Salvadoran Torture Survivors Successfully Sue Generals Print
Written by Tami Ramirez   
Monday, 20 March 2006 00:00
In May 1999, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Florida seeking damages for torture, and other grave human rights violations against SOA graduates General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova (the Director-General of the Salvadoran National Guard from 1979-1983 who then became Minister of Defense) and General Jose Guillermo Garcia (Minister of Defense from 1979-1983). Their clients were three Salvadorans: Dr. Juan Romagoza, a doctor who was abducted, detained, and brutally tortured by the Salvadoran National Guard in late 1980 in the Guard?s National Headquarters; Neris Gonzalez, a Church lay worker who was abducted, detained, tortured and raped by National Guardsmen in late 1979; and Carlos Mauricio, a professor at the University of El Salvador who was dragged from his classroom, detained and tortured by the National Police in their National Headquarters in 1983.

The lawsuit alleged that Garcia and Vides Casanova (both of whom live in retirement in Florida) exercised command responsibility over members of the Salvadoran Military and Security Forces engaged in unlawful acts constituting torture; crimes against humanity; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; and arbitrary detention.

CJA worked closely with the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York, which brought a similar case (Ford v. Garcia) against the same two generals on behalf of four U.S. churchwomen who were tortured and murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard in 1980. A jury heard that case in October 2000, and rendered a verdict that the generals could not be held liable for the crimes, presumably on the theory that they did not have ?effective control? over their subordinates. The plaintiffs appealed and on April 30, 2002 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided a new trial was not warranted and affirmed the U.S. Federal Court's decision in Ford v. Garcia.

On July 23, 2002, following a four week trial, a federal jury in the Southern District of Florida in West Palm Beach returned a verdict of $54.6 million against the two generals, living in Florida since 1989, for their responsibility for the torture of the three Salvadorans. The victorious plaintiffs, Juan Romagoza, Neris Gonzalez and Carlos Mauricio, all now live in the United States. Read CJA's statement on the verdict.

In 2003, after taking the depositions of the generals, Jos? Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, CJA and Florida attorney Dave Gorman successfully garnished $270,000 from three accounts held by Vides Casanova.

The Appeal

In February 2005 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned CJA's victory in the case. The court ruled that the 10-year statute of limitations could not be suspended either because the defendants were absent from the U.S. or due to the widespread violence in El Salvador during the civil war.

The legal team filed a petition for rehearing by the panel of three judges who ruled on the appeal as well as a rehearing by all 12 judges of the 11th Circuit but the Court denied the petition in April of 2005.

However, in June 2005, the 11th Circuit issued a letter acknowledging factual errors in its prior ruling and asking the parties to submit briefs concerning whether the case against General Vides Casanova was in fact filed in a timely manner. Vides Casanova left power in El Salvador in May 1989, and CJA filed the case against him just under 10 years later, in May 1999. Click here (PDF) to read the 11th Circuit's letter.

On August 5, 2005, the 11th Circuit vacated its prior ruling which had overturned the verdict. Click here (PDF) to read the 11th Circuit?s vacation ruling. Then, on January 5, 2006, the 11th Circuit issued a new ruling upholding the verdict in its entirety, meaning that the jury?s determination that the generals are responsible for the torture of CJA?s clients remains valid. Click here (PDF) to read the 11th Circuit?s latest ruling.

The court?s opinion reached two important conclusions. First, it held that "Congress clearly intends that courts toll the statute of limitations so long as the defendants remain outside the reach of the United States courts or the courts of other, similarly fair legal systems." Both defendants came to the US in 1989. Two of the three plaintiffs filed in 1999, a little less than 10 years after the defendants arrived. The court found that their claims were therefore timely. As to the third plaintiff, Carlos Mauricio, the court held that "exceptional circumstances" allowed for the tolling of the statute of limitations until the end of the civil war in El Salvador in 1992. Specifically, the court said:
Justice may also require tolling where both the plaintiff and the defendant reside in the United States but where the situation in the home state nonetheless remains such that the fair administration of justice would be impossible, even in United States courts. Absent regime change, those in power may wish to protect their former leaders against charges of human rights abuses. The quest for domestic and international legitimacy and power may provide regimes with the incentive to intimidate witnesses, to suppress evidence, and to commit additional human rights abuses against those who speak out against the regime. Such circumstances exemplify ?extraordinary circumstances? and may require equitable tolling so long as the perpetrating regime remains in power.

The Defendants: Fighting Impunity

All of the defendants have remained committed to community organizing, the struggle for justice and the fight against impunity. Neris and Carlos have played critical roles in the movement to close the SOA.

Neris has been a speaker at the annual Vigil to Close the SOA for years, inspiring and educating tens of thousands as she bravely shares her story.

Carlos founded the Stop Impunity Now! Project, and for the past two years has organized the Journey for Justice, a caravan from California to Georgia led by torture survivors. The caravan ends at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the School of the Americas, to join the annual demonstration at its gates. Read a recent article about the caravan from the San Antonio Express-News.

Legal Significance

The case, Romagoza v. Garcia, was a landmark victory for human rights litigation. It was one of the first cases in which a jury in a fully contested trial found perpetrators liable for human rights abuses solely under the doctrine of command responsibility. The doctrine allows military commanders and other superiors to be held responsible for abuses committed by subordinates under their effective control, if the commanders knew or should have known the abuses were taking place, and failed to take all reasonable measures to prevent the abuses or punish the perpetrators.

Garcia and Vides Casanova remain in Florida. CJA provided information from the trial to the Department of Homeland Security and encouraged their deportation.

Based on Vides Casanova?s testimony, on September 10, 2004, CJA and Miami attorney John Thornton filed a motion alleging that Vides Casanova fraudulently transferred approximately $140,000 after the filing of the suit in order to keep the money beyond the reach of the plaintiffs. The motion asks the court to hold further proceedings to examine Vides Casanova?s assets and to allow the filing of a complaint that seeks to undue those transfers.

Substantial pro bono support has been, and continues to be, provided by Morrison & Foerster?s Bay Area offices, the International Human Rights Clinic at Boalt Hall School of Law, and private human rights attorneys.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 May 2011 17:49