An immigration appeals panel has upheld the deportation of a former defense minister of El Salvador who was in power in the 1980s, when U.S.-backed security forces there committed numerous human rights abuses, including the kidnapping and murders of four American churchwomen.
The unprecedented ruling against retired Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, a one-time U.S. ally who retired to Florida in 1989, is expected to open legal doors for the deportation of a second Salvadoran general and other former foreign officials who condoned or failed to prevent — but did not directly participate in — human rights abuses in their countries.
The case against Vides Casanova and Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia was originally brought by three Salvadoran refugees, including two longtime residents of the District, who were detained and tortured by security forces in their homeland in the 1980s. One, Juan Romagoza, is a doctor who until 2008 ran the Clinica del Pueblo, a nonprofit health center in Northwest Washington. The other, Carlos Mauricio, is a teacher and psychologist in the District who heads an anti-torture group.
“I was lucky to survive, but many others didn’t, and this ruling represents some relief for them, too,” Romagoza, 65, said in a telephone interview Friday from El Salvador. “It is a very important step for justice, because it says that not only those who carried out these crimes but also those who knew or ordered them and then washed their hands are responsible.”
A civil suit filed in 1999 by Romagoza, Mauricio and Neris Gonzalez, a former church worker, led to a trial in Florida in which a jury ordered a $54.6 million verdict against the generals. In 2006, a federal appeals court upheld the verdict, although in a separate trial, a jury cleared both men of responsibility for the murders of the four U.S. churchwomen, who were kidnapped by Salvadoran security forces in 1980.
Both former officials were allowed to remain in the United States, but in 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) brought charges of immigration fraud against them for assisting in the torture of Romagoza and a second detainee, Daniel Alvarado. In 2012, an immigration judge in Florida ruled that Vides Casanova, a legal U.S. resident, could be deported. That decision was upheld Wednesday, but he has the right to appeal in federal court. The case against Garcia is pending.
According to Patty Blum, one of a team of lawyers at the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco that supported the prosecution, the ruling published Wednesday by the Board of Immigration Appeals is “very significant, because for the first time it connects the concept of command responsibility to the ability to remove human rights abusers from the United States.”
Blum said that the original civil case brought by Romagoza, Mauricio and Gonzalez was “a real stimulant” to the immigration prosecution against them and that many of the same witnesses testified at the civil and immigration hearings. The immigration case was developed by the Human Rights Crimes Violators and War Crimes Unit at ICE, which pursues suspects from numerous countries who live in the United States.
In its ruling, the appeals board described in detail the torture endured by Romagoza, who was working at a church clinic in 1980 when it was attacked by soldiers and police. He was detained and kept in national guard custody for three weeks. The decision said he was beaten, shot, given electric shocks, sexually assaulted and hung from a ceiling. It described similar treatment of Alvarado, a student activist who was falsely accused and later cleared of killing a U.S. military adviser.
The appeals board stated that these acts were not “isolated or random” abuses at the hands of “rogue subordinates,” but that Vides Casanova, who headed the national guard and then served as defense minister from 1983 to 1989, “knowingly shielded subordinates” from punishment and “promoted a culture of tolerance for human rights abuses” in the security forces.
In the early 1980s, the United States supported the government of El Salvador as the country was spiraling into civil war against leftist guerrillas. But the regime was later found to have committed mass abuses against civilians, including massacres and torture, and human rights groups have spent years denouncing and investigating these cases.
In the case of the four churchwomen, who were kidnapped, killed and buried by members of the national guard, the immigration appeals panel found that Vides Casanova knew the guardsmen then under his command had confessed to the crimes but that he failed to investigate them and obstructed U.S. government efforts to investigate.
The U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time, Robert E. White, fought tenaciously to seek justice in the churchwomen’s case, and he later testified at the Florida trial of Vides Casanova. Another former U.S. ambassador, Edwin G. Corr, testified in his defense.
In Washington on Friday, news of the immigration board’s ruling was met with elation by colleagues of Romagoza, a longtime leader of the region’s large Salvadoran immigrant community who headed the Clinica del Pueblo from 1988 to 2008. He returned to his homeland after retiring from the clinic.
“Juan has always been inspiring in his fight for justice, and it is exciting to see it come to full fruition now,” said Alicia Wilson, who succeeded him as executive director of the clinic in Columbia Heights. “With this case, he has left a legacy that makes us feel there is a chance for our country not to be a refuge for those responsible for torture.”
Mauricio, 62, who teaches in the District and heads a nonprofit group called the Stop Impunity Project, recounted the day in 1983 when a group of armed men, dressed in civilian clothes, burst into a class he was teaching at the National University of El Salvador and took him to a detention center run by the national police. He was tortured and interrogated for two weeks and then released.
“We never found justice in El Salvador, but we had unbreakable faith that we would find it in this country,” Mauricio said Friday. “The military saw all its opponents as enemies and they targeted us to be eliminated. There were so few who survived, but at least those of us who did were able to recount the history that the others could not.”