New York Times – former Salvadoran General faces deportation


Salvadoran in Florida Faces Deportation for Torture

By JULIA PRESTON Published: April 17, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — During the civil war in El Salvador three decades ago, Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova was that nation’s top military officer, a close ally valued by the United States for his implacable battle against Marxist guerrillas, in spite of notorious human rights violations by his forces.

Associated Press

Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova

On Monday, in a case that represents an about-face in American policy, Obama administration lawyers will charge in immigration court here that General Vides participated in torture when he commanded the Salvadoran armed forces and will seek to have him deported.

The case against General Vides is hailed by human rights advocates as the first time a special human rights office at the Department of Homeland Security has brought immigration charges against a top-ranking foreign military commander.

The government’s immigration charges are a stark reversal of fortune for General Vides, who has been living as a legal permanent resident in South Florida since he retired honorably in 1989, after serving six years as El Salvador’s defense minister. He has denied any role in torture. Among witnesses on his behalf he plans to call a former United States ambassador to El Salvador, Edwin G. Corr.

As a sign of the divide in this country over the legacy of the Salvadoran conflict, the government’s lawyers are also expected to call a former ambassador, Robert E. White, a longtime critic of Washington’s role in that war.

“As a legal case, it will really put the Department of Homeland Security on the path to empowerment to go after people at the top level, or not,” said Carolyn Patty Blum, a lawyer for the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco who is representing two government witnesses.

The current trouble for General Vides began in 1998 with a visit to El Salvador by a lawyer, Scott Greathead, who was representing the families of four American churchwomen murdered 18 years earlier by Salvadoran National Guard troops, when General Vides was in command of that force. The American ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, mentioned to Mr. Greathead that General Vides and another former defense minister, José Guillermo García, had retired to Florida.

In 2000, a Florida jury acquitted General Vides and General García of civil charges in the churchwomen’s killings. But the justice center filed a separate suit, accusing them of responsibility for torture.

In 2002, another Florida jury found the generals liable and ordered them to pay $54.6 million to three torture victims. That verdict was upheld by an appeals court in 2006, and General Vides was required to turn over some $300,000 in assets.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, and Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, pressed the Department of Homeland Security to deport the generals. The immigration charges against General Vides were filed in late 2009.

Brian Hale, a department spokesman, said he could not comment on the case. The human rights unit has deported more than 400 people for rights abuses since its creation in 2003, according to its Web site.

One witness expected to testify for the government is Juan Romagoza Arce, a Salvadoran physician who was captured by National Guard troops in 1980. In an earlier trial, Dr. Romagoza testified that General Vides personally interrogated him in the course of a 24-day ordeal, during which, Dr. Arce said, he was suspended by his wrists and beaten, given electric shocks on his tongue and shot in the left arm.

Mr. Corr, the former ambassador, is expected to testify that as defense minister, General Vides worked with United States officials to curb abuses by his forces. General Vides was awarded the Legion of Merit, a high military honor, by President Ronald Reagan.

The hearing is scheduled to last at least a week. General García is facing separate immigration proceedings.

Diego Handel, General Vides’s lawyer, said that no American officials had been accused of responsibility in the abuses in El Salvador.

“All these events were taking place when there was extreme concern in this country regarding the spread of communism north from Central America,” Mr. Handel said. “It is ironic that the winds have changed, but no one in the United States government has been called negatively to account for any of these cases.”

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