El Salvador’s Supreme Court Invalidates Salvadoran Amnesty Law

On July 13, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of El Salvador decided, 4 to 1, that the country’s amnesty law of 1993 was unconstitutional. This post will examine that decision and a subsequent post will discuss the impact of that decision on the pending criminal case in Spain regarding the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests in El Salvador.

 The Court’s Decision.[1]

The Chamber held that the country’s amnesty law of 1993 was unconstitutional because it was “contrary to the access to justice” and the “protection of fundamental rights” as impeding the state from fulfilling its obligation to investigate, try and punish grave violations of those rights. Indeed, the court said the government has an obligation to “investigate, identify and sanction the material and intellectual authors of human rights crimes and grave war crimes” in its civil war and to provide reparations to victims.[2] The court also suggested that prosecutors begin with about 30 cases highlighted by a U.N. Truth Commission in March 1993.[3] The cases include massacres, assassinations and kidnappings by combatants from both the armed forces and the guerrilla army called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). One of the most prominent was the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.

The court’s announcement of its decision stated that the 1992 Peace Accords ending the civil war had contained no provision for an amnesty; that the country’s National Assembly had no power to grant an amnesty to persons who had committed crimes against humanity or war crimes constituting grave violations of human rights and that its constitution and international law of human rights required the conclusion of invalidity.

The court also stated that the crimes against humanity during the civil war were not individual and isolated acts, but the result of guidelines and orders issued by organized apparatuses of power with hierarchies of command.  This implies criminal responsibility of the direct actors, those who gave the orders for the crimes and those commanders who failed to countermand the orders and thereby failed to exercise control over the hierarchies.

Much to the surprise of this blogger as a retired U.S. attorney, one of the Chamber’s four judges in this very case, Florentine Menendez, made a public statement about the decision. He said, “We’re not raising hatred or reopening wounds,” but rather emphasizing “the strength of the constitution and the right to life and justice” for the victims. The decision rescues “the jurisprudence of the Inter-American system of human rights protection to heal the wounds of the past and finally close the page and get a national reconciliation.”

Positive Reactions to the Decision.[4]

The next day the decision was celebrated at a ceremony in San Salvador’s Cuscatlan Park, the site of a 275-foot granite wall etched with the names of 30,000 civilians killed in the country’s civil war and the locations of nearly 200 massacres committed between 1970 and 1991. Below are photographs of David Morales,El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman, who made remarks that day, and of part of the granite wall.

David Morales
David Morales
Cucatlan Park
Cucatlan Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this celebration, David Morales said, “If prosecutors and judges are willing to comply with the ruling, it will generate for the first time in El Salvador the first glimmers of reconciliation.” He added that many Latin American countries have already abolished their amnesty laws and begun to prosecute crimes dating to the civil wars and military dictatorships of the late 20th century.

Benjamin Cuellar, former director of the human rights institute at the University of Central America (UCA) and one of the petitioners in the lawsuit, said, “This is the first step that will take El Salvador to true reconciliation; so that the institutions work and bring to justice those who commit crimes, regardless of who they are.”

UCA, the home of the murdered Jesuit priests, stated, “The majority of the victims are more noble than the victimizers.   They do not want vengeance, they want the injustice to be recognized.   And the State is obliged to honor them.  It is time to put the victims in the center.   The new phase that is opened for the country is positive, it means an advance for democracy and justice, and constitutes a late but just recognition for those who had been disrespected in their memory and in their pain.”

The Center for Justice and Accountability, which has been involved in various Salvadoran human rights cases, including the Spanish case regarding the murder of the Jesuit priests, said, “Today’s decision marks a moment many of us have hoped for, for a long time, as we struggled by the victims’ side. The victims have been demanding justice since the peace was signed and the brave truth commission report was published. The amnesty law passed only seven days after was a betrayal to the victims’ hopes and the whole peace process. With it, justice was excluded forever. Today’s decision brings back hope for investigation and prosecution both inside and outside the country.”

A group of independent United Nations human rights experts declared: “This historic decision for the country brings hope to victims and confidence in the legal system…. More than twenty years after the end of the conflict, this decision will restore the fundamental rights of victims to justice and full reparations.”

