UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, Report, 15 March 1993, in UN Secretary General, Letter to the President of the Security Council (S/25500), Annex. (PDF link)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
(b) The leaders of the Frente Democratico Revolucionario (1980)
(d) El Junquillo (1981)
SUMMARY OF THE CASE
On 2 December 1980, members of the National Guard of El Salvador arrested four churchwomen after they left the international airport. Churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were taken to an isolated spot and subsequently executed by being shot at close range.
In 1984, Deputy Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán and National Guard members Daniel Canales Ramírez, Carlos Joaquín Contreras Palacios, Francisco Orlando Contreras Recinos and José Roberto Moreno Canjura were sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder. The Commission on the Truth finds that:
1. The arrest and execution of the churchwomen was planned prior to their arrival at the airport. Deputy Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán carried out orders of a superior to execute them.
2. Then Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, Director-General of the National Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, Commander of the Zacatecoluca military detachment, Colonel Roberto Monterrosa, Major Lizandro Zepeda Velasco and Sergeant Dagoberto Martínez, among other military personnel, knew that members of the National Guard had committed the murders pursuant to orders of a superior. The subsequent cover-up of the facts adversely affected the judicial investigation process.
3. The Minister of Defence at the time, General José Guillermo García, made no serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation of responsibility for the murders.
4. Local commissioner José Dolores Meléndez also knew of the executions carried out by members of the security forces and covered them up.
5. The State of El Salvador failed in its responsibility to investigate the facts thoroughly, to find the culprits and to punish them in accordance with the law and the requirements of international human rights law.
DESCRIPTION OF THE FACTS 149/
Shortly after 7 p.m. on 2 December 1980, members of the National Guard of El Salvador arrested four churchwomen as they were leaving Comalapa International Airport. Churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were taken to an isolated spot where they were shot dead at close range.
Two of the four murdered churchwomen, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, worked in Chalatenango and were returning from Nicaragua. The other two had come from La Libertad to pick them up at the airport.
The arrests were planned in advance. Approximately two hours before the churchwomen’s arrival, National Guard Deputy Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán informed five of his subordinates that they were to arrest some people who were coming from Nicaragua.
Colindres then went to the San Luis Talpa command post to warn the commander that, if he heard some disturbing noises, he should ignore them, because they would be the result of an action which Colindres and his men would be carrying out.
Once the members of the security forces had brought the churchwomen to an isolated spot, Colindres returned to his post near the airport. On returning to the place where they had taken the churchwomen, he told his men that he had been given orders to kill the churchwomen.
1. The burial
The next morning, 3 December, the bodies were found on the road. When the justice of the peace arrived, he immediately agreed that they should be buried, as local commissioner José Dolores Meléndez had indicated. Accordingly, local residents buried the churchwomen’s bodies in the vicinity.
The United States Ambassador, Robert White, found out on 4 December where the churchwomen’s bodies were. As a result of his intervention and once authorization had been obtained from the justice of the peace, the corpses were exhumed and taken to San Salvador. There, a group of forensic doctors refused to perform autopsies on the grounds that they had no surgical masks.
2. The Rogers-Bowdler mission
Between 6 and 9 December 1980, a special mission arrived in San Salvador, headed by Mr. William D. Rogers, a former official in the Administration of President Gerald Ford, and Mr. William G. Bowdler, a State Department official. They found no direct evidence of the crime, nor any evidence implicating the Salvadorian authorities. They concluded that the operation had involved a cover-up of the murders. 150/
They also urged the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to play an active role in the investigation. 151/
3. The Monterrosa commission and the Zepeda investigation
The Government Junta put Colonel Roberto Monterrosa in charge of an official commission of investigation. Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, Director-General of the National Guard, put Major Lizandro Zepeda 152/ in charge of another investigation. Neither official took the case seriously or sought to resolve it. Subsequently, Judge Harold R. Tyler, Jr., appointed by the United States Secretary of State, carried out a third investigation. It found that the
purpose of the two previous investigations had been to establish a written precedent clearing the Salvadorian security forces of blame for the killings. 153/
(a) The Monterrosa commission
Colonel Monterrosa admitted that his commission had ruled out the possibility that security forces had been involved in the crime; to have acknowledged it would have created serious difficulties for the armed forces.
