General Eugenio Vides Casanova currently has been living as a legal resident in South Florida since 1989. He moved to the United States after retiring honorably from his post as El Salvador’s minister of defense, a position he held for 6 years during El Salvador’s brutal civil war. During this time, he was a close ally of the United States because of his intense efforts against the Marxist guerillas.
In a case that the New York Times calls “an about-face in American policy,” General Vides is now facing possible deportation following being charged with torture in a U.S. immigration court. This is the first time the Department of Homeland Security has pursued immigration charges against a high-ranking foreign military official.
Both the prosecution and defense are expected to call former U.S. ambassadors to testify: Robert E. White for the prosecution and Edwin G. Corr for the defense. Another witness is Juan Romagoza Arce, a Salvadoran doctor who was tortured by the National Guard in 1980.
General Vides has already faced legal trouble in the U.S. for his actions during El Salvador’s civil war. He, along with General José Guillermo García, was accused and acquitted by a Florida jury in 2000 in a civil case for the killing of four American churchwomen who were murdered by Vides’ Salvadoran National Guard. The same year, the justice center filed charges of torture against the two generals. In 2002, they were found guilty of torture by a Florida jury and ordered to pay $54.6 million to three torture victims, a decision that was upheld by an appeals court in 2006.
This case is an example of the lingering effects of El Salvador’s civil war, effects that can even be seen in the United States. No American officials have been held accountable for their part in human rights abuses in El Salvador during the war. Even though more than 400 people have been deported from the US since 2003 for rights abuses, this is an important effort to hold Salvadoran allies of the US responsible for their actions in a war that often slips under Americans’ radars.
Those who fought on the other side in the war, the FMLN guerillas, have been at odds with U.S. officials since the war, first for their communist/Marxist ideals and later for actions taken during the war. For example, US diplomats still refuse to meet with El Salvador’s Public Security Minister Manuel Melgar. He was a guerilla during the war who is accused of killing 4 US Marines in 1985. In a July 2009 cable released by the WikiLeaks website, American diplomats described seeing his appointment as the imposition of FMLN hardliners, despite President Funes’ pretty moderate political stance.
The case against General Vides is an important step in acknowledging the human rights abuses by both sides during the civil war, including those who the US government strongly supported. The trial is expected to last a week, so it should be decided by the end of April, which could set a significant precedent for finally responding to El Salvador’s dirty war.