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.

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[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.

New Examination of the 1980 Rapes and Murders of the Four American Churchwomen in El Salvador

The American Churchwomen
The American Churchwomen

 

The November 10, 2014, edition of the New York Times published a video and textual “RetroReport[1] by Clyde Haberman about the December 1980 rapes and murder in El Salvador of the four American Churchwomen: Maryknoll missionaries Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan. The article contains disturbing videos of the exhumation of their bodies that month from shallow graves near the airport in that country along with other contemporaneous videos of the churchwomen and U.S. officials and news reports about this horrible crime.

This “RetroReport” was presented as background for the article’s discussion of the pending U.S. legal proceedings to remove or deport two retired Salvadoran generals for having been responsible for those horrible crimes: “José Guillermo García, now 81, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, [who] have been living in Florida for a quarter-century. They were allowed to settle there during the presidency of George Bush, who, like his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, considered them allies and bulwarks against a Moscow-backed leftist insurgency.”

“But administrations change, and so do government attitudes. Over the past two and a half years, immigration judges in Florida have ruled that the generals bore responsibility for assassinations and massacres, and deserve now to be ‘removed’ — bureaucratese for deported. Both are appealing the decisions, so for now they are going nowhere. Given their ages, their cases may be, for all parties, a race against time.”

The Times pointed out that the proceedings against these two Salvadoran military officers rely on a 2004 U.S. federal statute “prohibiting human rights abusers from entering or living in this country and that [the U.S. government] has broadened its scope to include violators from all over. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, reported last December that over the previous decade, it had obtained deportation orders for more than 640 people.”

This blog has published the following seven posts about the American Churchwomen:

In addition, this blog has published the following four posts about the U.S. proceedings to remove or deport García and Vides Casanova:

Although Garcia and Casanova escaped civil liability for money damages over the murders of the churchwomen in U.S. federal court under the Torture Victims Protection Act, they were held liable for $54.6 million of money damages in another civil case in U.S. federal court involving other victims as discussed in a prior post.

Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan continue to inspire many by their living out Jesus’ Gospel of loving God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

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[1] The Times article states that this RetroReport is part of a documentary series that looks back at major stories that shaped the world using fresh interviews, analysis and compelling archival video footage. This nonprofit project, which was started with a grant from Christopher Buck, has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors.

 

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.

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[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.

Enforcement of International Human Rights Norms with U.S. Immigration Laws

Three methods of enforcing international human rights norms are found in U.S. laws relating to immigration.[1]

Introduction

First, certain foreign human rights violators can be deported or removed from the U.S. As section 237(a)(4)(D) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states: “Any alien . . . in and admitted to the [U.S.] . . . shall . . .  be removed if the alien . . . (ii) ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide, as defined in section 1091(a) of title 18, United States Code . . . ; (iii) outside the [U.S.] . . . committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in . . . (I)any act of torture, as defined in section 2340 of title 18, United States Code; or (II) under color of law of any foreign nation, any extrajudicial killing, as defined in section 3(a) of the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (28 U.S.C. 1350 note).” [2]

Generals Casanova (left) and Garcia (right)
Generals Casanova (left) and Garcia (right)

This provision of U.S. immigration law currently is being used with respect to former Salvadoran military officers Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia, who jointly had been held civilly liable for torture in their country by U.S. federal courts under the Alien Tort Statute(ATS)[3] and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA),[4] but who jointly had escaped similar civil liability under the TVPA for the torture and murder of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador.

These two immigration cases were brought by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose mission is to “prevent the admission of foreign war crimes suspects, persecutors and human rights abusers into the [U.S.],” to “identify and prosecute individuals who have been involved and/or responsible for the commission of human rights abuses across the globe” and to “remove, whenever possible, those offenders who are located in the [U.S.].”

Second, certain foreign human rights violators 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)).

