The saying “Justice delayed, justice denied” suggests despair, and is often stated with the insinuation that justice will be denied forever. That has happened in the Philippines in relation to victims of martial law.
But the 20th and 21st centuries suggest that justice delayed even for several decades may yet be reversed, as we’ve seen in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals well into the present, some 70 years after the end of World War II.
Recently, too, the Japanese government formally apologized to Korean comfort women forced to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II. They were offered compensation, but there is still discontent with the terms of the apology. Other countries with comfort women, including the Philippines, have not officially stated their positions.
We Filipinos, so often seeing justice delayed, might find some consolation in the recent deportation of a former defense minister of El Salvador from the United States back to his home country, where he will have to face trial on charges of covering up, if not playing a key role, in several assassinations and mass killings.
Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia was a defense minister of El Salvador during a military regime that saw some 75,000 politically-related killings and 10,000 disappearances from 1980 to 1992. The military junta took over after years of growing unrest in a country marked by extreme economic inequality and the rise of armed rebel groups—again a situation similar to the Philippines.
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an outspoken advocate for social justice, was perhaps the most well-known of the victims. During a homily delivered on March 23, 1980, he declared: “The law of God which says thou shalt not kill must come before any human order to kill. It is high time you recovered your conscience,” a message clearly meant for the National Guard and the police. The next day, he was assassinated while saying Mass. His assassination is often cited as an event that triggered further unrest and a 12-year civil war in El Salvador.
Throughout the dictatorship, the US government provided financial support for the military regime, including the training of El Salvador’s military forces and death squads. Not coincidentally, many of the Central and South American countries and across the Pacific Ocean like the Philippines, were going through similar unrest under US-supported military regimes, all in the name of fighting communism.
A peace accord was signed in El Salvador in January 1992, involving the government and five guerrilla groups. After El Salvador’s military junta fell, many of its officials, including General Garcia, were able to flee to the United States, the Bush administration granting him political asylum. He settled down in Florida.
Another former defense secretary, Vides Casanova, was almost banned from the States because there was strong evidence linking him to the deaths of American churchwomen, but he was later allowed into the United States on the basis of an old US executive order that allows each year 100 people who collaborated with the US Central Intelligence Agency to enter and settle down in the United States, “no questions asked.”
Casanova was deported last year and last Jan. 8, US immigration agents acted on a ruling by the US Board of Immigration Appeals to have Garcia deported for covering up torture and murder by his troops, including four American churchwomen; and that he had protected death squads and “assisted or otherwise participated” in 14 assassinations and six massacres. The massacres are among the worst ever recorded in Latin American history: 600 civilians in Rio Sumpul and 1,000 villagers in El Mozote, including 250 children.
General Garcia was in a plane with 130 other Salvadoran deportees. They landed in San Salvador where the general was greeted with a rally and placards calling him “asesino.” The National Catholic Reporter, a US publication, featured an interview with one of the military regime’s victims, Dr. Juan Romagoza, a surgeon who was so badly tortured he can no longer do surgery. Romagoza said that being able to see the general returned to El Salvador was “a unique therapeutic moment.”
The US court order came as a result of years of lawsuits filed by relatives of victims, including those of the four American churchwomen: two Maryknoll sisters, one Ursuline sister and a lay missionary. It was a long struggle, with American courts earlier clearing the general and Casanova. The victims’ families persisted and were finally able to get a court to order the deportations.
The deported generals are likely to try to escape prosecution by invoking a general amnesty law barring prosecutions based on war crimes. Passed in 1993 under a conservative government, the law can still be overturned, but it will take a major effort. A suit has already been filed by the Central American University’s Human Rights Institute to overturn the amnesty law, using another notorious case from the past: the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter.
But simply having the general back in El Salvador provides some relief that the wheels of justice are turning, albeit slowly. For Filipinos, this should serve as a warning that the wheels of justice are now global, and may cover command responsibility. After all, massacres, killings and tortures continue years after democracy is restored in many countries, including the Philippines. No one was ever prosecuted for Archbishop Romero’s assassination.
There is so much irony in the deportation of General Garcia. First, he was in a plane not with the high and the mighty but with other deportees. Second, the plane landed in San Salvador’s Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport, named after the martyred bishop. Romero was beatified just last year in San Salvador, on the 35th anniversary of the archbishop’s assassination. Some 250,000 people were reported to have attended the beatification, which had been opposed by conservatives who said he was too ideological.
Times do change.
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