MIAMI (AP) — A former El Salvador defense minister admitted responsibility for military abuses against civilians during his country’s civil war on Wednesday, saying he could not stop human rights violations because of divisions within the armed forces.
Jose Guillermo Garcia said he did everything within his power to halt soldier misconduct, but that ideological differences between right and left factions in the military “created a conflict that made it difficult to control everything that was happening.”
He said that while he could not avoid responsibility for the abuses, guilt was another matter.
The former general was questioned by Judge Michael Horn on the last day of a deportation proceeding at an immigration court in Miami. The U.S. government is seeking his deportation on accusations that he ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in torture and extrajudicial killings while he was El Salvador’s minister of defense between 1979 and 1983. The Department of Homeland Security is using a law passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that aims to stop human rights abusers from taking refuge in the U.S.
The government has attempted to show that Garcia did nothing to stop the assassinations and extrajudicial killings taking place, or to investigate them.
Horn has given both sides until June 3 to present their final arguments in writing. Prosecutors and the defense will then have an opportunity to respond with a counterargument by July 5. After that the judge will issue a verdict in writing; there is no deadline for him to file a decision.
Garcia has the right to appeal the judge’s decision, and the deportation process could take years as the case moves through the courts.
El Salvador’s civil war left 75,000 people and about 8,000 missing between 1980 and 1992. A West Palm Beach, Fla., jury returned a $54.6 million judgment against Garcia and another former minister of defense in 2002 after the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco based human rights organization, sued both on behalf of three torture victims.
Under an amnesty approved in 1993, Garcia and other military officials who participated in human rights violations cannot be tried in their country.
Garcia’s daughter was the first to take the stand on Wednesday. Ana Carolina Montoya, 50, said her father was totally against the abuses and massacres and did everything he could to stop them.
Her father sat just a few feet away from her, looking down as she testified.
Garcia then took the stand and was questioned by the judge. Garcia was questioned by his own attorney on Tuesday, but prosecutors declined to cross-examine him.
Horn began by asking general questions about Garcia’s role as minister of defense. Not getting precise answers, he began to ask more concrete questions about why Garcia did not resign if he knew about the massacres and human rights violations taking place, and why he could not stop the abuse.
Garcia assured Horn did everything possible to halt the violence but that the armed forces were “divided in opinion and action, as was the Catholic church.”
Horn asked Garcia if it was not his responsibility as minister of defense to protect civilians. Garcia responded that it was. Then, in a loud and firm voice, Horn asked how he had permitted massacres to occur.
Garcia said it was his responsibility as minister of defense to resolve those abuses but that the internal troubles of the military made it difficult to get any response from his subordinates.
Horn then asked why he continued serving as minister. Garcia replied he had tried to resign three times, an answer Horn did not appear satisfied with, telling the former general he didn’t need anyone’s permission to leave his post.
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