Amnesty International praised the decision: “Today is an historic day for human rights in El Salvador. By turning its back on a law that has done nothing but let criminals get away with serious human rights violations for decades, the country is finally dealing with its tragic past.”

Another voice of support for the decision came in a New York Times editorial calling it “ a remarkable ruling that opens the door for relatives of victims of war crimes to hold torturers and killers accountable.” “However,” the editorial continued, “there appears to be little political will in El Salvador to revisit a painful chapter of its history in courtrooms. Politicians across the political spectrum have questioned the viability of war crimes tribunals at a time when the country’s judicial institutions are overwhelmed by endemic gang violence.”  Nevertheless, the Times suggested that El Salvador should create “a prosecution unit and gives it the tools and independence to pursue the most emblematic cases of the conflict” like the El Mozote Massacre,” which has been discussed in prior posts.

Negative Reactions to the Decision.

The lack of political will referenced in the Times editorial can be seen in the country’s President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a member of the FLMN, asserted that his government had always been committed to the restoration of the victims of the war and to building a culture committed to human rights.   However, he said the court’s decision did not meet “the real problems of the country and far from solving the daily problems of Salvadorans, worsens them.  Judgments of the Constitutional Chamber ignore or fail to measure the effects on our living together in society, and do not contribute to strengthening institutionality.”

Another FLMN leader had a similar reaction. The former president of the National Assembly, Siegfried Reyes, said the decision was “surprising and seeks to weaken and hit the governance and hit the security plans that the government is implementing effectively.”

The country’s Minister of Defense, David Munguia Payés, asserted that the decision was a “political error” and would be a setback to the process of pacification which had occurred since the end of the civil war.”  He openly worried that the ruling would turn into a “witch hunt.”

Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, a retired general who represented the armed forces in the peace negotiations, said the court’s ruling could intensify political polarization in a country with no shortage of problems: a gang-violence epidemic, a migration crisis, crop failures and economic stagnation.

 The country’s Attorney General, Douglas Melendez, had a more nuanced view. He said, “We respect from the institutional point of view this ruling. We will do what we have to do, we will fulfill our constitutional responsibilities.”

The conservative political party ARENA (founded by a leader of the death squads in the 1970s and 1980s, and in control of the government when atrocities like the massacre of the Jesuits occurred and the authors of the amnesty law) published an official statement urging respect for the court’s decisions, but also noting that the decisions would present challenges for the process of reconciliation and the strengthening of democracy and institutions.

Now we will have to see whether this decision leads to any Salvadoran investigations and prosecutions for the serious human rights crimes of its civil war and to a resumption of Spain’s criminal case regarding the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests. (The latter subject will be covered in a subsequent post.)

========================================================

[1] El Salvador Supreme Court (Constitutional Chamber), Press Release (July 13, 2016), http://static.ow.ly/docs/20.%20Comunicado%2013-VII-2016%20Ley%20de%20amnist%C3%ADa_50Yr.pdf; Post war 1993 amnesty law declared unconstitutional, Tim’s El Salvador Blog (July 13, 2016), http://luterano.blogspot.com/2016/07/post-war-1993-amnesty-law-declared.html; Malkin & Palumbo, Salvadoran Court Overturns Wartime Amnesty, Paving Way for Prosecutions, N.Y. Times (July 14, 2016); Maslin, El Salvador strikes down amnesty for crimes during its civil war, Wash. Post (July 14, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/el-salvador-strikes-down-amnesty-for-crimes-during-its-civil-war/2016/07/14/5eeef2ec-49bf-11e6-8dac-0c6e4accc5b1_story.html.

