WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) — A deportation order for El Salvador’s former defense minister who lives in Florida but presided over an era of atrocities and torture in his own country underscores a new era of U.S. foreign policy, according to one of the lead attorneys who sued the official, retired Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, in U.S. District Court in 2002.
In late February of this year, the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security concluded “removal proceedings,” ordering Garcia’s deportation on the grounds that he fostered an atmosphere in impunity during the bloody civil war in El Salvador from roughly 1979 to 1992.
More than 75,000 Salvadoran civilians, clergy and missionaries were killed during that era, including Archbishop Oscar Romero and four U.S. churchwomen.
Garcia has been retired in Florida since 1989.
“This is something that that U.S. government has only begun doing in the last 10 years against known human rights violators,” said West Palm Beach attorney James Green, who was not involved in the deportation proceedings but was a co-lead council that a won a monetary award from Garcia and Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova on behalf of several survivors of the Salvadoran civil war.
A 66-page decision from Judge Michael C. Horn of Immigration Court in Miami and made public in April states that Garcia, as defense minister, was essentially the most powerful position in El Salvador at that time, and Garcia “assisted or otherwise participated” in numerous atrocities during the war.
Details of the ruling were only made public in early April as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by The New York Times.
Sister Janice McLaughlin, president of the Maryknoll Sisters, was hopeful the deportation order would bring “closure and healing to the thousands of Salvadorans who lost loved ones during the conflict, knowing that one of the senior persons behind the bloodshed will be called to give an account.”
Two of the murdered churchwomen were Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke. The other two were Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay volunteer Jean Donovan.
“A culture of impunity may be at an end in Salvador, but also in the United States because we were also complicit in the violence that took place in El Salvador in those years of civil war,” Sister McLaughlin said in a statement released April 22 to Catholic News Service. “We armed and trained the army, but also we gave asylum to some of the perpetrators of the violence.”
The Justice Department issued a deportation order for Casanova earlier this year. Deportation proceedings can be a slow process, and it is not clear if he or Garcia will face any penalties or trials in El Salvador if and when they are sent back, according to Green.
“Putting aside those who conspired with and implemented extermination of the Jewish population during World War II and before, this is one of the first times the United States has used immigration policy to exclude former allies whose human rights policies were in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Green told CNS.
“Garcia never took any responsibility whatsoever for his actions; he never took responsibility for any of the widespread abuses of human rights occurring daily and hourly under his understand,” he continued. “In many ways he and Casanova turned a blind eye — mostly they were encouraging violence against unarmed civilians.”
Maryknoll Sister Madeline Dorsey, who testified at earlier trials related to the atrocities, called the deportation orders “justice finally being served, after the effort of many conscientious people in the quest of justice.”
Green called deportation “a serious sanction” but said there was “compelling evidence that Garcia knew about the torture, disappearances and murder, that it was widespread and that he did absolutely nothing to stop it.”
Father Frank O’Loughlin, executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Palm Beach County and a longtime advocate for farmworkers and Central Americans in the U.S., said by issuing the deportation order, Horn “has given us a last-gasp assertion of hope that El Salvador can be redeemed from the evil we unleashed.”
The priest was referring to the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., which trains military troops from throughout Central and Latin America.
He began calling for closure of the school soon after the 1989 killing of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
In 1990, a congressional task force found that five of the nine soldiers arrested for the killings had received training at the facility, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute on Security Cooperation. But officials at the school say no direct link has been made between what they learned there and any of the human rights violations carried out in their home countries.
Dominican Sister Teresa Auad told CNS she worried that if Garcia and Casanova are deported to El Salvador, they might be held even less accountable for their crimes in a country with a weaker criminal justice system.
Now in Cochabamba, Bolivia, she was involved for years in low-income housing projects and an indigenous women’s handicrafts co-op for Central Americans in Indiantown, Fla.
“On a personal level, I would forgive those guys, but at the same time I would like to see them in a jail without privileges so that they remember what they did the rest of their life,” Sister Auad said. “We can’t bring back Oscar Romero or the other people the generals killed.”