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.

Cuban Religious Freedom According to the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba

On October 10, 2003, President George W. Bush created the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and directed it to report with recommendations for a comprehensive program to (i) “Bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the [Cuban] dictatorship;” (ii) “Establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law [in Cuba];” (iii) “Create the core institutions of a free economy [in Cuba];” (iv) “Modernize [Cuban]infrastructure;” and (v) “Meet [Cuban] basic needs in the areas of health, education, housing and human services.”[1]

This Commission issued two reports and has not been heard from in the Obama Administration. Its government website (www.cafc.gov) no longer exists.

Its first report in May 2004, in my opinion, was a U.S. blueprint for taking over Cuba. It said, “Religious organizations, including Catholic and certain authentically independent Protestant denominations, represent the fastest growing and potentially fastest growing alterative to the Cuban state in providing basic services and information to the Cuban people.” (P. 20; emphasis added.) The rest of the report makes clear that the Commission believed that only evangelical Christian groups were authentically independent and should be used by the U.S. to build a free Cuba. According to this report, they had “the trust of the people and the means to organize through an existing social network of communications and distribution channels at all levels of society.”[2]

The report also called for the U.S. to avoid trying to use the Cuban Council of Churches, which the U.S. Commission believed, had been “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches.” (P. 64.) However, most of the clergy and laity of churches that belong to the Council, the Commission asserted, were “not sympathizers of Castro and the communists and therefore should not be denied assistance or a role in Cuban religious affairs due to ‘guilt by association.” (P. 64.)

The second Commission report in July 2006 provides more details for how the U.S. wants to see Cuba function.[3] President George W. Bush immediately approved the report and directed his Administration to implement its recommendations.[4]

The Commission’s castigation of the Cuban Council of Churches (CCC), in my opinion, is totally unjustified and particularly outrageous. I note that the most recent reports by the U.S. Department of State and by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom do not attack the Cuban Council in this or any other manner.[5]

The CCC was founded in 1941 and “is a fellowship of churches, ecumenical groups, and other ecumenical organizations which confess Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour, according to the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to respond to their common calling, to the glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Today their membership consists of 22 churches, 12 ecumenical groups. 3 observer members and 7 fraternal associates.[6]

The CCC seeks “to give unity to the Christian Churches of Cuba and to help unify Cuban churches with other churches around the world.” It also “encourages dialogue between different movements and institutions as a means for churches to expand their ecumenical vocation of service, thus deepening their responsibilities towards society and all of God’s creation.” Finally CCC “promotes study, dialogue, and cooperation among Christians to increase Christian witness and enhance life in Cuba.” [7]

One of its specific programs is the CCC Committee of Emergency Relief that provides relief and building emergency response infrastructure . . . in times of natural disaster” like the hurricanes that hit the island.[8]

Moreover, I have visited the Havana office of the CCC and met some of its employees. I also know a Cuban pastor and seminary official who has been president of the CCC. Based on this personal experience I believe the Council is a legitimate Christian organization that assists its member churches and congregations in a multitude of ways to conduct their ministries in the Cuban context.

<<<<Here is a photo of the CCC sign outside its office. The other photo shows a banner listing its members and programs that I saw in the office.>>>>>>>

These Commission reports, in my opinion, are absolutely outrageous. They assume that it is entirely appropriate for the U.S. to consider and develop plans for a U.S.-imposed regime change in Cuba. They also assume that it is entirely appropriate for the U.S. to make decisions on who in Cuba (or any other country for that matter) is authentically Christian. And they assume that the U.S. may properly use certain Cuban churches, and not others, to advance U.S. objectives in Cuba. All of these assumptions and the conclusions from these assumptions are, in my opinion, illegal, immoral and unwise. I trust that its disappearance from the public scene is final.


[1] Wikipedia, Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, en.wikipedia.org/siki/Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.

[2]  Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba, Report to the President (May 2004), http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PCAAB192.pdf.

[3] Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba, Report to the President (July 2006), available on Council on Foreign Relations website, http://www.cfr.org/cuba/commission-assistance-free-cuba-report-president/p11093.

[4] White House (President George W. Bush), Fact Sheet: Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba Report to the President (July 10, 2006), http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2006/07/20060710-1.html.

[5] See Post: U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba (Jan. 5, 2011).

[6] World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches, http://www.oikoumene.org/en/member-churches/regions/Caribbean/cuba/cic.html; [U.S.] National Council of Churches, Background on the Cuban Council of Churches, http://www.ncccusa.org/news/cuba/cccbackground.html.

