Client: Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce

 Dr. Juan Romagoza Arce

In 1980, Juan Romagoza Arce was working as a country doctor for the rural poor in El Salvador when he was detained and tortured for 22 days at the National Guard Headquarters. He served as the director of La Clinica del Pueblo, a public health clinic in Adams Morgan in Washington D.C.  He recently returned to El Salvador, where he founded a community health clinic in Usultán as well as El Centro Romero, a home for impoverished persons living with HIV.  In the fall of 2009, he was appointed Coordinator  of the Basic Integral Health System of the Department of Usulután.

Juan was born in Usulutan and is 51 years old. He entered medical school at the University of El Salvador in 1973. As part of his medical training, he set up medical clinics and provided health education to the underserved in the poor areas of San Salvador and neighboring communities. He worked closely with Catholic churches and Christian Base Communities (lay community groups organized under the principals of Catholic Liberation Theology) that helped organize medical services for the poor in rural areas. During his surgery rotation and early practice, Juan witnessed increasing incidents of violence and repression targeted against the poor, church workers- and the medical professionals who aided them. Yet, despite great risk to his own safety, Juan continued his volunteer work with the underprivileged, motivated by his deeply held Christian principles.

Juan took his work to remote areas of the countryside where the need for medical assistance was the greatest- and the population had been most affected by the war. In December, 1980, as he was providing medical care at a church clinic in Santa Anita, Chalatenango, two vehicles carrying soldiers from the army and National Guard arrived and opened fire upon the people at the clinic. Juan was shot in the foot and was subsequently blindfolded and taken by helicopter to a local army garrison. During the flight, soldiers threatened to throw him from the helicopter. Shortly thereafter, Juan was transferred to the National Guard headquarters in San Salvador.

For the next 22 days, he was interrogated, beaten and tortured almost every day, sometimes three or four times per day. His torture included electric shocks, cigarette burns, water torture, and being hung by his fingers. During one session, his torturers shot him in his left hand as they taunted him that he would never be able to perform surgery again. During his detention, Defendant Vides Casanova was physically present on two occasions, including the day of Juan’s release in early January.

After his release, Juan fled El Salvador. He arrived in the U.S. in April of 1983 and was granted political asylum in 1987. He lost his ability to perform surgery due to the injuries inflicted during his detention.

In 1999, Juan, along with two other Salvadoran torture survivors – Carlos Mauricio and Neris Gonzalez – filled a lawsuit against Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova alleging that the generals, in their positions as Minister of Defense and Director of the National Guard, had command responsibility for their torture. In July 2002, a 10-person Florida jury found unanimously that the generals were responsible under the doctrine of "command responsibility" for the horrific acts of torture perpetrated against the plaintiffs. The jury, after hearing testimony and evidence from both sides, concluded that the generals knew or should have known about widespread torture and extrajudicial killings against civilians being committed by their troops during the 1979-83 period, and failed to take reasonable action to prevent those abuses.

While in the U.S., Juan maintained his commitment to community health work. He became active in assisting the refugee community in San Francisco, and co-founded the Central American Refugee Center (CRECE). In 1987, he became the Executive Director of La Clinica del Pueblo in Washington D.C which provides free, comprehensive health care and education services to the poor and uninsured. In 2008, Juan fulfilled his long-held dream of returning to El Salvador to provide free medical treatment to the poor, rural communities he began his career serving, and founded the Clinic El Espino, Usulutan, El Salvador. He is now the Director of the Eastern Region for the Ministry of Health.

Over the years, Juan has received many awards including the Community Health Leadership Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Marcelino Pan y Vino Humanitarian Award. He was also included in the book "Stone Soup for the World: Life-Changing Stories of Kindness & Courageous Acts of Service", a book that honors people who have made outstanding community contributions.

In August 2003, the Washington Post Sunday Magazine did a cover story on Juan chronicling his courage, strength, and remarkable achievements. You can also read Juan’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights & the Law.