A US court ruling that paves the way for a former Salvadoran Defence Minister to be deported from the US on the basis of his involvement in cases of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador in the 1980s is a huge victory for victims, a lawyer in the case has told Amnesty International.
On 23 February 2012, a Florida immigration judge found that former General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova – who has lived in the USA since 1989 – could be sent back to El Salvador over his role in grave human rights abuses in the 1980s.
Carolyn Patty Blum, a Senior Legal Adviser at the California-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), represented several torture victims in the case. She told Amnesty International the court’s decision was a major victory for her clients.
“We always wanted to set our sights on the top commanders, those who were in a position of authority, because they were the architects of the crimes against humanity, of the systematic plans,” said Carolyn Patty Blum.
“The pattern in El Salvador was state terror – you can’t attack that by going after low-level individuals. [We] focused on top-level commanders, as they were the ones who created the structures which allowed human rights violations to occur.”
Vides Casanova was the Director General of El Salvador’s National Guard from 1979 to 1983, when he became Defence Minister, a role he held until 1989.
That year, he and his predecessor as El Salvador’s Defence Minister, José Guillermo García – also an alleged war criminal – moved to the USA.
Around 75,000 people died in El Salvador’s civil war, which raged from 1980 to 1992. The population was subjected to widespread human rights abuses, including killings, disappearances and torture.
“This landmark ruling shows that those accused of grave human rights violations cannot count on a safe haven,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Americas Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“Once Vides Casanova is back on Salvadoran soil, the authorities must investigate the human rights violations for which he has been found liable in the US courts, and other egregious crimes which were committed during his time in command. Victims and survivors of torture and extrajudicial killings have a right to justice and to the truth about what happened to them.”
It has taken years of legal work – and some setbacks along the way – for torture survivors, their relatives, and their legal representatives to reach this point.
In a civil case in 2000, a US court ruled that Vides Casanova and García could not be held responsible for the deaths of the four US churchwomen.
But the legal battle against the two former defence ministers continued.
In a second civil case in 2002, Vides Casanova and García were found liable for the torture of three Salvadoran civilians, including a woman who was eight months pregnant. The two former Defence Ministers were ordered to pay US$54.6 million in damages to the survivors.
Another turning point came in 2004, when the USA passed new anti-terror legislation that paved the way for deporting individuals found to have assisted or participated in torture or extrajudicial killings.
With the fresh opportunity the law provided, the CJA presented their cases before the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, which ultimately led to the recent ruling against Vides Casanova.
The CJA is also hopeful that deportation proceedings against García will now advance.