After serving as El Salvador's defense minister during that country's brutal civil war in the 1980s, Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova was welcomed to the United States as a legal immigrant.
But now, he is charged with participating in torture and human rights abuses in his native country — and the U.S. government is trying to deport him.
'Handcuffed, Blindfolded And Taken Away'
Carlos Mauricio lives in Washington, D.C., where he's a teacher and a human rights activist. But nearly 30 years ago, he was a professor at the University of El Salvador and an outspoken opponent of the right-wing, U.S-backed government.
His life changed in June 1983, when he was lured out of a classroom, then attacked and abducted.
"I was badly, badly beaten right there with M-16 rifles, badly bleeding from a wound from my head," he says. "I was taken to a waiting car. I was handcuffed, blindfolded and taken away."
He was in prison for three weeks, and during nine of those days, he was tortured by his captors. Who they were, he says, wasn't clear until they finally removed his blindfold.
"At that moment," he recalls, "I realized I was in the National Police headquarters, and the people who came to capture me — and indeed, the guy who tortured me — were members of the National Police."
The National Police is part of El Salvador's military force. Mauricio says his torture and that of many others — as well as killings — were government policy, carried out under the direction of the minister of defense.
"It was clear that it was carried out by the military," he says. "I am the witness."
A Stunning Reversal
At a hearing in Orlando this week, Eugenio Vides Casanova is charged with overseeing and ordering the torture of people like Mauricio.
Vides Casanova was director of the National Guard and then minister of defense in El Salvador during that nation's bloody civil war, until 1989, when he immigrated to the U.S.
He became a legal permanent resident, living in Palm Coast, Fla.
Eventually, though, his past caught up with him. A decade ago in a U.S. civil case, he was charged but acquitted in the murders in El Salvador of four American churchwomen. A few years later, in another trial, he was found guilty of committing torture and ordered to pay millions to victims.
In this, an immigration case, the government is seeking to deport Vides Casanova for his history of torture.
For the former general, a U.S. ally during the 1980s, it's a stunning reversal. At the immigration hearing this week, says Almudena Bernabeu, an attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability, Vides Casanova's defense has argued that his policies were condoned by U.S. authorities at a time when many believed the future of El Salvador was in the balance.
"The danger of communism ruling was a fact — it was a fact understood by an important part of the U.S. administration at the time," she says. "And this guy was just making sure that they're following also U.S. goals."
The case against Vides Casanova was brought by a division of the Department of Homeland Security that in the past has mostly targeted war criminals. Under a 2004 law, that authority was broadened to allow deportation of any immigrant charged with human rights abuses.
This is the most high-profile case using that law yet. Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America says he expects there will be future cases involving other high-ranking officials known to have committed human rights abuses from El Salvador and other countries.
"It's hard to determine how many of those people were given U.S. visas and have moved here," he says. "But I think there are significant numbers of them. And I think ... a number of those people are probably sweating as the trial moves forward."
In El Salvador, a national amnesty protects Vides Casanova and other government figures from prosecution. That makes the U.S., for now, the only place Salvadoran torture victims like Carlos Mauricio can seek justice. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.