[2] Prior posts have discussed the Amnesty Law: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case, dwkcommentaries.com (June 11, 2011),  https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/11/international-criminal-justice-el-salvadors-general-amnesty-law-and-its-impact-on-the-jesuits-caseEl Salvador’s Current Controversy Over Its General Amnesty Law and Supreme Court, dwkcommentaries.com (June 16, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/16/el-salvadors-current-controversy-over-its-general-amnesty-law-and-supreme-court; The El Mozote Massacre: The Truth Commission for El Salvador and the Subsequent General Amnesty Law and Dismissal of the Criminal Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 13, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/12/13/the-el-mozote-massacre-the-truth-commission-for-el-salvador-and-the-subsequent-salvadoran-general-amnesty-law-and-dismissal-of-criminal-case. It should be noted, however, that U.S. federal courts have held that the General Amnesty Law is limited to Salvadoran judicial proceedings and thus does not bar U.S. civil lawsuits for money damages against Salvadoran defendants. (El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law in U.S. Federal Courts, dwkcommentaries.com (June 14, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/14/el-salvadors-general-amnesty-law-in-u-s-federal-court-cases.

[3] Prior posts have discussed the Truth Commission: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (June 9, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/06/09/international-criminal-justice-the-jesuits-case-in-the-truth-commission-for-el-salvador; The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen, dwkcommentaries (Dec. 19, 2011), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2011/12/19/the-salvadoran-truth-commissions-investigation-of-the-murders-of-the-four-american-churchwomen; The El Mozote Massacre: The Truth Commission for El Salvador and the Subsequent General Amnesty Law and Dismissal of the Criminal Case, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 13, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/12/13/the-el-mozote-massacre-the-truth-commission-for-el-salvador-and-the-subsequent-salvadoran-general-amnesty-law-and-dismissal-of-criminal-case.

[4] Thanks for Tim’s El Salvador Blog (http://luterano.blog spot.com) for much of the information on the reactions to the Chamber’s decision.  David Morales: The sentence “is a tool of greater scope to demand justice, DiarioCoLatino (July 14, 2016) http://www.diariocolatino.com/david-morales-la-sentencia-es-una-herramienta-de-mayores-alcances-para-exigir-justicia; Dalton, Declared unconstitutional the amnesty in El Salvador, El Pais (July 14, 2016) http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2016/07/15/america/1468541983_506876.html.

 

 

 

 

U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals Affirms Deportation (Removal) of Former Salvadoran General José Guillermo Garcia

As mentioned in a prior post, in October 2009, the Department of Homeland Security charged that General Jose Guillermo Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable (or deportable) from the U.S. under the Immigration and Nationality Act on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.

The seven-day trial or hearing on these charges before an immigration judge was held in February 2013, and a year later the judge issued his 66-page decision in the case ordering that Garcia should be removed (or deported) from the U.S.This conclusion was based upon the judge’s findings that:

  • “As head of the armed forces and the most powerful person in El Salvador, [García] fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran Armed Forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives. Instead of institutional changes that would decrease the incidents of killings and torture by the military, [García] failed to stamp out death squads within the security forces.  Likewise, despite contemporaneous evidence that members of the military had been involved in the [1980] assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, [1] a man who could have been an ally in bringing about change and peace in El Salvador, [García] failed to adequately investigate.”
  • García helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980.[2]
  • He “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981.[3]

On December 15, 2015, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals upheld and finalized the removal order of Garcia in a decision that has not yet been made public. Whether he would exercise his right to appeal to a U.S. court of appeals was not immediately known.

This case has been conducted under the auspices of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a California-based human rights non-governmental organization. Its Legal Advisor Carolyn Patty Blum applauded the BIA’s decision. She said: “Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo García was the most powerful man in El Salvador during a reign of state terror in which tens of thousands of innocent Salvadorans were slaughtered.  CJA applauds the Department of Homeland Security for its vigorous pursuit of García before the Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals and thanks our client Dr. Juan Romagoza, once again, for testifying in court proceedings against General García, as he had in the case of former Minister of Defense Eugenio Vides Casanova, deported earlier this year. We hope that García can be swiftly removed from the U.S. and face justice in El Salvador for the El Mozote massacre and the many other crimes committed under his command. It has been a long battle for justice for our clients and other victims who suffered horrendous repression during García’s rule in El Salvador.”

=============================

[1] This blog has published many posts about Oscar Romero.

[2] This blog has published many posts about the American Churchwomen.

