March 13, 2015 by Debra Gittler


On Wednesday, March 11, a US immigration appeals court upheld the deportation of General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova. Vides, previously the head of the El Salvador National Guard and Minister of Defense, was accused of condoning and assisting in killing and torture during the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s—including the murder of three American nuns.

The news made international press: the LA TimesNY Timesthe Guardian

But the news wasn’t about the deep scars left upon El Salvador from a 12-year war that terrorized a nation with death squads, guerrilla warfare, child soldier recruitment and over 70,000 dead. It wasn’t about the long-term implications that, twenty years later, have left El Salvador with the second highest homicide rate in the world, rampant gang-violence, over 20% of citizens living abroad and massive child migration.

It was about Mr. Vides becoming an example that the USA will not allow war criminals to find safe-haven in the States. Even if they are there legally.

Even though it’s not intentional, it does make evident that the crimes committed a generation ago are still relevant. We can still be judged by our behavior twenty, thirty years ago. Vides can be and is being held accountable.

The controversy behind Vides is partially because his actions at the time were condoned by the USA who invested about $1million/day for the duration of the war.

His actions fit with the ideology of the US military that encouraged “scorched earth” policies.

So when will the USA be held accountable? Sure, development aid is a gesture. But deporting criminals is what caused the gang epidemic in El Salvador. And while I’m proud of the USA for showing that it won’t house war-criminals, it’s also shrugging responsibility for a war it funded, ideologies it promoted and a gang-culture it helped foment. It’s no secret, after all, the drug wars are fought in Latin America, but the consumers are in the States.

Hopefully Vides will return to El Salvador where the legal system, and the citizens, can hold him accountable and punish him accordingly. And hopefully this will be a step forward toward healing.

Because the scars of the war run deep. The country has a higher homicide rate now, at a time of peace, than it did during war. Prisons are populated at 300-400% capacity. Children are migrating at unprecedented rates.

Fixing the dilemmas of today means looking forward with clear vision, acting now to prevent delinquency and hopelessness, but also looking back to understand the cause of the problem.

Vides’ deportation doesn’t bring peace. It doesn’t undo what happened under his watch or since the peace accords. But it does set a precedent. Not just for the USA, but also for Salvadorans: you can, will and should be held accountable for your actions. That’s part of the process of moving forward.

So who holds the USA accountable? Because that’s a key part of moving forward, too.

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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