Recently the Supreme Court decided to allow the deportation of Juan Aguirre, a Guatemalan refugee, because he admitted committing acts of vandalism during protests in his home country. A week later, the families of the four American churchwomen killed in El Salvador and two refugee-survivors of torture filed lawsuits against Salvadoran former generals Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Garcia, currently residents of Florida. The juxtaposition of these two events is disturbingly.
These cases raise fundamental questions about who gets sanctuary in the United States. On the one hand, the Salvadoran generals have been living peaceful lives in the United States for nine or 10 years. Vides Casanova entered as a permanent resident; Garcia was granted asylum status here and is now a permanent resident. On the other hand, Juan Aguirre will have to leave this country and face possible persecution because he is an undesirable "criminal alien."
Gen. Garcia was the minister of defense of El Salvador from October 1979 to April 1983. Gen. Vides Casanova was appointed by Garcia to head the National Guard during that same period. Vides Casanova then succeeded Garcia as the minister of defense.
What happened on their watch? Take only one year, 1980. The Salvadoran Armed Forces systematically terrorized the civilian population. This campaign, disguised as an effort to rout the guerrillas, actually was directed against suspected sympathizers of the opposition. More than 9,000 were murdered, most at the hands of the armed forces.
That same year, the military was responsible for the brazen abduction and torture-murder of six leaders of the opposition; for firing on mass demonstrations, killing scores and wounding more; and for the massacres of 300 peasants at the Sumpul River. Special targets were local activists -- land reformers, student organizers, doctors and especially church workers. Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in March; his mourners were fired upon days later. Churches were desecrated or burned. More than 20 priests and religious workers were killed. The murders of the four American churchwomen was the culmination of this larger campaign.
Vides Casanova was at the helm of the National Guard, which carried out many of these acts. Early in his tenure, he told an assembly of civilian and military government members that the "armed forces are prepared to kill 200,00 to 300,000 if that's what it takes to stop a communist takeover." Perhaps we should feel relieved that the civil war ended with only 75,000 civilian lives lost.
Garcia, at the pinnacle of the command structure, told then-U.S. ambassador Robert White that he knew some death-squad members were security force personnel, but he took no steps to stop their activities. He denied that the Sumpul River massacre occurred, despite clear evidence to the contrary. In late 1980 he accused priests and nuns in the region where the U.S. churchwomen worked of collaborating with guerrillas and insisted that something had to be done to stop them.
Gens. Garcia and Vides Casanova should be held accountable for the acts of troops under their command. Civil remedies in the United States are one avenue for their victims to begin this accounting. But the question remains how these two men were welcomed into the United States -- and granted the full benefits of U.S. residence -- despite their public records as leaders of one of the most brutal military organizations in recent memory.
And what about Juan Aguirre, designated by the Supreme Court for deportation for his crimes? Aguirre was just 23 when he was forced to flee Guatemala. He was active in student organizing to protest the killings of students by the military. Politically motivated violence against students had increased while Aguirre was active, and avenues for peaceful protest were almost nonexistent. Peaceful demonstrators were attacked or harassed. Meetings were invaded, and meeting places were bombed or put under surveillance.
Eventually, students turned to confrontational tactics of protest. They blocked traffic, removed patrons from buses -- sometimes forcibly -- burned buses and rampaged in nearby stores. Aguirre participated in these forms of protest.
Aguirre's case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. government vigorously argued, and the court agreed, that while Aguirre might be severely persecuted if sent back to Guatemala, it was irrelevant as he had committed serious crimes, not political protests. The government also argued, and the court again agreed, that Aguirre's political motives were irrelevant as were the circumstances that compelled him to act as he did. All that mattered was that he had committed "criminal" acts. So Aguirre is no longer considered a "refugee" and will have to leave the United States.
It's time for the U.S. government to reconsider who really deserves sanctuary here: a student protester -- frustrated, anguished and lashing out at government repression -- or the men who tolerated, if not directed, that government repression.
The writer is director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, Boalt Hall Law School, University of California, Berkeley.