Innocente Orlando Montano
Innocente Orlando Montano

This set of provisions currently is being used with respect to another former Salvadoran military officer,  Innocente Orlando Montano, who 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]

Sergei Magnitsky Grave
Sergei Magnitsky Grave

Third, last year the U.S. adopted the so-called Magnitsky Act which bans the issuance of U.S. visas to Russian individuals involved in certain human rights violations, including the detention, abuse or death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after investigating fraud involving Russian tax officials.[6]

Discussion

 Vides Casanova

After an eight-day trial, a U.S. immigration judge on February 22, 2012, issued his 151-page decision on charges by DHS that Casanova, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military in 1989, was removable from the U.S. on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador under the previously cited INA provisions. [7]

The immigration judge found that Casanova had ” assisted or otherwise participated in (a) “the extrajudicial killings of the four American churchwomen, five other named individuals, 29 unnamed others plus “countless civilians committed by the Salvadoran Armed Forces and Salvadoran National Guard while under [his] . . . command” and (b) “the torture of [Arce]” and “countless unnamed individuals [who had been] tortured by the Salvadoran [security forces] while under [his] . . .  command.” Therefore, the immigration judge concluded that Casanova was removable from the U.S. under the previously cited statutory provision.

On August 16, 2012, the Immigration Judge denied Casanova’s application for cancellation of the removal order. The Judge held that the INA barred Casanova from seeking cancellation of removal, that under Board of Immigration (BIA) precedent immigration judges could not apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel against the U.S. Government and that the statutory provision authorizing his removal that was added in 2004 was explicitly made retroactive, thus rendering any contrary international law irrelevant.

On September 17, 2012, Vides Casanova appealed the latter decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals, where it is now pending.

Jose Guillermo Garcia

In October 2009, DHS charged that Garcia, who had been residing in the U.S. since his retirement from the Salvadoran military, was removable from the U.S. under the previously cited INA provisions on the grounds that he had committed, ordered, incited, or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador.[8]

On February 27, 2013, an immigration judge in Miami, Florida concluded a seven-day trial or hearing on these charges. Closing briefs are due on June 3 and reply briefs by July 5. Thereafter the judge will issue a “timely written decision.”

The trial record consists of nine volumes of documents and the testimony of former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert E. White; Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce (a plaintiff in the successful ATS and TVPA case against Garcia and Casanova); Dr. Terry Karl (expert witness); Garcia; and Ana Carolina Montoya (Garcia’s daughter).

  • Ambassador White testified to his frequent conversations with Garcia from March 1980 to early 1981, when the Ambassador urged Garcia to clean up human rights abuses and hold the perpetrators responsible. Garcia, however, failed and refused to do so even though he had admitted to White that 1% of the military were in the death squads. Garcia had expressed approval of the November 1980 assassination of the leadership of an opposition political party and of the strategy of assassinations as a means of dealing with dissidents.
  • Arce testified to his abduction in December 1980 and his horrendous torture over 22 days at a military barracks and the National Guard headquarters.
  • Dr. Karl, a Stanford University political science professor who has studied El Salvador for many years, testified that during the period Garcia was Minister of Defense (October 1979-April 1983) (1) he was the most powerful person, de facto and de jure, in the country; (2) the Salvadoran military engaged in widespread and systematic attacks on civilians; (3) Garcia was in control of the military; (4) Garcia presided over instituting measures of state terror; (5) Garcia’s actions gave a “green light” for human rights abuses; (6) Garcia promoted and protected known human rights abusers and fostered impunity of his fellow officers; and (7) Garcia repeatedly denied human rights abuses were occurring. She also described the widespread and systematic use of torture by the various units of the Salvadoran security forces.
  • Garcia testified that he did not commit or order any acts of torture or extrajudicial killings. He  admitted that he knew there were widespread human rights abuses in the military while he was Minister of Defense; that “was public knowledge” and “can’t be denied.” He, however, had tried to identify and hold the perpetrators accountable, but the available evidence was insufficient to have successful prosecutions.
  • During questioning by the immigration judge, Garcia repeatedly admitted that he know of torture and other abuses by the military, but that he lacked control. Yes, he said, he did bear responsibility for those abuses, but not culpability.

Innocente Orlando Montano

In February 2012 the federal court in Massachusetts indicted Montano for perjury and lying to U.S. immigration officials in connection with his applications for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the U.S. under the previously cited criminal code provisions.

On September 13th he pleaded guilty to three counts of immigration fraud and three counts of perjury as a result of (a) his stating a false date of entry to the U.S. that qualified for TPS instead of his actual date of entry which did not so qualify and (b) his false statements to immigration officials that he had never served in a military unit, had never received military weapons training and had never been involved in persecution of others.