[3] This blog has published many posts about El Mozote.

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals Decides Former Salvadoran General Should Be Deported

Vides Casanova
Vides Casanova

On March 10, 2015, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decided that former Salvadoran General Vides Casanova should be deported from the U.S. [1]

This was the conclusion of the BIA in dismissing Casanova’s appeal from an immigration judge, after trial, deciding that he had had a direct role in the abuse and killings of civilians because of his “command responsibility” as the top military officer of that country. “This is not a case in which isolated or random human rights abuses took place at the hands of rogue subordinates,” the BIA said. General Vides “affirmatively and knowingly shielded subordinates from the consequences of their acts and promoted a culture of tolerance for human rights abuses.”

Specifically in the case of the December 1980 rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen, the Board found that General Vides “knew that National Guardsmen confessed to involvement in the murders, failed to competently investigate the Guardsmen under his command, obstructed the United States’ efforts to investigate, and delayed bringing the perpetrators to justice.” [2]

The BIA decision also reviewed the torture of two Salvadorans, Juan Romagoza Arce and Daniel Alvarado:

  • During 22 days in 1980, Mr. Romagoza was “beaten, shocked with electrical probes all over his body, sexually assaulted with a stick, and hung from the ceiling for several days” and also shot in the arm, his wounds left to fill with worms. Mr. Romagoza reported that General Vides saw him twice during his captivity.
  • Alvarado was tortured for seven days until he falsely confessed to killing a U.S. military adviser, but after an F.B.I. investigation, U.S. officials repeatedly advised General Vides, according to the Board’s decision, that his forces were holding and torturing the wrong man. [3]

As the BIA said, “Congress clearly intended that commanders should be held accountable if their subordinates commit torture and extrajudicial killings.”

General Vides has a right to appeal the BIA’s decision to a U.S. court of appeals so we wait to see if that will happen and the results of any such appeal.

=================================================

[1] Matter of Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 26 I&N Dec. 494 (BIA 2015); Preston, General in El Salvador Torture and Killings Can Be Deported, Immigration Court Rules, N.Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2015). Prior posts reviewed the American churchwomen’s work in El Salvador; their 1980 murders; my pilgrimage to the sites of their work and murders; the Salvadoran non-judicial investigations of the crime; the Salvadoran judicial investigation and prosecution of this crime; the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s investigation of the crime; the unsuccessful U.S. civil lawsuit against the generals over the crime under the Torture Victims Protection Act; a 2014 New York Times retro-report of the crime; and the Immigration Judge’s finding, after trial, that Vides should be deported.

[3] A previous post discussed the civil liability of Salvadoran Generals Vides and Garcia for torture of these individuals under the U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act.

Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador

In my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989 I did not know anything about the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA) or about its Jesuit professors.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Fr.  Jon Sobrino
Fr. Jon Sobrino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That started to change when the other members of my delegation and I visited UCA’s beautiful, peaceful campus, in contrast to the noisy bustle of the rest of San Salvador, and when we had an hour’s calm, reasoned conversation with one of its professors, Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a noted liberation theologian. I came away impressed with UCA and with Sobrino.

I, therefore, was shocked six months later to hear the news of the November 16, 1989, murder of six of UCA’s Jesuit professors and their housekeeper and daughter. How could such a horrible crime happen to such intelligent, peaceful human beings in that tranquil, academic setting?

Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter
Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter

I was even more appalled when I learned about the selfless, courageous lives of the murdered Jesuits who used their minds, education and spirits to help the poor people of that country and to work for bringing about a negotiated end to its horrible civil war.

Their deaths were repetitions of the horrible assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, who like the Jesuits had used his mind, education and spirit to help the poor people of his country and to condemn violent violations of human rights. The same was true of another Salvadoran Roman Catholic priest, Rutilio Grande, who was murdered in 1977 because of his protests against the regime’s persecution of the poor people, and of the 1980 murders of the four American churchwomen, who worked with the poor in that country.

