commander knew or should have known about the abuses committed by their troops, and insofar as they tolerated and failed to prevent and punish such abuses, they can be held accountable for those crimes.

In November 2000, the generals were found not liable for the crimes. But the case is under appeal and a decision is expected early in 2002. More importantly, as Justice and The Generals makes clear, the landmark pursuit of the generals in federal civil court opens the door for more such trials.

Building on the pioneering work of the case brought by Bill Ford, another historic case is preparing for trial. Known as the Romagoza case, it is brought by four Salvadoran survivors of torture who are determined to bring their suffering to light. In the case, Juan Romagoza Arce, Neris Gon-zales, Carlos Mauricio and Jorge Montes are seeking damages for the tortures inflicted on them by Salvadoran security forces during the years 1979 to 1983 while General guillermo García was minister of defense and General Vides Casanova ran the National Guard. In riveting interviews, two of the plaintiffs detail the torture to which they were subjected while detained in official military installations. The Romagoza case is expected to go to trial in 2002.

In exploring these two historic cases, Justice and The Generals offers unique insight into a new chapter in international human rights law, an important step forward in the campaign to bring military commanders to justice for crimes committed within their ranks. At the same time, as it follows efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable, Justice and The Generals also maps the confusion, barbarism, and ultimately the tragic heart of a conflict whose wounds, two decades later, are far from healed.

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