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Seek the truth in El Salvador

It was a shocking crime when it happened: Three nuns and one lay church worker, all American, were raped and killed in El Salvador in 1980. When it emerged that the perpetrators were not leftist guerrillas but Salvadoran national guardsmen, U.S. support for El Salvador, with its right-wing death squads and oppressive army, was revealed for what it was: a disgrace.

The United States had an interest in claiming that the attack was not ordered by high-ranking officers but was the renegade act of four guardsmen. Now, there's growing evidence that our government knew this was a lie _ and that it knowingly gave U.S. residency to the military officers who either called for the attack or covered it up.

If true, it only reinforces the fear expressed by human rights activists that our government is still willing to look the other way when a regime brutalizes its own people, as long as it serves our perceived national interest.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policy toward Central America was an anti-Communist containment policy run amok. Washington propped up corrupt and brutal regimes in Panama and El Salvador and sent arms to the Nicaraguan Contras to support armed rebellion against the country's Marxist Sandinista government.

During this time, the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., played a role in training large numbers of Central American military officers who used their training to wage a terror campaign against their own people. They were able to get away with monstrous crimes because their regimes were sympathetic to U.S. goals in the region.

For years, our government insisted that the 1980 crime against the Catholic workers was committed by four guardsmen and their superior, acting on their own. The guardsmen, in a recent interview by the New York Times, all claimed that orders actually came from much higher in the military, although they don't know precisely from whom.

This comports with the view of Robert White, who was U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador when the crime occurred. He told the New York Times that three high-ranking officers, Col. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the director of the National Guard in 1980; Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the minister of defense at the time; and Col. Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, were probably directly involved in "either ordering or then covering up the killing," and our government most likely knew it. His opinion as to Garcia's and Vides Casanova's coverup activity was backed up by a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report. Nonetheless, both have been given safe haven in the United States and now reside in Florida.

Until our government is willing to seek the truth and hold accountable the military thugs who terrorized and murdered their countrymen and American citizens, its own denials of complicity in their crimes will ring hollow.