Since then the parties have been exchanging briefs on the appropriate sentence. The Government is recommending  one of 51 months while Montano argues that is too long.

The Government’s Sentencing Memorandum of January 8, 2013, makes an interesting and, in my opinion, compelling argument for its recommendation. Here are its main points:

  • During the Salvadoran civil war, Montano quickly rose to the highest echelon of its security forces, and the forces he commanded were responsible for death squad activities and numerous other human rights abuses. According to expert witness, Dr. Terry Karl, there were at least 1,169 such violations, including 65 extrajudicial killings, 51 disappearances and 520 cases of torture. His appointment as Vice Minister for Public Security coincided with “a strong resurgence [in such crimes] . . . aimed at prominent civilians and civilian groups.”
  • Before the November 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests, Montano was an active participant in trying to publicly discredit the priests, including his publicly calling Ignacio Ellacuria, the Jesuit Rector of the University of Central America (UCA), as one “fully identified with subversive movements.”
  • In November 1989, according to the 1993 report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador, Montano was a member of a “small group of elite officers, one of whom gave the official order to ‘kill Ellacuria and leave no witnesses.” (Later in 1993 the Ad Hoc Commission, which was established by the Peace Accords that ended the Salvadoran civil war, recommended that virtually the entire military command, including Montano, be removed from office.)
  • After the murder of the Jesuits, Montano aided the cover up of the involvement of the security forces in this crime. He publicly insisted that the FMLN, not the security forces, had committed the crime. Although Montano initially was responsible for investigating the crime, he did not do anything to do so. He also pressured lower level military officers not to disclose the orders to kill Ellacuria and leave no witnesses to the Salvadoran court in subsequent charge of  investigating the crime. In addition, Montano refused to cooperate with, or be interviewed by, the investigating judge, and in 2000 publicly rejected the claim that he was the indirect author of the murders, rebuked the Jesuits at UCA of “raking up the past” and called the reopening of the case as “orchestrated by the left” as part of “an international leftist plan.”
  • When Montano left El Salvador for the U.S. in 2001, there was “a great likelihood [he] . . . was motivated, at least in part, . . . [by] fear that he was vulnerable to prosecution for his role in the Jesuit murders.”
  • A fear of such vulnerability grew out of the arrest in 1998 of Chilean General Pinochet and of his being stripped of his immunity and ordered in 2001 to stand trial in Chile; the 1999 case against an Argentine military officer; a case against a Honduran general; and the June 2001 conviction of a Guatemalan military officer for the extrajudicial execution of a Roman Catholic bishop.
  • Also supporting such a likely fear was the Salvadoran election of March 2000 which gave the FMLN (the former guerrilla organization) a legislative majority and which immediately thereafter precipitated calls for reopening the Jesuit case from the Rector of UCA and the Archbishop of San Salvador. To the same effect were decisions in 2000 by the country’s courts that its General Amnesty Law could not be applied to human rights violations by public officials while in office and that even though the statute of limitations had run out in the Jesuits case, the writ of amparo could still be used for that crime.

Given the strength of the Government’s justification for the recommended sentence, the lack of any real response from Montano and the skeptical questioning of Montano by the judge, I have little doubt that the judge will find the grounds for removal substantiated by the evidence and order him removed or deported from the U.S.

Magnitsky Act Developments

On April 12, 2013, the Obama Administration issued a list of 18 Russians who were barred from entering the U.S. and whose assets, if any, in the U.S. were frozen, pursuant to this statute. Most were individuals tied to the death of Mr. Magnitsky, but two had been implicated in notorious murders of a Chechen dissident and an American journalist. There were other more highly placed Russian officials on a nonpublic list.

The reaction to the release of this list was mixed. Russian officials, or course, were critical although a Russian legislator said the Obama Administration was taking a “minimalist path” to avoid a deeper crisis before the visit this week to Russia by the Administration’s National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon. Mr. Megnitsky’s U.S. client and major advocate for the Act when it was in Congress, William F. Browder, said, “We’ve just crossed the threshold. This is the end of impunity.” U.S. Senator John McCain, however, said the list was “so damaging” because it was not robust enough and promised new legislation to go after Russian abusers.

