Home, Defeated, a General Finds Unwanted Welcome

Deported from his refuge in the United States like a common criminal, handcuffed and loaded onto a plane, the Salvadoran general and onetime chief torturer Vides Casanova returns to the country he fled–to face, for a brief moment at least, his victims.

The last time the surgeon Juan Romagoza saw General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova’s face was at a month-long trial in 2002 in West Palm Beach, Florida, at the end of which the general was ordered to pay $54 million in damages for allowing the torture of Juan and other Salvadorans on various occasions between 1979 and 1983. Before that, the last time he had seen Vides Casanova’s face was in December 1980, at the National Guard’s central base on the Canera highway in eastern El Salvador. The general was supervising while they electrocuted him, or held his head in barrels full of water, or hung him up by his fingers. On this Wednesday at midday, Juan Romagoza, 64 years old now, may have a thousand reasons in his head to want to see the face of his nemesis once again. Perhaps Romagoza has really come here to yell “assassin” or “torturer” at him, like a group of women armed with signs behind a fence are doing. No matter how many times I ask him — while Romagoza observes the airplane parked on the runway, waiting for Vides Casanova to get off — his only response is that “his return to El Salvador is historic”.

Juan Romagoza is not wrong. It is historic.

The plane has landed at midday. Paid for by the United States government, the plane was sent with around 100 people inside, Salvadoran immigrants who have, some place in the United States, driven drunk, attacked their significant other, trespassed, or engaged in gang activity… Amongst them, protruding like a sore thumb, like someone who does not match the profile of a poor immigrant who left El Salvador only to return to El Salvador with nothing, there is a tall old man, gray haired and running to fat, an army officer who was in his time was one of the most powerful and feared men in El Salvador, but who now is nothing more than an over-the-hill former-army officer, kicked out of a country that had, in the end, denied him refuge.

Unlike those who travel with him, numberless accusations of torture and murders weigh on this man.

The retired general Vides Casanova was handcuffed as he traveled with the rest of the deportees, according to the director of the department of immigration. Moments before landing they took off the cuffs, because El Salvador, officially, was receiving the general with a formal “welcome home”, the name and slogan of the program that sees to the country’s deported migrants. In El Salvador, there are no attorneys pursuing the general, despite the fact that in the United States they said that he allowed the torture of a man named Juan Romagoza and two other named Salvadorans, and that he participated in “countless” human rights violations during the years he headed the National Guard (1979-1983), and the years he acted as defense minister (1983-1988).

The general has gotten off the plane now, but if not for a picture taken by an immigrations officer that later circulated on the social media, no one would have found out that the former military officer trained at the School of Americas was not really in a wheelchair, as rumors had suggested.

The general stood in line and received his welcome can of Coca Cola. He sat front and center, across from a hallway, in the room where the deportees listened to a talk in which they explained to them the rights of the people who have access to help them at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero international airport.

The general looks uncomfortable. The same immigration officer takes another picture of him, and in this one he is seen holding the can of soda with two hands, between his legs, as if he is waiting for his deported compatriots to finish their food: two pupusas, because each deported Salvadoran is greeted with two pupusas. Who knows if the rest of the deportees in the room know who this 78-year-old man is who, it seems, declined his pupusas.

Do they know?

The general drinks his free can of coke in the waiting room of San Salvador airport. Photo El Faro.

The general drinks his free can of coke in the waiting room of San Salvador airport. Photo El Faro.

Outside, behind the barrier, they know all too well. Forty people have come to the airport: adult women, younger men that yell his name and wield signs with his picture with captions that tag him as a perpetrator of war crimes. “Justice, justice”, they yell. “Assassin,” others say. There are members of the Commission for Historical Memory that groups diverse organizations that represent victims of human rights abuses during the war and that, on various occasions, were recruited by the Truth Commission.

The protesters arrive in their own cars and form a human chain from which they hoped to give the general a vocal welcome home. A dozen police officers and private security guards stopped the protesters from entering the room in which the general is being processed to reenter the country. Amongst the protesters there is a woman whose testimony, like that of Doctor Juan Romagoza, allowed the United States government to conclude that troops under the command of Vides Casanova committed abuses with complete knowledge from the upper ranks. Her name is Neris Gonzalez: kidnapped on September 26, 1979 in San Vicente when she was eight months pregnant. Because of the torture, Neris lost her son. Before this, the last time Neris saw the general’s face was when the judge in the United States ordered him to pay $54 million dollars in that trial that was also instigated by Juan Romagoza. On that occasion, the military officer looked for Neris Gonzalez and the other victims to shake their hands.

“No,” Neris said,”I’m going to shake his hand in El Salvador when they deport him.”

That is why Neris is here today, to make good on her promise.

“So here I am,” she says, holding in her hands a sign that reads “assassin”.

Neris Gonzalez is angry. A few minutes ago, in the middle of the airport, a group of former-soldiers, members of the Progressive Salvadoran Party (PSP), showed up. They have come to show their support for General Vides Casanova. The party’s secretary general, Captain Rodolfo Perez, told journalists that the Salvadoran people should leave the general alone, let him remake his life in El Salvador.

“They never charged my General Vides for a single war crime. If that were the case, why isn’t he in prison in the United States?” Captain Perez asked the television cameras.

