WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Two decades after five soldiers were convicted of abducting, raping and killing three American nuns and a social worker in El Salvador, the missionaries' families still want others to pay.
For years, the families of social worker Jean Donovan and sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel have pressed Salvadoran and U.S. officials to probe deeper into the killings, sure that high-ranking officials of the Salvadoran National Guard knew of the murders.
Now, they have a chance to prove they are right.
On Tuesday, the families' wrongful death lawsuit against El Salvador's former defense minister, Jose Guillermo Garcia, and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former director-general of the Salvadoran National Guard, goes to trial in federal court in West Palm Beach.
For the first time, family members will see face-to-face the two men they believe were ultimately responsible for the deaths.
"These two generals, at the time of the murders, controlled the Salvadoran military, which was a very top down organization," said Bill Ford, a New York City lawyer and Ita Ford's brother. "I've been to El Salvador eight or nine times and no one believes five low-ranking guardsmen would take it upon themselves to kill four North American church women. There were clearly higher orders."
Garcia denies ordering the slayings, saying it has already been established that the five soldiers were responsible. He now lives in Plantation, a Fort Lauderdale suburb.
Efforts to reach Casanova, who lives near Daytona Beach, were unsuccessful. A lawyer for both men, Kurt R. Klaus Jr. of Coral Gables, did not return calls to his office.
The families believe the killings were part of a campaign to silence sympathizers of El Salvador's leftist guerrillas. The targets included church members critical of the military-led government and its actions during the 12-year civil war that began in 1979.
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed in 1999 after the families learned the two former generals had entered this country 10 years earlier.
"When we discovered they were in Florida that gave us jurisdiction," said Robert Varenik of the Lawyers Committee For Human Rights, a New York City nonprofit group that has represented the families for 20 years. "It also added insult to injury in that the men who had been linked through the years to so many human rights injuries were in the United States."
The victims -- Ford, 40, and Clarke, 51, both of New York, and Kazel, 42, and Donavan, 32, both of Cleveland -- worked at a Catholic refugee center in the Central American country.
They were detained by soldiers at a roadblock on Dec. 2, 1980, and the next day their bullet-riddled bodies were discovered along a dirt road.
The five members of the Salvadoran National Guard were convicted in 1984 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 1998, four of them said they had been acting under orders.
In order to win, the families must show that the generals had knowledge of a policy or pattern of abuse by soldiers and didn't stop the violence, Varenik said.
The case isn't just about four American women, but about the "tens of thousands of Salvadoran victims murdered by the men the defendants' commanded," Varenik said.
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