The next day (April 13th) Russia retaliated by issuing a list of 18 U.S. citizens who were barred from entering Russia because of their alleged human rights violations. It included two people involved in preparing the so-called “torture memos” –David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, 2005-2009; and John Yoo, Assistant U.S. Attorney General, 2001-2003–and two who had responsibilities for the operations of the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities– Geoffrey D. Miller, retired U.S.Army Major General, Commandant of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, 2002-2003; and Jeffrey Harbeson, U.S. Navy officer, Commandant of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, 2010-2012. The others on the list were U.S. officials involved in the prosecution and trial of a Russian arms dealer and a Russian pilot allegedly involved in drug trafficking.

Russian officials said the U.S. must realize it cannot conduct its relationship with Russia “in the spirit of mentoring and undisguised diktat.” The statement continued, “Our principled opinion on this unfriendly step is well known: under the pressure of Russophobically inclined U.S. congressmen, a severe blow has been dealt to bilateral relations and mutual confidence. The war of lists is not our choice, but we had no right to leave this open blackmail unanswered.”

Conclusion

These three immigration cases show the interactive nature of the enforcement of international human rights norms. Casanova and Garcia were named as involved in some of the worst human rights abuses in El Salvador by the Truth Commission for El Salvador, and its conclusions were then used by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in cases against the State of El Salvador and by U.S. courts in civil lawsuits under the ATS and the TVPA. All of the results of these proceedings were then used in these three U.S. immigration cases.

Another interactive element in these cases is the competent, sustained efforts of the Center for Justice and Accountability in supporting the successful civil lawsuit against Casanova and Garcia under the ATS and TVPA and pressing ICE’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center to bring these immigration cases. The Center is a California-based human rights organization “dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.” It “uses litigation to hold perpetrators individually accountable for human rights abuses, develop human rights law, and advance the rule of law in countries transitioning from periods of abuse.”

The Magnitsky Act, in my opinion, is a different matter. I think it was unnecessary because the previously mentioned INA provisions now being used in the Casanova and Garcia immigration cases could be used to deny U.S. visas to the named Russians. I also think it was and is imprudent because it interferes with U.S. relations with Russia and our national interest in trying to obtain Russian assistance on problems with Syria and North Korea, for example. Professor of Russian Studies at NYU, Stephen Cohen, shares the latter view.

Yes, it is true that some of these means of enforcement are weaker than criminal conviction and imprisonment of the violators. Some only involve recommendations to the state (here, El Salvador) by such organizations as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In this post we are concerned, in part, with orders by a country (here, the U.S.) for a violator to leave the country. But such “weakness” is a necessary consequence of a world essentially structured on the basis of an individual state’s sovereignty. Over time these various mechanisms hopefully will be improved and strengthened.


[1]  Asylum, of course, is another part of immigration law that enforces human rights as covered in other posts. Additional ways of enforcement are discussed in another post.

[2] This provision about removal of foreign human rights violators was added by section 5501 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, 118 Stat. 3638, 3740 (2004). The same language bars such a person from obtaining a visa for legal entry into the U.S. (Id. § 212(a)(3)(E)(ii), (III).)

[3]  The ATS (28 U.S.C.§1350) provides that U.S.”district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the [U.S.].” Many prior posts have discussed this statute and cases thereunder.

[4]   The TVPA (28 U.S.C.§1350 note) provides, “An individual who, under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation . . . subjects an individual to torture [or extrajudicial killing] shall, in a civil action, be liable for damages . . . .” Many prior posts have discussed this statute and cases thereunder.

[5] A Spanish court under the principle of universal jurisdiction has charged Montano and other Salvadoran military officers with complicity in the murders of the Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and daughter. The Spanish government has asked the U.S. to extradite Montano and another former officer now living in the U.S. to Spain to stand trial on such charges, but the U.S. apparently has not yet acted upon the request. A similar request to El Salvador for extradition of other former officers has been rejected. A summary of these and other developments in the Jesuits case is available on this blog.

[6] The complete title of the statute is the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012. Sections 404 (a) and 405(a) of the Act make ineligible for U.S. visas individuals identified on a subsequent U.S. presidential list of those “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of . . . Magnitsky, participated in efforts to conceal the legal liability for the detention, abuse, or death of . . .  Magnitsky, financially benefitted from the detention, abuse, or death of . . .  Magnitsky, or was involved in the criminal conspiracy uncovered by  . . . Magnitsky.” That presidential  list is also to include a list of individuals “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals seeking–(A) to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the Government of the Russian Federation; or(B) to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly, and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections, in Russia.”

