Update: First Round of Testimony from Vides-Casanova Hearing

By Carolyn Patty Blum, Senior Legal Advisor, Center for Justice & Accountability

As reported on April 18, 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has sought to remove Vides-Casanova on charges of assisting or otherwise participating in torture.  See Immigration and Nationality Act § 237(a)(4)(D),  8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(4)(D) (2006), referring to INA § 212(a)(3)(E)(iii)(I), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(3)(E)(iii)(I).  This trial marks the first time the DHS has used the INA removal provisions on torture against a senior level commander.

The removal hearing began April 18, 2011 in Orlando, Florida, with the DHS calling its first witness: Robert White, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from March 1980 to early 1981.  White gave Immigration Judge James Grim a flavor of El Salvador at the time.  Bodies were visible in the streets, and, in December, he watched as the remains of the assassinated four US churchwomen were being exhumed from a shallow grave.  During his tenure, White met numerous times with Vides-Casanova, then Director of the National Guard, to discuss putting an end to human rights abuses.

Vides Casanova’s lawyer, Diego Handel, attempted to develop a counter-narrative through White’s cross-examination:  U.S. support gave the Salvadoran military an implicit "green light" to stop the Salvadoran opposition, by any means necessary.  But White stressed that in reality, U.S. policy was to the contrary.  "Had a political solution been pursued by El Salvador in 1980, as I and the U.S. Government recommended, ten years of conflict could have been avoided."

Next on the stand was Daniel Alvarado, a client of the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) in a civil case against former Salvadoran official Nicolas Carranza.   Daniel, a student activist, was abducted by the Treasury Police in August 1983.  At that time, Nicolas Carranza was Director of the Treasury Police and Vides Casanova was Minister of Defense.  Mr. Alvarado was tortured until he falsely confessed to murdering U.S. military advisor, Albert Schaufelberger.  But the U.S. Embassy doubted the veracity of his confession.  When the truth eventually emerged, the U.S. Ambassador asked Vides to ensure Mr. Alvarado’s safety.  Rather than protect Mr. Alvarado from further abuse, Vides left him detained for over two more years.  On cross, Vides’ lawyer’s unsuccessfully tried to paint Mr. Alvarado and his political affiliations with the guerrilla brush.

Dr. Juan Romagoza, CJA’s lead plaintiff in the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) case against Vides, also testified (See Romagoza et. al. v. Garcia and Vides-Casanova).  Dr. Romagoza provided medical care at community clinics in rural El Salvador.  On December 12, 1980, as residents were lining up at a church for medical consultations, troops from the Army and National Guard, accompanied by men in plain clothes, arrived.  The military opened fire, wounding Juan and others.  Juan was captured and eventually transported to National Guard Headquarters in San Salvador, where he was held for several weeks and tortured. At one point, Vides Casanova entered Juan’s cell during a torture session.  And Vides was again present when Juan was released, emaciated and struggling to walk.

On cross, Vides’ lawyer Diego Handel focused on minor discrepancies between Juan’s testimony in the ATS case and the removal case.  But he scored no points with  Judge Grim who stepped in to question Juan personally for clarification.   Handel also attempted to undermine Juan’s identification of Vides in his cell.  Juan had been chained to a cement floor, cleaned the day before for the visit of the "boss."  According to Juan, his captors’ blows had loosened his blindfold, and he was able to see Vides from the lower portion of his face on down.  He also recognized Vides’ voice.

DHS also called Terry Karl, a political science professor at Stanford University, as an expert witness.  Professor Karl described El Salvador’s long history of military control and the 1979 coup, intended to be a progressive turn, but which ultimately ended with hard line military officers, such as Vides Casanova, gaining  power.  Vides and other right wing military officials ascribed to a theory of “total war,” which targeted teachers, doctors, members of opposition organizations, labor leaders and the like for assassination and disappearance.

According to Professor Karl, U.S. officials, including General Nutting and Secretary of State Shultz, were dispatched to El Salvador to meet with Vides to demand a stop to the repression and punishment for known abusers.  When Vides failed to respond, Vice President George H.W. Bush arrived in El Salvador with a list of suspects and a call to rein in the violence.
For a time, the level of violence did decrease, which, as Karl emphasized, was evidence of Vides’ capacity to control the military and death squad killings.  Nonetheless, the levels rose again through the 1980s.  Impunity, said Karl, was a key factor in prolonging the abuses.  She cited examples where Vides sheltered suspected perpetrators and ordered sham investigations.  Vides told a U.S. Ambassador that a military official accused of killing two Americans and a Salvadoran land reformer in the “Sheraton murders” was “a really good guy.”

In Professor Karl’s opinion, Vides pattern of conduct—his promotion and protection of known human rights abusers, failure to inspect and close down torture chambers, obstruction of investigations, refusal to dismantle death squads, and personal visitation of prisoners undergoing torture—constituted active participation in torture.

On cross, Handel asked Karl to comment on passages from U.S. State Department Country Reports from 1983 onward that were favorable to Vides.  He focused on the U.S. military presence in El Salvador and read language from the U.S. certification of military aid prepared for Congress.  But Karl reiterated Ambassador White’s assertions that U.S. military training and support failed to stop human rights abuses.  On redirect, she stressed that funding requests for aid to El Salvador formed a backdrop to the language of the DOS Country Reports and, consequently, qualified reliance on the reports.

At the end of the government’s case, the defendant moved to terminate, arguing the government lacked reliable evidence.  Handel further argued that Schneider v. Kissinger, 412 F.3d 190 (D.C. Cir. 2005), a tort case dismissed on political question grounds, required dismissal of the government’s removal case.  The judge temporarily denied the motion, deferring a final decision until the end of the proceedings.

And so, Vides called his first witness: David Passage, former acting U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from mid-1984 to 1986.  According to Passage, El Salvador saw dramatic improvements during his tenure.  He stated that Vides was receptive to change and expressed concern for human rights.  However, after a contentious exchange over Passage’s qualification as an expert, Judge Grim ruled that Vides’ lawyer had failed to establish his expertise.  Passage was limited to testifying on information within his personal knowledge during his two years in country.

On cross, DHS attorney Jim Craig queried Passage about  the UN Truth Commission’s findings of torture persisting throughout the 1980s, documentation that contradicted Passage’s testimony that human rights abuses has been radically reduced in El Salvador.  When Passage expressed his disagreement with the Truth Commission findings, Craig produced a declassified diplomatic cable signed by Passage.   The cable indicated that during Vides’ term of office as Director of the National Guard at the time of the Sheraton murders, death squads were operating out of the intelligence section of the National Guard.  Another Passage cable indicated that, under Vides’ leadership, the military had not followed up on an investigation into the Las Hojas massacre.

Vides next called Ambassador Edwin Corr, who explained that he was brought to El Salvador to “clean the place up.”  He emphasized his good relationship with Vides Casanova during his posting from 1985-1988. Corr opined that the alleged decrease in human rights violations in the second half of the 1980s was a result of the U.S. emphasis on a new counter-insurgency strategy.  Human rights violations needed to be reduced, he explained, because they only aided the guerillas. 

With that, the hearing adjourned.  The government’s cross-examination of Ambassador Corr has been deferred to the continued trial date of May 24-26.  At that time, Vides is expected to take the stand.  Stay posted for more coverage.