In fact, Monterrosa kept back the evidence implicating Colindres. In February 1981, he sent the United States Embassy the fingerprints of three out of four National Guard members from whom the commission had taken statements. However, none of them appeared to have been involved in the murders. Colonel Monterrosa failed to provide the fingerprints of the fourth man, Colindres, from whom testimony had also apparently been taken. Judge Tyler therefore concluded that Colonel Monterrosa had not forwarded Colindres’ fingerprints because he knew from Major Zepeda that Colindres was responsible for the executions. 154/
(b) The Zepeda investigation
Major Zepeda reported that there was no evidence that members of the National Guard had executed the churchwomen. 155/ According to testimony, Major Zepeda personally took charge of covering up for the murderers by ordering them to replace their rifles so as not to be detected, and to remain loyal to the National Guard by suppressing the facts. There is also sufficient evidence that Major Zepeda informed his superior, Vides Casanova, of his activities. 156/
4. Resolution of the case
In April 1981, 157/ the United States Embassy provided the Salvadorian authorities with evidence incriminating Colindres and his men. Despite the existence of evidence against Colindres, such as the presence of his fingerprints on the churchwomen’s minibus, neither he nor his subordinates were charged with any crime. 158/
In December 1981, Colonel Vides Casanova appointed Major José Adolfo Medrano to carry out a new investigation. In February 1982, one of the persons involved confessed his guilt and implicated the others, including Colindres. All of them were charged with the deaths of the churchwomen.
On 10 February, President Duarte, in a televised message, reported that the case had been resolved. He also gave to understand that Colindres and his men had acted independently and not on orders of a superior. In conclusion, he said that the Government was convinced that the accused were guilty. 159/
The judicial process
1. The judicial investigation
The judicial investigation did not represent any substantial progress over what the Medrano working group had done. Nevertheless, under questioning by the FBI, Sergeant Dagoberto Martínez, then Colindres’ immediate superior, admitted to having been told by Colindres himself about the churchwomen’s murders and about his direct role in them. On that occasion, Martínez had warned Colindres not to say anything unless his superiors asked him about it. Martínez also said that he had not been aware that orders had been given by a superior. 160/
2. The trial
On 23 and 24 May 1984, members of the National Guard were found guilty of the executions of the churchwomen and were sentenced to 30 years in prison. 161/
It was the first time in Salvadorian history that a member of the armed forces had been convicted of murder by a judge. 162/ Despite ambiguous statements by some of its official representatives, 163/ the United States Government had made its economic and military aid contingent on a resolution of the case. 164/
The involvement of senior officers
Although the Tyler Report concluded in 1983, "... based on existing evidence", 165/ that senior officers had not been involved, the Commission believes that there is sufficient evidence to show that Colindres acted on orders of a superior.
There is also substantial evidence that Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, Commander of the Zacatecoluca detachment, was in charge of the National Guard at the national airport at the time when the murders of the churchwomen occurred.
General Vides Casanova and Colonel Casanova Vejar have denied any personal involvement in the arrest and execution or in the subsequent cover-up of the crime. Nevertheless, there is sufficient evidence to show that both General Vides Casanova and Colonel Casanova Vejar knew that members of the National Guard had murdered the churchwomen, and that their efforts to impede the gathering of evidence adversely affected the judicial investigation.
Cooperation with the Commission on the Truth
On several occasions from October 1992 onwards, the judge of the First Criminal Court of Zacatecoluca, Mr. Pleitus Lemus, refused to cooperate with the Commission on the Truth and to provide the evidence and the full court dossiers of the case. He transmitted only a condensed version which does not include testimony and other critical evidence on the possible involvement of senior officers 166/ in the case.
It was only after much insisting that, on 8 January 1993, the Commission finally obtained all the dossiers of the case from the Supreme Court, barely a week before its mandate expired.
The Commission on the Truth finds that:
1. There is sufficient evidence that:
(a) The arrest of the churchwomen at the airport was planned prior to their arrival.
(b) In arresting and executing the four churchwomen, Deputy Sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán was acting on orders of a superior.
2. There is substantial evidence that:
(a) Then Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, Director-General of the National Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar, Commander of the Zacatecoluca military detachment, Colonel Roberto Monterrosa, Major Lizandro Zepeda Velasco and Sergeant Dagoberto Martínez, among other officers, knew that members of the National Guard had committed the murders and, through their actions, facilitated the cover-up of the facts which obstructed the corresponding judicial investigation.
