Generals José Guillermo García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova are former defense ministers of the Revolutionary Junta in El Salvador. Both men presided over the extrajudicial disappearance, killing, and torture of over 75,000 civilians during the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992). CJA has campaigned aggressively to hold Generals García and Vides Casanova accountable for war crimes committed under their leadership. CJA’s advocacy work, including the civil suit and congressional testimony described below, resulted in DHS initiating removal proceedings against General García and General Vides Casanova in 2009.
In February 2014, Judge Horn of the Miami Immigration Court issued a sweeping 66-page decision finding that DHS met its burden of proof with clear and convincing evidence. He upheld all charges of removability against General García. Among its extensive findings of fact, the court held that General García “assisted or otherwise participated” in the extrajudicial killing and torture of “countless civilians,” including Archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980, at the hands of Salvadoran security forces under his command.
Generals García and Vides Casanova are to date the highest-ranking officials to be prosecuted under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) as amended by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA). The ruling reflects a sharp departure from Cold War policies supporting Central American military crackdowns against communist insurgencies. It also represents a Post-9/11 human rights policy against providing a political safe haven for human rights abusers.
General García served as defense minister of the Revolutionary Junta from 1979 to 1983, during which period General Vides Casanova served as director of the National Guard. In 1983, General Vides Casanova succeeded to the post of defense minister, which he occupied until 1989, when both men fled to Florida. They received political asylum in 1990.
CJA has campaigned to hold General García accountable for war crimes since 1999, when we filed a civil complaint against Generals García and Vides Casanova in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida. The complaint, filed with pro bono co-counsel Morrison & Foerster, charged the Generals with the extrajudicial torture of three plaintiffs – Juan Romagoza Arce, Neris Gonzalez, and Carlos Mauricio – under the command responsibility doctrine articulated in the Hague Conventions of 1907. In 2002, the jury returned a verdict of $54.6 million against the defendants. In 2006, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the full amount of the judgment and forced General Vides Casanova to surrender over $300,000 in assets. Click here to read more about this case.
Congressional testimony is a key component of CJA’s legislative advocacy efforts. In 2007, CJA client Dr. Juan Romagoza and then Executive Director Pamela Merchant testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. The hearing, entitled “No Safe Haven: Accountability for Human Rights Violators in the U.S.,” comprised “the first ever congressional hearing on the enforcement of human rights laws in the United States.”
Their testimony, along with that of other witnesses and statement submissions by prominent human rights groups, galvanized the support of Senators Durbin (D—IL) and Coburn (R—OK), who lobbied DOJ and DHS to prosecute or deport Generals García and Vides Casanova. In his statement before the Subcommittee, Senator Durbin highlighted the “cruel irony” of immigration regulations that exclude victims but offer sanctuary to “hideous henchmen who have been involved in war crimes around the world.” In 2009, as a result of the Senators’ lobbying efforts and CJA’s behind-the-scenes advocacy, the U.S. Attorney in Miami, Florida, indicted General García on two counts of immigration fraud, and DHS pursued removal proceedings against both General García and General Vides Casanova.
In February 2013, General García and his counsel appeared in the Miami Immigration Court. Only a year earlier, in the nearby Orlando Immigration Court, Judge James Grim sustained all allegations against General Vides Casanova, clearing a path for his eventual deportation. In response to the robust body of evidence presented by the prosecution, General García admitted to personal knowledge of war crimes committed under the auspices of his leadership in the sense that such crimes were “public knowledge that cannot be denied.” When Judge Michael Horn pressed him on this point, General García responded that he considered “responsibility” different than “culpability.” Judge Horn replied that “this Court will make that decision.”
In February 2014, Judge Horn ruled against General García in a comprehensive victory for the prosecution and for the enforcement of human rights laws in the United States. The decision exceeded earlier decisions in scope, finding not only that General García “assisted or otherwise participated” in extrajudicial killing and torture, but also that he did so with conduct that was “active, direct, and integral” to the commission of these war crimes. On each count, he “knew or should have known” that his subordinates were engaged in extrajudicial criminal activity, and he invariably neglected to investigate or prevent this activity, at times denying it outright. Most damningly, “as the head of the armed forces and the most powerful person in El Salvador,” General García “fostered, and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran armed forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a war against communist subversives.”
The parties expect a prolonged appeal effort by General García and his counsel, a process that could drag out the proceedings for years. Even if General García were deported pursuant to a final ruling, El Salvador’s controversial Amnesty Law would likely prevent his prosecution there.
CJA Senior Legal Advisor Carolyn Patty Blum attended the proceedings and provided daily summaries. Click here to read her summaries.