Thus, Romero, Grande, the four American churchwomen and the murdered Jesuits are forever linked in my mind as profound Christian witnesses and martyrs. Their examples have strengthened my Christian faith to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

 

All of these experiences have inspired me to learn more about El Salvador, Romero, Grande, the churchwomen and the Jesuits’ Christian witness in the midst of violence and threats to their own lives. On my subsequent five trips to that country, I always visit UCA for prayer in the Romero Chapel where the Jesuits’ bodies are buried and in the beautiful chapel of a cancer hospital where Romero was assassinated.

On my 2000 visit to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s assassination, my group visited UCA to spend time with its then Rector, Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who went to El Salvador to help UCA after the murders of his brother priests. He impressed me as a calm voice of reason and passion in UCA’s ministry of helping the poor and the country.

In 2010 I returned to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. On my delegation’s visit to UCA, we spent time with its then Rector, José Maria Tojeira, S.J.. He was an amazingly serene and soft-spoken man. He told us he was a new “church bureaucrat” (the Jesuit Provincial for Central America) at UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 15th-16th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said to our group, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same casual manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

As a result, my cloud of Salvadoran witnesses includes Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande; the American churchwomen; the Jesuit priests; Fr. Brackley; Fr. Tojeira; Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who escaped a death squad on the night the Jesuits were murdered; Salvador Ibarra, who in 1989 was a lawyer for the Salvadoran Lutheran human rights office; and my Salvadoran asylum clients. Outside of El Salvador, of course, I am impressed by another Jesuit, Pope Francis.

I have been humbled to learn about the incredible courage and minds of the Jesuits, not just at UCA, but at other Jesuit universities that are generally regarded as the best of Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning. Simultaneously I am puzzled how such a marvelous group of religious men could have emerged from the Jesuits who were the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation and did so many horrible things during the Spanish Inquisition.

All of this also inspired me to become a pro bono lawyer for Salvadorans and later others (an Afghani, a Burmese man, two Somali men and two Colombian families) who were seeking asylum or other legal status that would enable them to remain in the U.S. and escape persecution in their own countries. I always have regarded this as the most important and spiritually rewarding thing I have ever done. As I did so, I often reflected that I was able to do this in the secure and comfortable legal office of a large Minneapolis law firm. I did not have to risk my life to help others as did my Salvadoran saints.

After I had retired from practicing law in 2001, the Jesuits along with Archbishop Oscar Romero continued to inspire me to learn more about international human rights law as I co-taught a course in that subject at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 through 2010. In the process, I was amazed to discover the array of inter-related ways the international community had created to seek to enforce international human rights norms in a world still based essentially on the sovereignty of nation states.

I then was inspired to use my legal research and writing skills to investigate how these various ways had been used to attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rapes and murders of the American churchwomen and the murderers of the Jesuit priests and then to share the results of that research with others on this blog. Many posts have been written about Romero, including the various unsuccessful legal proceedings to identify and punish those responsible for that crime. Other posts have discussed the criminal case still pending in Spain over the murders of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter while another post summarized other legal proceedings that unsuccessfully sought to assign criminal responsibility for the murders of the Jesuit priests other than the brief imprisonment in El Salvador of two military officers.

I also have written the following other posts prompted by the 25th anniversary celebration of the lives of the priests and commemoration of their murders:

I give thanks to God for leading me in this path of discovery and inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Developments in Using U.S. Immigration Law To Enforce International Human Rights

As noted in a prior post, U.S. immigration law provides at least two means of enforcing international human rights.

Removal or Deportation from the U.S. 

Foreigners can be deported or removed from the U.S. if they “ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide . . . or . . . any act of torture . . . or . . . any extrajudicial killing.” (Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 sec. 5501, 118 Stat. 3638, 3740 (2004).

Responsibility for enforcing these provisions lies in the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit (HRVWCU) within the National Security Investigations Division (NSID) of the Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) Directorate of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security.

This unit conducts investigations focused on foreign human rights violations by individuals in the U.S. in an effort to prevent the U.S. from becoming a safe haven to those individuals who engage in the commission of war crimes, genocide, torture and other forms of serious human rights abuses from conflicts around the globe. Since fiscal year 2004, ICE has arrested more than 250 individuals for human rights-related violations under various criminal and/or immigration statutes. During that same period, ICE has denied more than 117 individuals from obtaining entry visas to the United States and created more than 20,000 subject records, which prevented identified human-rights violators from attempting to enter the United States. In addition, ICE successfully obtained deportation orders to physically remove more than 590 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States.