[7] Id.; United Church of Christ, Cuban Council of Churches, http://globalministries.org/lac/projects/Cuban-council-of-churches.html. See Comment: U.S. Church Leaders Call for U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation (Dec. 10, 2011)[Comment to Post: President Obama Is Wrong on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2011)].

[8] Id.

Merry Christmas!

One of the foundations of my Christian faith is the following prayer:

  • It helps, now and then, to step back
    and take the long view.
    The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
    it is beyond our vision.
  • We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
    the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
    Nothing we do is complete,
    which is another way of saying
    that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
  • No statement says all that could be said.
    No prayer fully expresses our faith.
    No confession brings perfection.
    No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
    No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
    No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
  • This is what we are about:
    We plant seeds that one day will grow.
    We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
    We lay foundations that will need further development.
    We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
  • We cannot do everything
    and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
    This enables us to do something,
    and to do it very well.
    It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
    an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
  • We may never see the end results,
    but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
    We are workers, not master builders,
    ministers, not messiahs.
    We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.[1]

The essence of this prayer for me is in the lines: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” This rings true as a matter of Christian theology. It helps me to keep myself in perspective. It is indeed liberating.

I thought that this was a prayer composed by my personal saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero. This, however, is not true.

It was written in November 1979 by Kenneth Edward Untener, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, for a memorial mass for deceased priests that was celebrated by Cardinal John Francis Dearden, the Archbishop of Detroit, Michigan.[2]  This context helps to understand the prayer’s talking about imperfect prayers, confessions and pastoral visits. The immediate audience for the prayer was the deceased priests and those priests in attendance to honor their comrades. But the real audience is everyone.

Later it purportedly was used by Archbishop Romero.[3] I hope that it was, but regardless of whether it was, it is something, in my opinion, that expresses Romero’s theology. Here, for example, is what he said about everyone’s being a worker who strives to do his or her best and thereby gives God’s grace an opportunity to enter into the world and do the rest:

  • “How beautiful will be the day when all the baptized understand that their work, their job, is a priestly work. That just as I celebrate Mass at this altar, so each carpenter celebrates Mass at his workbench. And each metal worker, each professional, each doctor with the scalpel, the market worker at her stand, are performing a priestly office! “[4]

Merry Christmas!


[1]  See Post: My Christian Faith (April 6, 2011).

[2] Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, Homily (March 28, 2004), http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/peace/pfg032804.htm.;Bishop Ken Untener, The Practical Prophet : Pastoral Writings at iii (Paulist Press; New York 2007)(Untener called this prayer “Reflection on Ministry”).

[3] We Are Prophets of a Future Not Our Own, American Catholic Council Newsletter (June 6, 2001), http://americancatholiccouncil.org/newsletter-june-6-2001-2. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who can confirm that this prayer was used by Romero. Where? When? Source?

[4] Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero at 13 (Harper & Row; San Francisco 1988) (compiled & translated by James R. Brockman, S.J.).

Pilgrimage to American Churchwomen Sites in El Salvador

We have reviewed the missionary work in El Salvador of the four American churchwomen, their brutal murders on December 2, 1980, the subsequent investigations of that horrible crime, the Salvadoran successful criminal prosecution of five of its National Guardsmen for the murders and the unsuccessful U.S. civil lawsuit for money damages against two Salvadoran Generals for their failure to prevent this crime and conduct a proper investigation after the fact.[i]

In March 2010 I was privileged to visit some of the sites associated with this powerful demonstration of religious faith, devotion and courage, on the one hand, and brutal and heartless conduct of the Salvadoran security forces, on the other hand.

Military Post, Chalatenango
Lago de Suchitlan

Two of the women, Maryknollers Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, served in the northern city of Chalatenango, population of 30,000. It is near Lago de Suchitlan. During the civil war a military fortress was built to guard the city against attacks by the FMLN guerillas.

Chalatenango chapter house
Chalatenango chapter house

Across the street from the military fortress stands the 18th-century church, which was the center of the Sisters’ activities. They lived in the adjacent chapter house.

The two of them along with their friends Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were murdered on December 2, 1980, near the town of Santiago Nonualco in the southern part of the country near the airport. The next day their bodies were found on a country road not too far from the town, and upon order from officials they immediately were buried in a shallow, common grave. The site of the grave is not publicly accessible, but it was not too far from the places in these photos.

Now near the site of the common grave is a small chapel along with a monument to the women.

Soon after the murders, Sisters Clarke and Ford were buried where they had served, in accordance with Maryknoll custom and practice. Our group visited the cemetery for a moment of prayer and reflection. Here are photos of the municipal cemetery of Chalatenango and their grave markers.