(b) The Minister of Defence at the time, General José Guillermo García, made no serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation of responsibility for the murders of the churchwomen.
(c) Local commissioner José Dolores Meléndez also knew of the murders and covered up for the members of the security forces who committed them.
3. The State of El Salvador failed in its obligation under international human rights law to investigate the case, to bring to trial those responsible for ordering and carrying out the executions and, lastly, to compensate the victims’ relatives.
149/ The Commission on the Truth interviewed eyewitnesses, diplomats, senior commanders of the National Guard and the armed forces, members of the Maryknoll Order, relatives of the victims, lawyers for the defendants and the churchwomen’s relatives, and a member of the court assigned to the case. In addition, the court dossier was reviewed and governmental and non-governmental reports were analysed. Colonel Zepeda Velasco was invited, unsuccessfully, to testify on several occasions.
150/ Rogers-Bowdler report, p. 10.
151/ Ibid., pp. 13-14.
152/ See the statement by Major Oscar Armando Carranza, who said that Colonel Eugenio Vides Casanova had ordered an investigation into the deaths of the churchwomen.
153/ Harold R. Tyler, Jr., The Churchwomen Murders: A Report to the Secretary of State, 2 December 1983 (known as the Tyler Report), p. 22.
154/ Ibid., pp. 29-30.
155/ Ibid., p. 24. See also the judicial statement by Lizandro Zepeda, vol. 2, f. 266, 23 June 1982, where he reports that he interviewed one person per day and that no conclusions were reached, although several people were interviewed.
156/ Judge Tyler concluded that Major Zepeda had probably informed Colonel Vides Casanova. Tyler Report, p. 26.
157/ Ibid., pp. 31-32.
158/ Ff. 102, 147-57.
159/ See President Duarte’s speech, televised on 10 February 1982.
160/ Statement by Dagoberto Martínez, f. 132, vol. 3, 30 July 1983.
161/ See vol. 5 of the court dossier, f. 26, "Decision of the jury", 24 May 1983. See also ff. 26 and 65, 24 May and 20 June 1984.
162/ The New York Times, 25 May 1984, pp. 1 and 6.
163/ On 16 December 1980, United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick said: "I don’t think the government (of El Salvador) was responsible. The nuns were not just nuns; the nuns were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear-cut about this than we usually are. They were political activists on behalf of the Frente and somebody who is using violence to oppose the Frente killed them." Tampa Tribune, 25 December 1980, pp. 23A and 24A, col. 1.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig testified as follows before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives: "I would like to suggest to you that some of the investigations would lead one to believe that perhaps the vehicle that the nuns were riding in may have tried to run a roadblock or may have accidentally been perceived to have been doing so, and there may have been an exchange of fire." See Foreign Assistance Legislation for Fiscal Year 1982: Hearings before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 97th Congress, First Session 163, 1981.
164/ The day after the deaths, President Jimmy Carter suspended aid to El Salvador, The New York Times, 14 January 1981.
In April 1981, the United States Congress was considering aid to El Salvador. On 26 April, Embassy officials met with the Minister of Defence García and with Vides Casanova and told them that the failure to investigate the case was jeopardizing United States aid. On 29 April, members of the National Guard were arrested and $25 million in military aid was approved the next day. See: Di Vicenzo, Janet, project ed., El Salvador: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1984-1988, vol. 1.
The day after members of the security forces were convicted, the United States Congress approved $62 million in emergency aid. See: USA Today, 25 May 1984, p. 9A. See also The Boston Herald, 25 May 1984, p. 5.
165/ Tyler Report, p. 63.
166/ Some of the evidence not included in the condensed version provided by the judge is as follows: (1) F. 68: judicial statement by José Dolores Meléndez, local commissioner, one of the first witnesses, who notified the justice of the peace and identified the bodies as "unknown"; (2) Ff. 111-115: statements made to the Medrano group by Santago Nonualca, who saw the white minibus going to and returning from the scene of the crime; (3) Ff. 120-133: statements made by National Guard members to the Medrano group concerning Colindres’ actions before and after the murders; (4) F. 255: court order to take statements from Vides Casanova, Medrano and Zepeda Velasco; (5) F. 264: judicial statement by Medrano, who remembered little about his own investigation.