[7]  A previous post discussed this February 2012 decision. The complete (but redacted) text of the February and August 2012 decisions was only made publicly available in April 2013. A summary of this immigration case is available on the web.

[8] A summary of this immigration case is available on the web.  Previously (January 2009), Garcia had been indicted for visa fraud and making false statements to U.S. immigration officials, but in September 2009 the indictment was dismissed when a government witness recanted her testimony.

Former Salvadoran Military Officer Is Determined to Have Assisted in Torture and Murder

Vides Casanova

This week a U.S. immigration judge in Orlando, Florida after trial found that former Salvadoran General and Minister of Defense Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova had assisted in acts of torture and murder committed by soldiers under his command. Now he is subject to further proceedings potentially leading to his deportation from the U.S. where he has lived for many years as a legal resident.

One of the cases which Vides Casanova was determined to have assisted was the December 1980 rape, torture and murder of four American churchwomen by five Salvadoran National Guardsmen. At the time Vides Casanova was the Commander of the Guard. (We already have examined the mission work of the churchwomen, the early investigations of this horrendous crime, the Salvadoran criminal prosecution of the Guardsmen and the Salvadoran Truth Commission’s investigation of the crime.)

The immigration judge also concluded that Vides Casanova had assisted in the torture of two Salvadorans, Juan Romagoza and Daniel Alvarado, who testified against him in hearings last spring in the immigration court in Orlando.

In 2005 Vides Casanova and his fellow former Salvadoran General and Minister of Defense Jose Guillermo Garcia were held liable in U.S. federal court for $54.6 million under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA). This civil case was brought by Romagoza and Alvarado and another Salvadoran refugee for their torture by Salvadoran military personnel during the period 1979 to 1983.

Earlier Vides Casanova and Garcia had defeated similar civil claims in U.S. federal court over the torture, rapes and murders of the four American churchwomen.

Earlier posts have reviewed the enactment of the TVPA and the history of the Alien Tort Statute for the periods 1789-1979, 1980, 1980-2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2004 and 2004-present.

The current deportation case was brought by the Human Rights Violators & War Crimes Center, which is a unit of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement created in 2003 to focus on preventing rights violators from entering this country and deporting those already here.

TVPA Lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court Over the Murders of the American Churchwomen

One of the horrendous crimes during El Salvador’s civil war was the December 1980 brutal murders of four American churchwomen. We have examined the facts of those crimes along with the investigations and criminal prosecutions in El Salvador for those crimes plus the report on same by the Truth Commission for El Salvador.[1]

General Vides Casanova
General Jose Guillermo Garcia

In 1999 U.S. relatives of the four churchwomen brought a civil lawsuit for money damages under the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA)[2] for the women’s torture and murders. The defendants were former Salvadoran Generals Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia. The case was in a federal court in Florida, where the defendants then lived.[3]

The case was tried before a jury in October-November 2000. The defendants denied any knowledge of the murders beforehand. They admitted, however, that torture and violence were rampant in El Salvador and that the country’s armed forces were involved in many of these actions. In response, they testified, they had issued orders forbidding illegal interrogation and extrajudicial executions and had done all they could do to prevent such crimes. However, they further testified, they did not have the resources to stop a long practice of such actions by the armed forces.[4]

General Garcia testified that he had ordered an investigation of the killing of the churchwomen and had done nothing to interfere with the investigation. General Garcia also testified about the U.S. government’s giving him the Legion of Merit award in the 1980’s for his being a “sterling example of a military leader in a representative government”as well as the U.S. government’s granting him political asylum in 1991.

Other trial witnesses were former U.S. Ambassador Robert White to El Salvador and a former investigator for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The trial exhibits included the report of the El Salvador Truth Commission, other investigative reports and declassified U.S. diplomatic cables

In November 2000 the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. Afterwards the jurors indicated that they thought they did not have enough evidence that the generals were able to exercise authority over their subordinates. Some jurors also said the defendants had done what they could to curb abuses, given the tumult of the times and a lack of resources.