La Libertad

We did not visit the western coastal city of La Libertad, population around 30,000. This is where Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll lay missionary Jean Donovan served. Here is a photo of the city.

The four women are now part of the religious heritage of El Salvador and the world. Every year on December 2nd (the date of their murders), there are pilgrimages to that country to commemorate and honor their religious faith, devotion, courage and service. Praise God!


[i]  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); Post: TVPA Lawsuit in U.S. Federal Court Over the Murders of the American Churchwomen (Dec. 20, 2011).


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).

The December 1980 Murders of the Four American Churchwomen in El Salvador

In 1980 four U.S. women were engaged in Christian mission work in El Salvador: Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.[1]

U.S. Ambassador Robert White

On November 20, 1980, Kazel and Donovan happened to meet U.S. Ambassador Robert White and his wife at a Roman Catholic religious service in San Salvador, and the Whites invited them to come to the Embassy on December 1st for dinner and to stay the night. Over dinner that night they discussed their differing views on U.S. policy regarding El Salvador. Kazel and Donovan told the Whites that the next night they would be picking up their friends, Maryknollers Clarke and Ford, at the airport.[2]

The next morning (December 2, 1980), Kazel and Donovan had breakfast upstairs at the Embassy with Mrs. White while the Ambassador had one of his frequent breakfasts elsewhere at the Embassy with the Salvadoran Minister of Defense, General Jose Guillermo Garcia.[3]

Later that same day, Kazel and Donovan went to the airport in their white van as planned. Clarke and Ford were returning to the country on a flight from Nicaragua, which then was under the control of the leftist Sandanistas and where they had attended a regional assembly of their order. Around 7:00 p.m. the four women got in the white van to drive to the capital city of San Salvador.[4]

Soon after leaving the airport, their van was stopped by several men in plain clothes. The men took over the van and drove the women to an isolated area about 15 miles east of the airport near the town of Santiago Nonualco in the Department of La Paz.[5]

That night peasants in the area saw the white van drive to an isolated spot. Then they heard machine-gun fire and single shots followed by five men leaving in the van. (Later that night the van was found on fire at the side of the airport road.)[6]

The next morning (December 3rd) the peasants went to the road where they had seen the van and heard the shots. There they found four female bodies. Local authorities told the peasants to bury the women in a common grave in a nearby field. The peasants did as they were instructed, but they also told their priest about what had happened, and the priest relayed the news to his local bishop.[7]

That same morning (December 3rd), a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy called a local police official to report three nuns and a lay worker were missing, and the official asked whether the nuns were in habits and was told they were not. Later that same day General Jose Guillermo Garcia asked Ambassador White the same question. (In the Salvadoran military lexicon, “good” nuns wore habits; “bad” nuns did not.) The four women did not wear habits, and they worked with the poor, also marking them as troublemakers to Salvadoran officials. Later that same day the office of San Salvador’s acting Archbishop, Rivera y Damas, told Ambassador White that the women’s bodies had been found in an unmarked grave.[8]

On December 4th, Ambassador White drove to where the four bodies had been found, and at his insistence the bodies were exhumed from the shallow common grave, identified and taken to San Salvador. There a group of forensic doctors refused to perform autopsies on the ground that they did not have surgical gloves.[9]

In accordance with Maryknoll custom, the bodies of Clarke and Ford were taken for burial to the city of Chalatenango, where they had served. Fourteen priests celebrated their requiem mass at the city’s main church as soldiers with automatic rifles patrolled outside.[10]

These murders immediately became big news leading to various investigations and prosecutions as well as tension between the U.S. and El Salvador over this crime and continuation of U.S. military aid. Later the crime was investigated by the Truth Commission for El Salvador and was the subject of a civil lawsuit in a U.S. federal court under the Torture Victims Protection Act by relatives of the women. These topics will be explored in subsequent posts.


[1] See Post: The Four American Churchwomen of El Salvador (Dec. 12, 2011).

[2] Steinfels, Death & Lies in El Salvador–The Ambassador’s Tale, Commonweal (Oct. 26, 2001).

[3] Id.

[4]  See nn. 1, 2 supra; Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 62-63 (March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8]  Id.; Sancton & Willwerth, El Salvador: Aftermath of Four Brutal Murders, Time Mag. (Dec. 22, 1980).

[9] Id.

[10]  Id.; 2 Murdered American Nuns Buried in Salvadoran Town, N.Y. Times (Dec. 7, 1980). The bodies of Kazel and Donovan were returned to the U.S. for burial.