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El Salvador: Key verdicts for human rights upheld
NewsNotes, November-December 2009

Early October was a positive time for human rights as important announcements were made regarding two Salvadoran cases.

On Oct. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court denied former Salvadoran Vice Minister of Defense Col. Nicolás Carranza an appeal of the 2005 verdict which found him guilty of crimes against humanity, torture and extrajudicial killing. The next day, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it had started deportation proceedings for former Salvadoran Ministers of Defense Gen. José Guillermo Garcia and Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, who have also been found guilty of torture. These decisions should be clear messages that the U.S. will not harbor fugitives; unfortunately, in other cases, human rights abusers are still able to live freely in the U.S.

Due to El Salvador’s controversial Amnesty Law that prohibits prosecutions for human rights abuses committed during the civil war, survivors were only able to use civil processes against their abusers in these cases. In November 2005, Carranza was found guilty of torture, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity under the doctrine of command responsibility and ordered to pay $6 million in damages. According to the Center for Justice and Accountability, which brought the case to trial, “the doctrine holds that a military commander is legally responsible for human rights abuses by his subordinates when the commander knew or should have known that the abuses were taking place and failed to prevent the abuses or punish those responsible.”

When he served as vice minister of defense from late 1979-early 1981, possibly the most brutal period of civil war, Carranza commanded the three principal security forces. Experts estimate that 10,000-12,000 unarmed civilians were killed in 1980. During the trial, former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White testified that Carranza was a paid informant for the CIA while he was Vice Minister of Defense. Carranza also confirmed that he had received money from the U.S. government since 1965. Carranza immigrated to the U.S. in 1985, was naturalized as a citizen in 1991 and lives in Memphis.

Generals Casanova and Garcia were initially found guilty of the torture of three Salvadoran citizens in 2002, also through the doctrine of command responsibility. Garcia was the Minister of Defense from 1979 to 1983, in charge of the soldiers responsible for the El Mozote and Sumpul massacres where over 1,367 civilians were killed. Vides Casanova was director of the Salvadoran National Guard and then succeeded Garcia as Minister of Defense.

In February 2005, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict in the case, but later admitted to having made an error and upheld the original ruling in a January 2006 announcement. In July of that year, Casanova was forced to turn over $300,000 of his own money. This was the first human rights case in the U.S. in which survivors have actually recovered money from their abusers. Usually, perpetrators are able to shift their money in order to avoid paying any penalties. DHS’s announcement of their pending deportations means that they should be out of the country within a year.

While these recent announcements are positive in showing the possibility of bringing human rights abusers to justice, other people responsible for such abuses continue to live with impunity in the U.S. For instance, Carlos Posada Carriles, connected to the bombing of a Cuban airline in 1976 that killed 73 people, continues to live freely in Miami despite an extradition request from Venezuela. Former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and two of his former ministers also continue to live freely in the U.S. despite a request for their extradition from Bolivia for their participation in the killing of 67 people in October 2003. Until the government treats all human rights abusers equally, the U.S. will continue to be seen as a place to go to avoid persecution. Hopefully these recent victories in the Salvadoran cases are signs of things to come.

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