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court. The sole issue on this appeal was the legal sufficiency of the trial court’s instruction to the lay jury on the question of command responsibility. Because there was no objection at trial to this instruction, the appellate court reviewed the instruction only for plain error and found no such plain error,

The appellate court held that legislative history made clear that Congress intended to adopt the doctrine of command responsibility from international law and that the essential elements of liability under that doctrine were (i) the existence of a superior-subordinate relationship between the commander and the perpetrator; (ii) the commander knew or should have known that the subordinate was committing or planning to commit war crimes; and (iii) the commander failed to prevent the crimes or failed to punish the subordinate for same.

The plaintiffs’ request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. Thus, this case is over.[5]


[1]  See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen (Dec. 16, 2011); Post: Judicial Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 18, 2011); Post: The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the Murders of the American Churchwomen (Dec. 19, 2011).

[2]  See Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[3]  Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283, 1285 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003).

[4]  Gonzalez, Salvadoran Admits Abuses In Trial Tied to Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times (Oct. 19, 2000); Gonzalez, Salvadoran General Admits He Knew of Abuses, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2000); Gonzalez, 2 Salvadoran Generals Cleared by U.S. Jury in Nuns’ Deaths, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2000); Eviatar, Following the Blood, American Lawyer, Jan. 2001, at 83.

[5] The problem with the jury instruction on command responsibility was avoided in a later and similar case against Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova in which they were held liable for $54.6 million. (See Post: Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable by U.S. Courts for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture (Nov. 11, 2011).)

The Salvadoran Truth Commission’s Investigation of the Murders of the Four American Churchwomen

We already have discussed the mission work in El Salvador of the four American churchwomen, their December 1980 brutal murders, the subsequent non-judicial and judicial investigations and successful Salvadoran criminal prosecutions for these crimes.[1]

The Truth Commission for El Salvador also investigated these crimes and its March 1993 report found:

  • the December 2, 1980, arrests and murders of the churchwomen had been planned prior to the arrival of two of them that evening from Nicaragua;
  •  the National Guard deputy sergeant in charge that night of the killing was carrying out the orders of a superior officer;
  • the Director-General of the National Guard at the time, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, and other high security forces officers knew that members of the National Guard had committed the murders pursuant to orders of a superior officer and were in charge of covering up those facts;
  • Vides Casanova and another officer impeded the gathering of evidence and thereby adversely affected the judicial investigation of the crimes;
  • the two Salvadoran military investigations of this crime (Monterrosa and Zepeda) were not serious and instead sought to conceal the involvement of higher officials;
  • the Minister of Defense at the time, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, made no serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation of responsibility for the murders; and
  • the State of El Salvador failed in its responsibility to conduct a thorough and fair investigation of the crime and to find and punish the culprits.[2]

[1] See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 20111); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011); Post: Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen (Dec. 16, 2011); Post: Judicial Investigations and Criminal Prosecutions of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 18, 2011).

[2] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 62-66 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html. See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011) (summary of the Commission’s mandate and procedures).

Non-Judicial Investigations of the 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador

On December 2, 1980, four American churchwomen were beaten, raped and murdered in the countryside 15 miles from the country’s international airport.[1]

This was a huge problem for the governments of the U.S. and El Salvador because four religious missionaries who were U.S. citizens had been brutally raped and murdered and because there was a huge public outcry in the U.S. for investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Continuation of  U.S. military aid to El Salvador was also at risk. Immediately after the discovery of the murders, President Carter suspended $25 million of aid (with restoration 10 days later), and in 1983 Congress voted to withhold $19 million in aid pending a verdict in the criminal case discussed below.[2]

There were five non-judicial investigations of the crime.