Currently, ICE is pursuing more than 1,900 leads and removal cases that involve suspected human rights violators from nearly 96 different countries.

Illustrating such cases are two former Salvadoran military officers, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia,[1] and a former Guatemalan military officer, Pedro Pimentel Rios.

In 2012, an immigration judge ruled that Casanova could be deported for his role in multiple acts of killings and torture committed by the Salvadoran military, including the 1980 slayings of the four American churchwomen.

On February 6, 2014, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) heard Casanova’s appeal from this decision. The main issue was his argument that the removal order was unjustified because the U.S. tacitly had approved the aggressive tactics of the Salvadoran military. In response the ICE attorney argued that U.S. support for the Salvadoran military did not excuse Casanova’s actions and that the U.S. repeatedly had demanded that the Salvadoran military clean up its human rights record. One of the three BIA judges asked whether Casanova was “too far up the chain [of command] to control those units?” The ICE attorney said “no” as Casanova himself testified at his own trial that he kept tight control of the unit. Once the BIA issues its decision, the losing party has the right to appeal to a federal court of appeals.

On February 26, 2014, an immigration judge ordered Garcia to be removed or deported from the U.S. after a trial had determined that he had helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980 and that he “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981. Garcia plans to appeal to the BIA.

In July 2010, ICE charged Guatemalan Pedro Pimentel Rios with being deportable for having assisted or otherwise participated in extrajudicial killings during the Dos Erres massacre in that country. In May 2011 an immigration judge, after trial, determined that he had in fact participated in extrajudicial killings in that massacre and ordered his removal to his home country. That removal occurred in July 2011.

After his return to Guatemala, he was tried by a three-judge court and found guilty of participation in the massacre and sentenced to imprisonment of 6,060 years (30 years for each of the 201 victims). This sentence was largely symbolic since Guatemalan law does not permit prison terms longer than 50 years.

U.S. Conviction and Imprisonment

Foreigners who had gained legal entry or presence in the U.S. can be criminally prosecuted for committing fraud in obtaining a U.S. visa or other immigration benefit (18 U.S.C. § 1546(a)) or committing perjury in statements to U.S. immigration officials (18 U.S.C. § 1621(2)) for failure to disclose their involvement in foreign human rights violations.

Responsibility for enforcing these provisions lies in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, which “primarily investigates and prosecutes cases against human rights violators and other international criminals . . . for genocide, torture, war crimes, and recruitment or use of child soldiers, and for immigration and naturalization fraud arising out of efforts to hide their involvement in such crimes.”

Examples of such cases are those involving former Salvadoran military officer, Innocente Orlando Montano, and two former Guatemalan military officers, Gilberto Jordan and Jorge Sosa Orantes.

Montano allegedly was involved in various human rights violations in his country, including the November 1989 murder of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter.[5] Based on his guilty plea, on August 27, 2013, the federal court in Boston, Massachusetts sentenced Inocente Orlando Montano to 21 months in prison for violating U.S. immigration laws.

In 2010, Guatemalan Gilberto Jordan was arrested in Florida for allegedly lying on naturalization forms that allowed him to become a U.S. citizen. He pleaded guilty to failing to disclose on those forms that he had participated in the 1982 killings of at least 162 countrymen in the village of Dos Erres. In September 2010 a federal judge sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment

On October 1, 2013, Jorge Sosa Orantes, a Guatemalan military officer who lead a massacre of a village in his home country, was convicted by a federal jury for making false statements and unlawfully procuring U.S. citizenship when he applied for U.S. residency in 1997 and when he obtained citizenship a decade later. On February 10, 2014, the presiding judge sentenced Sosa with a revocation of his U.S. citizenship and imprisonment for 10 years.

