Our Man in San Salvador

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

In his book The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, Mark Danner quoted from U.S. government cables written in the early 1980s by Deane Hinton, then U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. In one cable, Hinton described a meeting with García in San Salvador shortly before the latter planned to fly to Washington, D.C., for "a Congressional prayer breakfast."

Hinton warned García that while on Capitol Hill, he would have to deal with questions about the El Mozote massacre. According to Hinton, García, who "was his usual cocky self," replied, "I'll deny it and prove it fabricated.'" In a Feb. 1, 1982, cable, in which Hinton highlighted the need to improve the Salvadoran military's human rights record, the ambassador expressed frustration with García. "Now comes military folly in [a] massacre of 17 persons," Hinton wrote. "García should be read the riot act while in Washington."

Instead, the U.S. awarded García the Legion of Merit and in 1990 granted him political asylum. In 1993, a United Nations Truth Commission report found that García and Vides Casanova had helped to organize a cover-up of the 1980 murder and rape of four American Maryknoll nuns. Families of the nuns sued the two men in 1999. A year later, a Florida jury cleared them in the case.

During that trial, Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador under President Jimmy Carter, testified that García "had the capacity to put a stop" to the torture and murder being carried out by his troops but did nothing. He also testified that he visited García several times seeking his commitment to stop the killing. "He was unresponsive," White said.

Richard Krieger, director of the Boynton Beach, Florida-based International Educational Mission, helped investigate García for the recent, successful, civil lawsuit representing the three torture victims. He claims that García has traveled back to El Salvador on business in recent years—something that suggests his asylum claim is bogus. "If you sneak back into your country to visit your family and then sneak back out, that's allowable under U.S. law," Krieger said. "But if you go back in openly to do business, that's unacceptable and you have no basis for an asylum claim."

Furthermore, Krieger believes that the U.S. government is still protecting García. "He was never even interviewed by the INS after he came back," Krieger said. "What you see is the government—or some agency within the government—having influence on this case, and that agency would be either the CIA or the DIA."

Krieger has helped to investigate numerous cases involving torture. He says he has received threats thanks to his efforts to bring justice to Salvadoran generals like García. He is quick to point out that during the 1980s, he worked as associate U.S. coordinator for refugee affairs for the Reagan administration and knew Oliver North.

"Ollie and I had some disagreements," he said. "But really, for people to accuse me of being a flaming liberal is nonsense. I supported Reagan; I was proud to serve him, and I still think he was a great president."

While being interviewed for this story, Krieger criticized the Nicaraguan Sandinistas for mistreating political dissidents and ethnic minorities who opposed their policies. But he said torture and other atrocities were widespread in El Salvador during the 1980s—so much so that the responsibility for their occurrence clearly rested at the highest levels.

"In El Salvador, four low-level enlisted men were tried and convicted of the rape and murder of the [American] nuns, and that was a flaky cover-up," Krieger said. "When the higher-ups said, 'Stop the insurgents and anyone who is helping them,' they didn't care how it was done. . . . There's no evidence that García was personally involved [in torture], but nothing happened in that country without his approval."

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