The first investigation was initiated on December 6, 1980 (four days after the murders), by President Jimmy Carter, when he appointed William G. Bowdler, a State Department official, and William D. Rogers, a former Department official, to go to El Salvador and investigate the case. They went and said they had found no direct evidence of the crime or of involvement of Salvadoran authorities, but that there had been a cover-up of the murders.[3]

The Junta then governing El Salvador started the second investigation by putting Colonel Roberto Monterrosa in charge of an official commission of investigation. Later he admitted that his commission had excluded the possibility that Salvadoran security forces had been involved in the crime because that would have created serious difficulties with those forces. He hid from the U.S. Embassy evidence implicating a deputy sergeant of the Salvadoran National Guard. In short, Monterrosa did not conduct a thorough, honest investigation.[4]

Simultaneously with the Monterrosa commission, the Director-General of the National Guard, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, started a third investigation. He put Major Lizandro Zepeda in charge. Zapeda reported there was no evidence that National Guard personnel had committed these crimes while he simultaneously ordered the actual Guard perpetrators to replace their rifles to avoid detection and to remain loyal to the National Guard by suppressing the facts. There is also evidence that Zapeda kept his superior, Vides Casanova, informed of the details of the investigation.[5]

The fourth investigation was conducted by former U.S. federal judge Harold R. Tyler, Jr. at the appointment of the U.S. Secretary of State. He concluded that the purpose of the Monterrosa and Zapeda investigations had been to establish written precedents clearing the Salvadoran security forces of blame for the crimes. Tyler also concluded that senior officers had not been directly involved in the crimes themselves although it was quite possible that General Vides Casanova, who had been the commander of the National Guard at the time and was then the Salvadoran Minister of Defense, was aware of the cover-up. Indeed, the deputy sergeant immediately had confessed his involvement to his superiors, who kept this secret and took other steps to make detection more difficult. [6]

In December 1981 Colonel Vides Casanova appointed Major Jose Adolfo Medrano to conduct a fifth investigation.[7]

As the first four of these investigations were proceeding, the Salvadoran government announced that it had sent to the FBI for analysis new evidence, including fingerprints of Salvadoran police and military personnel who had been stationed in the area of the national airport on December 2. Subsequently there were reports in late April 1981 that the FBI had concluded that certain evidence pointed to six Salvadoran National Guardsmen as the killers.[8]

Several  weeks after this report about the FBI conclusions, six Salvadoran Guardsmen were arrested to start a Salvadoran judicial investigation and eventual prosecution of this crime. The next post in this series will look at this judicial investigation and prosecution.


[1]  See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011); Post: The December 1980 Murders of the Four Churchwomen in El Salvador (Dec. 14, 2011).

[2] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador at 65 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html [Commission Report]; Chavez, 5 Salvadorans Are Found Guilty in Slaying of U.S. Churchwomen, N.Y. Times (May 25, 1984).

[3] Onis, U.S. Officials Fly to El Salvador to Investigate Murders, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 1980); Commission Report at 63. Bowdler was Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs and a former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador (1968-71). In the Ford Administration Rogers served as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs and Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs.

[4]  Commission Report at 63-64.

[5]  Id.

[6]  Id. at 63-65; Bonner, Cover-Up Charged in Death of Nuns, N.Y. Times (Feb. 16, 1984).

[7]  Commission Report at 64.

[8]  Schumacher, Salvadoran Discloses New Evidence in the Murder of Four U.S. Missionaries, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 1981); Assoc. Press, Link of Salvadoran Soldiers to Killing of 4 Reported, N.Y. Times (April 27, 1981).

Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable by U.S. Courts for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture

We have seen the development of the U.S. federal courts use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) starting with the 1980 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the 2004 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.[1]

 

General Garcia
General Casanova

In 2005 former Salvadoran Generals Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova were unsuccessful in their defense against Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) claims by three Salvadoran refugees who allegedly were tortured by Salvadoran military personnel at various times from 1979 to 1983.[2]

The defendants in pre-trial proceedings moved for dismissal of the case that was brought in 1999 on the basis of the 10-year U.S. statute of limitations. This motion was denied with the trial court leaving the issue of equitable tolling or suspension of the statute of limitations to be resolved by a lay jury. In 2002, after a four-week trial and 20 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs, concluding that the statute of limitations was tolled or suspended until the end of the Salvadoran civil war in 1992. The amount of the verdict was $54.6 million.[3]

The defendants appealed with the sole issue on appeal being the tolling or setting aside the statute of limitations.

