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Posted on April 18, 2011
The former Salvadoran general Eugenio Vides Casanova in Florida. Photograph: Marta Lavandier/AP
He was honoured by Ronald Reagan as a cold war ally and even retired to Florida, but Eugenio Vides Casanova’s US welcome has evaporated as he faces deportation to El Salvador over torture accusations.
Vides, a former general and defence minister during one of central America’s most vicious civil wars, was due to be charged on Monday in a Florida immigration court with grave crimes and should be sent home to face justice.
The case, which marks a departure in US policy, was welcomed as evidence that the Obama administration was dealing with the “scandal” of alleged human rights abusers from abroad enjoying retirement on US soil.
Vides, who received the Legion of Merit from President Reagan, is the first senior foreign military commander to face immigration charges brought by a special human rights office at the department of homeland security.
It was a long overdue step, said Adam Isacson, a regional expert at the Washington Office on Latin America thinktank. “It is a scandal that general Vides and others tied to severe human rights abuses were given a pass to be here in the first place, and reversing his asylum sends a strong and timely message to El Salvador’s government and Latin America as a whole.”
The US supported El Salvador’s rightwing military government in a conflict against leftist rebels. It cost 75,000 lives between 1980 and 1992, and was just one of several civil wars in central America.
National guard troops committed numerous atrocities while Vides was head of the force from 1979 to 1983, including the murder of four US churchwomen. He was accused of interrogating tortured suspects. One survivor, Juan Romagoza Arce, a doctor, testified at a separate trial that he was beaten, given electric shocks and shot in the arm. From 1983 Vides served as defence minister and retired to Florida in 1989.
He has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer, Diego Handel, told the New York Times the US was worried about communism’s spread at the time of the conflict. “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.” Edwin Corr, a former US ambassador to El Salvador, is expected to be called for the defence.
In 2000, a Florida court acquitted Vides and another former defence minister, José Guillermo García, of the churchwomen’s killings. An advocacy group filed a separate suit accusing them of torture. They were found liable and ordered to pay $54.6m to three torture victims. Two Democratic senators, Richard Durbin and Tom Coburn, lobbied the department of homeland security to deport the generals. García is facing separate immigration proceedings.
El Salvador is now governed by the FMLN party, heirs to the main leftist guerrilla group which fought against the military regime. On a trip last month, Obama visited the tomb of the archbishop Óscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980, and promised to help the president, Mauricio Funes, establish the rule of law.
The White House deserved credit for seeking to deport Vides, said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank. “Such moves help convey a message about where Washington now stands on human rights issues that does not go unnoticed throughout Latin America.”
Isacson hailed what he called a new and unusual level of maturity in US foreign policy. “I hope it emboldens countries in the region, El Salvador among them but also Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and elsewhere, to overturn amnesty laws and seek more of the truth about what happened in their countries, so that it may not be repeated.”