Ex-Salvadoran generals ordered to pay torture victims

Published Jul. 24, 2002|Updated Sep. 3, 2005

A jury held two retired Salvadoran generals responsible Tuesday for atrocities committed during El Salvador's civil war two decades ago and ordered the men to pay $54.6-million to three torture victims.

The generals, who now live in the United States, were sued by a church worker, a doctor and a professor who fled their country after being tortured by Salvadoran soldiers.

The federal jury found that retired Gens. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Jose Guillermo Garcia had ignored massacres and other acts of brutality against civilians.

During the conflict, Vides was head of the National Guard, while Garcia was defense secretary.

"This has been a long, long struggle for justice," said Carlos Mauricio, the professor who was strung up by his arms, starved and beaten during eight days of torture. He wiped tears from his cheeks as the verdict was read.

Defense attorney Kurt Klaus said the generals cannot pay the verdict or even afford to appeal.

His defense painted El Salvador's civil war as a chaotic situation where the generals could not control the actions of the soldiers under their command. The war claimed more than 75,000 lives, including tens of thousands of civilian victims, before it ended with peace accords in 1992.

Neither Garcia nor Vides was in court Tuesday.

Garcia later said by telephone from his home in Plantation that the jury could not understand the "terrible" violence in El Salvador and that one of his goals was to fight the brutality.

"We consider the decision unfair," he said. "One would have to prove who committed the abuse, and until now, no one knows who committed that abuse."

The victims, who also live in the United States, sued under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act that allows U.S. courts to assess damages against perpetrators of human rights abuses committed abroad.

Arnie Esbin, foreman of the jury, which deliberated for 20 hours over four days, said jurors agreed that the generals controlled the soldiers who tortured.

"I think the message the jury sent is absolutely overwhelming," said James Green, the victims' lead attorney. "After 20 years, I think the truth has finally been told and I think justice has finally been served."

Green said the victory was shared by the families of four Catholic missionaries who lost their suit against the generals 20 months ago. In that case, a jury found Vides and Garcia had no control over the rogue soldiers who raped and murdered the four Americans in a remote area of El Salvador two decades before.

One plaintiff in the latest case, Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce, said Vides visited him during a 22-day interrogation while he was chained to the floor of a torture cell in San Salvador. Romagoza was beaten, raped and shot. He had shriveled to 80 pounds when he was released, and his fingers were ruined after being bound by wire cables.

The jury awarded $20-million to Romagoza, $13.1-million to Mauricio and $21.5-million to Neris Gonzalez, a church worker who was eight months pregnant when she was abducted and beaten and raped repeatedly. Her son was born but died two months later from injuries.

Their attorneys said the legal victory could clear the way for the estimated 500,000 refugees living in the United States who have endured some form of torture to file similar suits.