Affirming the lower court, the federal appeals court stated, “The record swells with evidence regarding the brutality and oppression that the Salvadoran military visited upon the people of El Salvador. The evidence includes reports on abductions, torture, and murder by the military. The evidence reveals a judiciary too meek to stand against the regime.” Moreover, the appellate court endorsed the trial court’s finding that the plaintiffs “legitimately feared reprisals from the Salvadoran military, despite the fact that the defendants resided in the United States. The military regime, in which both Garcia and Casanova had held positions of great influence, remained in power. State-sponsored acts of violence and oppression continued to ravage El Salvador. The very regime against whom the plaintiffs leveled their accusations remained intent on maintaining its power at any cost and acted with impunity to do so.” Thus, held the appellate court, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by tolling the statute of limitations until the end of the civil war in 1992.[4]

The defendants did not request the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appellate court’s decision. As a result, the case is over except for the plaintiffs’ efforts to collect the $54.6 million judgment. So far they have collected $300,000.

Parenthetically, both of the former Generals in this case have been charged with violations of U.S. immigration laws.

In early 2009, Garcia was indicted by the U.S. government for illegally entering the U.S. with a Salvadoran passport he had obtained by fraudulently telling Salvadoran officials that he had lost his prior passport when in fact it had been seized by U.S. authorities and for falsely telling the latter officials his attorney had told him that the passport had been lost. In September 2009, the indictment was dismissed upon corroborated evidence that his attorney had given him advice about his ability to obtain a substitute Salvadoran passport.[5]

Casanova was charged with assisting or otherwise participating in torture in El Salvador as grounds for removal or deportation from the U.S. The removal hearing in Orlando, Florida took place in April and May 2011, and a decision is expected in early 2012.[6]

This case is also instructive on how to prove under the ATS or TVPA that superior officials had knowledge of human rights abuses by their subordinates.  One of the plaintiffs’ witnesses was a researcher at Amnesty International (AI) during the period in question.  He testified to its practice of Urgent Actions to solicit letters from AI members to government officials about human rights abuses in their countries, its Urgent Actions about El Salvador, and a response to one of the letters from one of the defendants thanking the letter-writer for his interest.[7] This experience suggests that organizations like AI should keep good records of its requests for letters to be sent to government officials and should develop a practice of keeping copies of such letters or urging the authors of the letters to keep copies.


[1] See Post: U.S. Circuit Court’s 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2001); Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 1980-2004 (Oct. 25, 2011); Post: The Alien Tort Statute Interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 (Nov. 9, 2011).

[2]  Arce v. Garcia, 434 F.3d 1254, 1255-57 (11th Cir. 2005). The plaintiffs also asserted claims under the U.S. Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA), 28 U.S.C. § 1350 footnote. The case was brought on behalf of the plaintiffs by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco NGO that is “dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.” (CJA, About Us, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=86; CJA, Arce v. Garcia and Casanova, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=82.

[3]  434 F.3d at 1255. The trial evidence included the Report of the Truth Commission for El Salvador.

[4]  Id. at 1263-65. The court of appeals earlier had reversed the jury verdict on the ground that there were no equitable circumstances warranting the tolling of the statute of limitations. (Arce v. Garcia, 400 F.3d 1340 (11th Cir. 2005).) The court, however, on its own motion, vacated this prior ruling and affirmed the judgment against the defendants. (434 F.3d at 1255.)

[5]  Indictment, U.S. v. Garcia, No. 09-20045 CR-Seitz (S.D. Fla. Jan. 22, 2009); U.S. Attorney’s Office, S.D. Fla., Press Release: Former Salvadoran Defense Minister Charged with Immigration Violations (Jan. 23, 2009), http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls/PressReleases/090223.html; Order for Dismissal, U.S.A. v. Garcia, No. 09-20045-CR  (Sept. 30, 2009).

[6] Preston, Salvadoran in Florida Faces Deportation for Torture, N.Y. Times (April 17, 2011); CJA,CJA Reporting from Vides Casanova Removal Hearing (April 18, 2011); Trial of Vides Casanova, Former El Salvador Defense Minister Accused of Condoning Killing of American Churchwomen, Gets Underway, Fox News Latino (April 19, 2011); Blum, Update: First Round of Testimony–The Removal Case against General Vides-Casanova, Former Minister of Defense of El Salvador, http://www.cja.org (May 2, 2011); Center for Democracy in the Americas, El Salvador Update–April 2011 (May 4, 2011); email, Blum of CJA to author (Sept. 14, 2011).

[7] Michael McClintock, A Glimmer of Justice for El Salvador, amnesty now, Fall 2002, at 12.