==============================================

[1] Garcia and Casanova jointly had been held civilly liable for torture in their country by U.S. federal courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but who jointly had escaped similar civil liability under the TVPA for the torture and murder of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador.

U.S. Orders Deportation of Former Salvadoran General

 

General Jose Guillermo Garcia
General Jose Guillermo Garcia

 

As mentioned in a prior post, in October 2009, the Department of Homeland Security charged that General Jose Guillermo Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable (or deportable) from the U.S. under the Immigration and Nationality Act on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.

 

According to that post, on February 27, 2013, an immigration judge in Miami, Florida concluded a seven-day trial or hearing on these charges.

On February 26, 2014, the judge issued his 66-page decision in the case.[1] The judge found that:

  • “As head of the armed forces and the most powerful person in El Salvador, [García] fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran Armed Forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives. Instead of institutional changes that would decrease the incidents of killings and torture by the military, [García] failed to stamp out death squads within the security forces.  Likewise, despite contemporaneous evidence that members of the military had been involved in the [1980] assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero,[[2]] a man who could have been an ally in bringing about change and peace in El Salvador, [García] failed to adequately investigate.”

The judge also found that General García helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen in 1980.[3] In addition, he “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers, including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in 1981.[4]

As a result, the judge ordered that Garcia should be removed (or deported) from the U.S. The lawyer for Mr. Garcia said there will be an appeal.

——————————————————————–

[1] This summary of the decision is based upon a New York Times article and a more extensive analysis by the Center for Justice and Accountability. The actual decision is also available on the web.

[2] This blog has many posts about Archbishop Romero.

[3] This blog also has posts about the ministries and murders of the American churchwomen.

[4] The El Mozote massacre also has been a subject in this blog.

The Witness of a Lawyer for Salvadoran Soldier Accused of 1980 Murder of American Churchwomen

In a prior post I described my April 1989 meeting in El Salvador with Salvador Ibarra. He told me and others that a Salvadoran judge had appointed him to represent one of the Salvadoran national guardsmen accused of raping and murdering the four American church women in December 1980.[1]

Someone from the U.S. Embassy, he told us, had asked Ibarra to call a press conference and announce that he had investigated and had found no involvement of higher officials in this horrible crime. This, however, was not true, and he refused to hold a press conference. In response he received death threats that prompted him and his family to flee the country.

I recently came across a May 1985 article that has additional information about his involvement in this notorious case.

The article confirms that Ibarra was appointed by a Salvadoran court to represent one of the national guardsmen accused of this crime, that Ibarra was pressured to not contradict a false statement that the possibility of a cover-up by higher officials had been investigated and found to be baseless and that he received death threats if he did not go along with this strategy.

This pressure, the article reports Ibarra having said, came from other defense lawyers. One was the half-brother of the director of the Salvadoran National Guard while another was a childhood friend of the Salvadoran Minister of Defense at the time, Jose Guillermo Garcia.[2]

When Ibarra told the other lawyers he would not cooperate in this plan, the article states Ibarra said he “was abducted by Salvadoran security forces, held prisoner at national guard headquarters and tortured.” The purpose of his detention and torture, Ibarra said in the article, “was to get him off the case, either by killing him or forcing him to flee the country.”

Sadly Ibarra is deceased, and I cannot ask him questions about this article. But neither account of his involvement in the case directly contradicts the other. Perhaps both are true. There undoubtedly are additional details about this case that probably would emerge in an extended conversation that unfortunately will never happen.

In any event, Ibarra is still a witness and inspiration to me of a courageous lawyer who risked his life to stand up for the truth and zealously to represent his client in a very important case. Moreover, as discussed in the prior post, after having fled to the U.S. because of these pressures, he later returned to his country to be a lawyer for the Lutheran Church’s human rights office, an occupation that again put his life on the line during the Salvadoran Civil War.

Muchas gracias, Salvador Ibarra!


[1] Many prior posts have discussed this horrible crime, its various judicial and non-judicial investigations and my visits to the site of the crime and of the women’s graves in El Salvador.

[2] Other posts have discussed Garcia’s involvement in legal proceedings about this and other crimes in that country.