Laying Out a Case for Deporting Human Rights Abusers

In 1980, the murder of four American churchwomen focused attention on the United States’ involvement in El Salvador. Nearly 35 years later, the case continues to take surprising turns.

By Clyde Haberman
An image from RetroReport

As clichés go, the one about “the long arm of the law” is moth-eaten. But the law does in fact have a reach, and it can extend far. In recent years, it has stretched out to grab foreign nationals who found refuge in the United States after committing or sanctioning political murder, torture and other human rights abuses in their home countries. Hundreds of them have been sent packing, including government officials and thuggish factotums from places with troubled pasts, like Rwanda, Peru, Bosnia, Argentina, Haiti, Guatemala and Liberia. Some former guards at Nazi death camps have been dispatched to Germany and other European countries.

The rationale behind the deportations is simple: Those responsible for monstrous deeds, regardless of how far away and how long ago, have no business being here. In that vein, the Retro Report series of video documentaries about past news stories and their aftermaths turns its attention this week to El Salvador, which exemplifies some of the legal complexities when it comes to rooting out and then shipping out those deemed guilty.

If immigration courts have their way, the ranks of the deported will include two Salvadoran generals who were defense ministers in the 1980s, blood-soaked years in that country. These men, José Guillermo García, now 81, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, 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.

There was no shortage of brutality in El Salvador during a 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992 with a peace accord between the right-wing military-dominated government and left-wing guerrilla groups. A United Nations Truth Commission concluded in 1993 that the conflict had left about 75,000 people dead and one million displaced — this in a country of five million or so. Both sides terrorized civilians. But overwhelmingly, the commission found, atrocities were carried out by the Washington-supported armed forces and allied death squads. In one closely scrutinized massacre, soldiers in 1981 killed more than 200 men, women and children in a village called El Mozote. Not until 2011 did the Salvadoran government apologize for the “blindness of state violence” there, and ask for forgiveness.

Murders that deeply shocked many around the world were those of clergymen and women who had spoken out on behalf of El Salvador's impoverished masses. In 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed by soldiers in San Salvador, the capital. Nine years earlier, San Salvador's Roman Catholic archbishop, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who preached against social injustice and state-sanctioned violence, had been shot to death as he celebrated Mass. (The Vatican signaled recently that it might speed Archbishop Romero's path toward possible sainthood. That process was frozen under Pope John Paul II, a staunchly anti-Communist Pole with an aversion to anything that smacked of the liberation theology movement. Pope Francis, an Argentine, is said by Vatican officials to feel greater affinity toward the Salvadoran and would like for him to be beatified, the penultimate step to sainthood.)

For many Americans, the killings that hit home hardest took place on Dec. 2, 1980, a little over eight months after the archbishop’s assassination. They are the focus of the Retro Report video. Salvadoran national guardsmen — five were eventually found guilty — murdered four American churchwomen who worked in that country with the poor. Three were Catholic nuns: Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel. The fourth, Jean Donovan, was a lay missionary. They had been beaten, raped and shot execution-style in the head. Their nude bodies were dumped by a road. Local peasants clothed them and buried them in a shallow grave.

Robert E. White, then the United States ambassador to El Salvador, stood by as the bodies were exhumed. It was evident, Mr. White recalled for Retro Report, that the Salvadoran military was “out of control” and “would kill anybody.” But why these women? “In the eyes of the military, identification with the poor was the same as identification with revolution,” he said.

Seven weeks after those murders, Mr. Reagan took office. Mr. White did not last long in his post. He was out of step with the new administration, which supported the Salvadoran rightists. He was also dismayed by what he saw as an effort in Washington to shrug off the killings. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who would soon become the American ambassador to the United Nations, described the churchwomen as “political activists,” not just nuns. That was not so, Mr. White said. Alexander M. Haig Jr., the secretary of state, suggested that the women may have run a roadblock, and were killed in an exchange of gunfire. None of that was true.

In 1998, some of the convicted guardsmen said in interviews that they had acted on “orders from above.” They singled out no one. But in immigration court cases pursued in the United States, responsibility fell upon, among others, the two generals living out their lives in Florida. Nine months ago, an immigration judge in Miami ruled against General García’s continued stay in America, saying he “knew or should have known” about the atrocities that took place on his watch. Another immigration judge issued a similar assessment of General Vides in 2012, and ordered his deportation.

Until a decade ago, the concept that the United States should not be a haven for foreign violators of human rights had been applied principally to those who were part of the Nazi killing machine, many of them as death camp guards. Some made their way into this country in the first years after World War II, typically by lying about their past. But more than a dozen others, at a minimum, were invited to resettle here and given cover by United States intelligence agencies, according to recent revelations by a New York Times reporter, Eric Lichtblau. He described those men as among a thousand or more Nazis used by the agencies during the Cold War as anti-Soviet spies and informants here and in Europe.

Cases against Nazi suspects were pursued by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which was created in 1979 but was absorbed four years ago into a new section of the department. In all, 107 were deported or stripped of their American citizenship. (On Oct. 19, The Associated Press caused a stir with a report that several dozen of those who had helped the Nazis, all quite old, were allowed to keep their Social Security benefits, a policy criticized by some elected officials and others.)

In recent years, relying on a 2004 law prohibiting human rights abusers from entering or living in this country, Washington 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.

Some human rights activists say the law’s arm could be even longer in the pursuit of transgressors. Among them is Pamela Merchant, until recently executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability. Her San Francisco-based group brought lawsuits against a broad range of accused rights abusers, including the Salvadoran generals in Florida. “I do think there’s a much stronger commitment to keep guys like this out of the country,” Ms. Merchant said, but she detected “some ambivalence” in Washington in regard to tossing out “people already here.”

Still, she acknowledged, the prevailing spirit is far different from what it was years ago. Another cliché holds that justice delayed is justice denied. But the feeling among people like Ms. Merchant is that if it means denying American sanctuary to killers and torturers, justice delayed is still justice.

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.