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Torture victims find justice in U.S. court

Three Salvadoran refugees decide to confront their abusers. `We exposed them as criminals,' one says.

February 25, 2007|Juliana Barbassa | Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The acrid smell of disinfectant, sweat and fear filled Carlos Mauricio's nostrils. Blindfolded, he heard the moaning of other political prisoners inside the headquarters of El Salvador's national police.

There were screams and shouted questions, the hollow thump of blows, and the sizzling zap of an electrical prod, followed by guttural protests and involuntary thrashing.

"I realized I was in a chamber of torture," he said. "At that moment, I accepted my death."

It was 1983, and El Salvador was in the midst of a 12-year civil war that claimed 75,000 lives. Mauricio, an agronomy professor at the University of El Salvador, had been kidnapped from his classroom by men with guns.

As he stood in the dark, handcuffed to a pipe, his extremities tingled with mounting panic.

"I knew I was next," he said.

Mauricio survived 15 days of captivity and torture, but he left behind his dignity, his ability to trust and his belief in justice.

He got some of that back in a lengthy U.S. legal process that ended last summer.

Mauricio and two other former Salvadoran political prisoners sued the military commanders who once ran the Central American country. Along with lay church worker Neris Gonzalez and Juan Romagoza Arce, a doctor who volunteered his time helping the poor, Mauricio won a $54.6-million jury award that was upheld on appeal.

The three plaintiffs have recovered $300,000 so far, and they donated most of that to human rights causes. But the money made it one of the first cases in which torture survivors were able to make those responsible pay for their actions.

Mauricio, who lives in San Francisco, thinks the case sends an important message.

"They'd never accepted any responsibility," he said of the generals. "We exposed them as criminals."

*

Once among El Salvador's most powerful men, Generals Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova stood in a West Palm Beach, Fla., courtroom, their stature diminished with their influence.

They were now just two grandfathers living out their retirement in the United States, the country that backed their regime against leftist opposition.

But they still thought they were above the law, Mauricio said. "They were arrogant. They were looking at us like, what can three Salvadorans do to us?"

About 400,000 torture survivors live in the U.S., and about 1,000 alleged torturers live among them, according to an Amnesty International report. They come from Haiti, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan.

More than a dozen cases like Mauricio's have been tried in U.S. courts, many of them handled by the Center for Justice and Accountability, the legal advocacy group that filed the case in Florida federal court on behalf of Mauricio, Gonzalez and Arce.

Not all those who were tortured can face a trial, said Moira Feeney, an attorney with the San Francisco group.

"Some people need to close that door, never think about it again," she said. "But for some ... seeking justice is part of an individual's recovery process."

Mauricio's case hinged on two statutes.

The Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, originally adopted to protect traders from pirates, allows foreign nationals to sue in U.S. courts for acts that violate international law.

The Torture Victims Protection Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, allows suits against foreign officials who commit torture or are responsible for murders.

Attorney Kurt Klaus, who represented the two generals, calls the case "revisionist history" and the doctrine of command responsibility, under which his clients were held liable, a "legal fiction."

"They made it sound like everything was under control [in El Salvador during the war] and that this was an orchestrated plan of terror," Klaus said. "My guys were trying to stay alive themselves and implement the United States' plans for the region, which succeeded. El Salvador is a functioning democracy."

*

The day Mauricio thought would be his last started like any other.

It was June 13, 1983. The university, suspected of being a leftist stronghold, had been shuttered by the government. So the professor drove to an off-campus building for classes.

He was ambushed by a man who had asked him to move his car. Like many Salvadorans at the time, Mauricio had heard about the "disappeared," those taken and never seen again.

He was forced into a van and driven to a place where he was questioned about guerrilla groups, training and activities he says he knew nothing about.

"I was told I wasn't confessing because I'd been trained not to confess, not because I was innocent," he said. "There was no escape. You're guilty because you were accused."

Day after day, he was interrogated and beaten while hanging from the ceiling by his wrists.

"It was excruciating pain," Mauricio told jurors. "I thought I was going to lose my arms."

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