Our Man in San Salvador

Notorious generals U.S. ties ran through an ex-OC cop

According to LaFrance, Lister's primary purpose in El Salvador was aiding the CIA's covert war in Central America. Fighting communism—whether in Nicaragua or El Salvador—he said, was the primary objective. Referring to the Salvadoran military and the Nicaraguan contras, LaFrance chuckled and said, "They were all the same guys."

By its very nature, LaFrance's story is almost impossible to corroborate. But during the 1986 raid on his Mission Viejo house, police found Lister's notes from an April 3, 1985, meeting with two FBI agents investigating Pyramid. In those notes, Lister identified Scott Weekly as a "DIA subcontractor," an apparent reference to the government's little-known Defense Intelligence Agency. Elsewhere, Lister's notes say, "Scott had worked in El Salvador for us."

Just below Weekly's name, Lister scribbled the name "Bill Nelson," then vice president for security at the then-Irvine-based Fluor Corp.; Nelson's previous job was deputy director of operations for the CIA. Nelson died seven years ago, but according to heavily censored FBI files obtained by the Weekly, he and Lister had an eight-year business relationship that included at least one deal in Central America (see "Crack Cop," July 13, 2001).

Next to Nelson, Lister also named Roberto D'Aubuisson, the Salvadoran army intelligence officer who founded El Salvador's infamous death squads as well as the right-wing ARENA party and is widely believed to have ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. A former Pyramid employee, Christopher Moore, told Mercury News reporter Gary Webb that he traveled to El Salvador on Lister's behalf and met face to face with D'Aubuisson, who in March 1982 had been elected president of El Salvador's Constituent Assembly.

"There I was, a reserve police officer who'd only been in the country for a couple of days, and I was sitting in this office in downtown San Salvador across the desk from the man who ran the death squads," Moore said. "He had a gun lying on the top of the desk and had these filing cabinets pushed up against the windows of his office so nobody could shoot through them."

In October 1982, when Lister was doing business in El Salvador, the U.S.-backed military (headed by García) and the right-wing death squads (masterminded by D'Aubuisson) were torturing and murdering hundreds of people each month.

In particular, Joan Didion wrote in her book Salvador, 68 political murders occurred during the first half of that month. "At the end of October 1982," Didion added, "the offices in the Hotel Camino Real in San Salvador of the Associated Press, United Press International Television News, NBC News, CBS News and ABC News were raided and searched by members of the El Salvador National Police carrying submachine guns; 15 leaders of legally recognized political and labor groups . . . were disappeared . . . the Salvadoran Ministry of Defense announced that eight of the 15 disappeared citizens were, in fact, in government custody; and the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had 'turned the corner' in its campaign for political stability in Central America."

The fact that Lister and other Pyramid employees apparently held meetings with García and D'Aubuisson during this period fuels speculation that the CIA secretly conspired to aid military officials implicated in torture and death squad killings.

The FBI acknowledges that it investigated Pyramid five times in the early 1980s, but says that those investigations—which involved Lister's arms deals—went nowhere. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Weekly has obtained dozens of pages of FBI files concerning Lister, but most of them are so heavily censored that they are nearly illegible. The FBI refused to release numerous pages because they contain information that is "vital" to U.S. national security.

Thus, what, if anything, became of Lister's effort to provide security to García remains unclear. D'Aubuisson is dead, Lister has refused repeated offers to share his story with the press; through his lawyer, García failed to respond to the Weekly's request for an interview.

Now 69 years old, García reportedly lives in comfortable retirement with his daughter's family in Plantation, Florida. During the trial, he made a videotaped statement to the jury, in which he said, "I never had any knowledge that torture had been committed by the armed forces."

Reacting to the recent verdict, he told reporters he would need to "win the lottery" to pay the multimillion-dollar fine levied against him. García also complained that the jury simply didn't understand the "terrible" nature of violence in El Salvador, thus somehow implying that everyone, himself included, was a victim of that violence.

But in the early 1980s, García was hardly as vulnerable to kidnap and murder as the average Salvadoran citizen. In fact, he was the most powerful man in the army and, therefore, the country. As the New York Times recently put it, "a word from a Central American military officer like Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova or José Guillermo García could consign a prisoner to torture or a village to destruction."

A 1962 graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, which trained hundreds of Latin American army officers—including D'Aubuisson and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega—García has been accused of helping to conceal some of the most terrible atrocities that occurred during El Salvador's civil war. In particular, U.S. officials have long believed that García helped cover up the U.S.-trained Atlcatl battalion's December 1981 massacre of at least 482 unarmed villagers—almost all of them women and children, many of whom were raped and decapitated.

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