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April 3, 1998

Salvadorans Who Slew American Nuns Now Say They Had Orders

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    SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- After 17 years of silence, all four of the former national guardsmen convicted of killing three American nuns and a lay worker here in 1980 have said for the first time that they acted only after receiving "orders from above."

    The declarations, made from prison, are an important development in the case because El Salvador and the United States have always officially argued that the killers acted on their own. Human rights groups and relatives of the victims, however, have always maintained that the executions were ordered, approved and directed by the military authorities.

    The churchwomen -- Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel -- were abducted, raped and shot to death on the night of Dec. 2, 1980. The next day, peasants discovered their bodies alongside an isolated road and buried their remains in a common grave. The van they had been driving when stopped at a military checkpoint turned up 20 miles away, burned and gutted.

    The killings came as the United States was beginning a decade-long, $7 billion aid effort to prevent left-wing guerrillas from coming to power in El Salvador, and the case quickly became the focus of a bitter policy debate about Central America.

    "This particular act of barbarism," a 1993 State Department report said, "did more to inflame the debate over El Salvador in the United States than any other single incident."

    In 1993, a United Nations Truth Commission report concluded that Col. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the director of the National Guard in 1980, and Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the minister of defense at the time, had organized an official cover-up. Nevertheless, both men have been granted residence in the United States and now live in Florida, U.S. and Salvadoran officials said.

    (State Department spokesman James Rubin, when asked to comment on the matter, said: "These apparent confessions come some 17 years after the murders were committed. We are unclear about their veracity or the possible motivations behind them."

    He added, "we think that this information should be presented to appropriate Salvadoran authorities for action.")

    The four former guardsmen were convicted of murder in 1984, were sentenced to 30 years in prison and have twice been declared ineligible for the amnesty that came at the war's end because their crime is classified as nonpolitical.

    They made their admissions in interviews with Scott Greathead and Robert Weiner of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, an organization based in New York City that represents the families of the victims.

    Two prisoners subsequently agreed to an interview with a reporter, during which they repeated and amplified those statements.

    "Don't be worried," one of the guardsmen said his superior had told the four. "This is an order that comes from higher levels, and nothing is going to happen to us." He asked that his statements not be attributed to him by name, citing fears of retribution.

    That superior, a sub-sergeant, Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman, was also found guilty, but he is held in a prison away from the others, and declined to talk to the U.S. investigators.

    Two guardsmen also said they had been put under pressure by their superiors to "deny everything," in the words of one, as part of an elaborate official cover-up. Military investigators specifically cautioned them not to implicate any higher ranking officers, one guardsman said. They warned that "if you say the orders came from above, nobody is going to pay you any attention," he recounted.

    During the interviews, the four guardsmen -- Daniel Canales Ramirez, Carlos Joaquin Contreras Palacios, Francisco Orlando Contreras Recinos and Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura -- stressed that they did not know who in the chain of command issued the original order to kill the nuns. But they said the heads of official investigative commissions appointed by the Salvadoran high command had pressed them to go along with the cover-up explanation of events.

    William Ford, who is the brother of Ita Ford, said: "This confirms what we, the families, have always believed and maintained. I've had dozens of conversations in El Salvador over the years with people who said it would be simply unthinkable for any group of low-ranking guardsmen to kill four North American women without having been ordered to do so, that the system just didn't work that way," said Ford, a lawyer in New York City.

    One guardsman said, "What I remember is that we were told that we had to carry out a special service" by Colindres Aleman, adding that "when we consulted with him as to why, he said it was an order from above."

    The churchwomen were arrested after two of them went to Comalapa International Airport to meet the other two, who were arriving on a flight from Nicaragua, according to reconstructions by U.S., Salvadoran and U.N. investigations. After members of the security corps took the women to a remote location, Colindres Aleman returned to the airport, where he was seen talking on a public telephone with an unknown party.

    "We stayed, and he went back, I guess in order to find out what to do," the guardsman recalled. "When he came back, he said it had all been solved, that the order had been given." When asked to specify the content of that order, the imprisoned guardsman replied, "To liquidate them, to kill them."

    A second guardsman, interviewed separately, was more cautious but confirmed the general content of the statement. "We were not the principal ones," he said. "The truly guilty ones, we don't know who they are."

    Initially, the Salvadoran authorities blocked efforts to investigate the case. But after State Department and FBI agents uncovered evidence pointing to military involvement, Salvadoran authorities suggested that robbery was the motive.

    With Congressional approval of aid to El Salvador hinging on the case, the Reagan administration also sought to discount the idea that the killings were the result of a policy of state-sponsored terrorism.

    In testimony to Congress in 1981, for instance, Secretary of State Alexander Haig argued that the churchwomen might have been shot while trying to run a military roadblock. Even an official State Department post mortem on El Salvador policy that was published in July 1993 reiterated the prevailing wisdom that it was "more likely that the chaotic and permissive atmosphere at the time, not high-level military involvement, was behind the crime."

    In 1983, Judge Harold Tyler, after conducting an investigation for the State Department, concluded that "Colindres Aleman acted at his own initiative" and that "the evidence of lack of higher involvement is persuasive." But that finding was based largely on a piece of secret "special evidence" that was made available to him by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador and that remains classified to this day.

    But Robert White, who was the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time of the killings, said in a telephone interview last week that "when the act was done, I knew immediately it was the military" and that a cover-up was under way. His suspicions centered, he said, on Col. Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, the local military commander in Zacatecoluca, near the airport, and his cousin, Colonel Vides Casanova, who later in the war was promoted to general and minister of defense and worked closely with U.S. military and intelligence forces.

    "It would surprise me if it wasn't Casanova, since he was the military presence in Zacatecoluca," White said. "I find it difficult to believe that the U.S. government did not know there was legitimate reason to believe that Casanova and Vides Casanova and Garcia were all guilty of either ordering or then covering up the killing.

    "It is totally outrageous for the U.S. government to have singled out four guys who were following orders and to insist they get punished at the same time it is practically conniving to get the people who were the intellectual authors of this terrible incident off scot free," White added. "That they have been let off not only with their reputations intact, but with the right of residence in the United States, does not serve the ends of justice."

    (A State Department official who insisted on anonymity said he was unable to explain the circumstances under which the two generals were allowed to settle in the United States, adding, "This is not really in our hands anymore.")

    Relatives of the slain churchwomen said they had been unaware that the two generals now live in the United States. They criticized the decision to give the former officials residency, and said they wanted to know if the officers had been questioned about the case as a condition for the granting of a visa, and if so, what they had to say.

    Ford said, "We train these Latin American officers and make friends with them, and then, no matter what they do back in their own countries, they are allowed to come here freely and settle."

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