A US immigration judge has ruled that former Salvadoran defense minister José Guillermo García Merino (1979-1983) is eligible for deportation from the US because of "clear and convincing evidence" that he "assisted or otherwise participated" in 11 acts of violence during the 1980s, including the March 1980 murder of San Salvador archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Gen. García also helped conceal the involvement of soldiers who raped and killed four US churchwomen in December 1980 and "knew or should have known" about the military's December 1981 massacre of more than 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote, according to the 66-page decision by Immigration Judge Michael Horn in Miami. The judge ruled against García on Feb. 26, but the decision was only made public on April 11 as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times. García’s lawyer said the general would appeal.
The decision against García comes after repeated efforts to bring him to justice in the US for war crimes committed in El Salvador. He came to the US in 1989 and was granted political asylum a year later. In May 1999 the families of the four murdered US churchwomen filed a suit (Ford et al. v. García, Vides Casanova) against García and former defense minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova (1983-1989) in Florida, where both have lived since moving to the US. A jury cleared the generals. Also in 1999 the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) brought a suit (Ramagoza Arce v. Garcia and Vides Casanova) against the generals on behalf of Salvadoran torture victims; the jury awarded the victims $54.6 million in 2002. US prosecutors began seeking the generals' deportation in 2009, and an immigration judge cleared the way for Gen. Vides Casanova's removal in February 2013.
Like many Salvadoran military officers, García and Vides Casanova received training at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2001. García completed a counterinsurgency course in 1962, when the SOA was located in Panama; it is now in Fort Benning, Georgia. García and Vides Casanova were both recipients of the US Legion of Merit, an award from the US Armed Forces for meritorious service, during the 1980s. (NYT, April 12; SOA Watch press release, April 15; National Catholic Reporter, April 17)
The war crimes with which García and Vides Casanova are charged took place during a bloody counterinsurgency against the rebel Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN); the fighting left 70,000 people dead. The FMLN later became a legal political party under a 1992 peace accord, and it backed current president Mauricio Funes, an independent, in his 2009 campaign. A leader of the FMLN, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, won the presidency in a runoff on March 9 this year and is to take office on June 1. (BBC News, March 17)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 20.