Neris Gonzalez was a few meters away and when she heard these words she immediately approached, raised her sign and with her voice tried drown out what the military officer’s words.

“Everyone from the Tandona defended the oligarchy’s interests, assassins!” she yelled.

“Everyone knows that those giving orders were not the ministers, but the president as the commander in chief of the Armed Forces,” Captain Perez responded.

“Killers, torturers!” Neris responded.

“The are also dead from the Army. Do you want us to show up with their relatives as well?” the captain said.

“Ignorance!” said Gonzalez, finally. “How can not know that even Bush Sr. came with a list of names of military officers that had been singled out for their human rights abuses.” She is referring to an official visit by George H.W. Bush made in 1983. During that time, the first three years of the war in which the most serious massacres of peasant farmers occurred, Bush met with Vides Casanova, then the defense minister, with whom he shared a list of eight army officials who had to be removed because of their constant abuses of human rights. Bush’s visit was clearly intended to get the attention of the Salvadoran army, a warning that the United States might cut off their military aid in the fight against the FMLN guerrillas if they did not cease committing human rights abuses during the war.

Around three in afternoon, the general’s co-travelers begin to emerge one by one from the room for departed migrants. The repatriated citizens approach authorities to get their few belongings back: a watch, rings, money, clothes… They approach a metal barrier, say their name and immediately they are given a bag, a box and some papers.

General Vides Casanova still has not appeared. His exit has been delayed because, strangely, his name coincides with that of a Salvadoran whom authorities in this country are pursuing for outstanding legal charges. The deportees who have arrest warrants or possible connections to open cases are called “possibles”, and General Vides was in that category, according to Immigration’s spokesperson Mauricio Silva. But this hold up was a strange irony. The military officer singled out by the United States for having participated in and committed serious human rights violations was momentarily arrested because he has a namesake that is wanted by El Salvador’s justice system.

The door opened at four in the afternoon. The general — tall, old — is greeted by the cries of Neris and dozens of other protesters.

“The gringos trained you, and now they deported you,” the protesters chant.

“Assassin,” yell some of them.

“Show your face. Show your face. Your victims are here,” say others.

Twenty border patrol officers separate the protesters from a parking lot where a black truck waits on the general. When the protesters realize they are not going to have a face-to-face encounter with the former head of the National Guard, the yells and whistles get louder.

“Why are they protecting you, Casanova?, they ask, “Are you scared of your victims?”

The general walks slowly, disappears for a few moments when he approaches the metal fence, and then reappears to get in the truck. The heckling continues, and although it is almost certain the general cannot pass the signs without noticing, it is also nearly impossible for him to ignore the yells of the people. The truck accelerates to full speed and a man who yelled “assassin” as loud as he could runs after it. He quickly tires of his futile endeavor. He stops and drives a fisted hand into his other palm, and moans through his clenched jaw: “Damn him! He left! He left!” His name is Jorge Ramirez, he is 67 years old and he cannot stop pacing while he tries to temper his anger by bending one of the protest signs in half… but his fury gets the best of him and breaks down crying. Jorge Ramirez crumbles in defeat onto the chest of friend who tries to console him.

Next to him is Marta Martinez de Sanchez, another protester. She is a 60-year-old woman who carries in her hand a picture of her son, killed on April 18, 1980, close to the Ricaldone Technical Institute, next to the University of El Salvador. Marta also yelled as loud as she could, and she also tried to follow the shiny black truck transporting the general, but her feet only took her a few steps.

Among the protesters there are mothers, brothers, aunts and uncles and friends of victims who stay, yelling slogans and criticizing the police for not being able to confront the former minister. Even though they did not get a face-to-face with him, at least they could yell at him.

Two hours have passed since Juan Romagoza left the airport. Juan could not keep waiting for the general because he had run out of time for the leave he had asked for at work. He works at the Ministry of Health but no longer practices surgery. While he was jailed and tortured, some soldiers had given him the coup de grace of shooting him in the left hand. His captors told him explicitly that they were doing it so he could not perform surgery again. More than 30 years later, Juan Romagoza cannot perform operations, but he continues helping out with his knowledge of medicine in his hometown of Usulutan, and this Wednesday afternoon he has a meeting that he cannot miss at the Rosales hospital in San Salvador. He had hoped the general’s arrival would happen in the morning, but things dragged on too long.

“I never thought the United States would deport him,” he said before leaving from under the shade of a tent where dozens of journalists awaited Vides Casanova’s arrival.

“Seeing him get off the plane would have been the best, and I hope his arrival changes the mentality of a lot of victims who have kept quiet up until now,” he said.

Juan Romagoza did not keep quiet, and it was his complaints that explain in part why the general was deported from the United States. Romagoza hopes more victims speak out now, and that the attorney general’s office listens to them and that Vides Casanova is investigated in an El Salvador that debates overturning the amnesty law, which since 1993 has given impunity for human rights violation committed during the years of the war.

Juan Romagoza did not see the face of the general who turned him into another victim among many, but he may have another opportunity. The Human Rights Attorney’s office has scolded the attorney general, Luis Martinez, so he opens an investigation of the man who just arrived.

Gabriel Labrador Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard