Our Man in San Salvador

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

An ex-Laguna Beach cop who claimed that he sold cocaine for the CIA during the 1980s can now take credit for another dubious achievement from that decade: offering to protect a Salvadoran army general who was recently found liable for the torture of his fellow citizens.

Ronald J. Lister became infamous when he was named in a controversial August 1996 San Jose Mercury News story alleging CIA involvement in California's crack-cocaine trade. That story described an October 1986 narcotics raid on Lister's Mission Viejo home; Lister reportedly told police he was a security consultant whose work was "CIA-approved" and that the cops were making a "big mistake" by searching his home for drugs.

In fact, police found no drugs, but they did find sophisticated police and military gear, boxes of ammunition, military training films, and stacks of paperwork documenting Lister's international arms deals. Among these was Lister's Oct. 18, 1982, offer to provide security services for El Salvador's Defense Minister, José Guillermo García.

Twenty years after Lister made that offer, on July 23, García and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, director of El Salvador's National Guard and García's sucessor as Defense Minister, were fined $54.6 million by a Florida federal jury. The verdict capped a dramatic, weeks-long civil lawsuit brought by three Salvadoran torture victims who survived their ordeals and lived long enough to testify about them.

One of the Salvadoran plaintiffs, Juan Romagoza Arce was a doctor when National Guardsmen abducted him in 1980. For 24 days, Romagoza was imprisoned inside the National Guard's headquarters, beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He was also strung from the ceiling by his fingertips. Another kidnapping victim, university professor Carlos Mauricio, testified that he was imprisoned for several days, beaten and hung from his hands for hours on end.

The third plaintiff, Neris Gonzalez, was a young church worker who was eight months' pregnant when the National Guard abducted her in 1979. Tortured for several days, raped and stomped on, Gonzales said she was forced to watch another prisoner's torture and execution. Her captors also forced her to drink the prisoner's blood. She was finally dumped in the back of a truck full of corpses and left for dead. She managed to crawl to freedom, but her son died two months after being born.

In 1982, García was El Salvador's most powerful army officer. Lister was a globetrotting arms dealer and drug smuggler whose company, Pyramid International Security Consultants Inc., had offices in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador. His October 1982 contract proposal to García, written in Spanish and running more than 30 pages, states that Pyramid was founded in 1977 by a "group of experts in the fields of military, police and industrial security." The firm's "political philosophy" and that of its "associates and consultants," it states, "is dedicated to maintaining liberty, independence and free trade, in accordance with the strongest principles and traditions of the free world. We only serve clients with the same political orientation."

The document does not establish that Lister ever did business with García, but its cover page describes García as having "solicited" the contract and refers to "months" of negotiations with the Defense Minister and other high-ranking Salvadoran military and civilian leaders. Specifically, the proposal states, Pyramid had "conversations with the government of El Salvador with the intent of assisting the new government in its goal of combating the tyrannical forces of the Left, promoted and assisted by the current governments of Nicaragua, Cuba and the Soviet Union."

Without naming names, Lister's proposal to García includes biographical notes for numerous security specialists his firm had to offer. Among them:

•A "technician with the Central Intelligence Agency with 20 years experience in physical security." That description appears to match Richard Wilker, who prepared the proposal and is identified on its cover page as Pyramid's "technical director." Wilker's current whereabouts are unknown, but corporate filings show he was an employee of another Newport Beach-based security firm, Intersect Inc., which was founded by two retired CIA agents.

In separate interviews, both of Intersect's ex-spy co-founders told the Weekly that neither Wilker nor Lister ever had any direct relationship to the agency. However, both sources acknowledged knowing Lister and stated that Wilker and Lister had traveled to Central America in the 1980s on business trips involving security work. They described Wilker as a martial-arts expert who specialized in physical security.

•An expert in "covert military penetration activities (Vietnam)." This profile matches a longtime associate of Lister, David Scott Weekly, an ex-Navy Seal and Vietnam veteran who later became a mercenary known as "Dr. Death."

•A "specialist in the design and manufacture of unique arms." This person is almost certainly Timothy LaFrance, a San Diego-based automatic weapons manufacturer whose company, LaFrance Specialties Inc., provides weapons exclusively to military and law-enforcement agencies.

In a 1997 interview with the Weekly, LaFrance recalled travelling to El Salvador with Lister, Weekly and Wilker. He stated that Pyramid was a "favored corporation," used by the CIA to secretly arm the Nicaraguan contras. LaFrance also asserted that while in El Salvador, Pyramid's employees were guests at the well-appointed barracks of the elite, U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion. Less than a year earlier, the unit had massacred several hundred unarmed villagers in El Mozote.

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.

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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