Justice and the Generals
Produced and Directed by Gail Pellett
Writer and Narrator: Gail Pellett
Production Company: Gail Pellett Productions
Presented by: Thirteen-WNET
Aired on: PBS     Date: 2002
Distributed by: Gail Pellett Productions

Ita Ford

In the late 1980s, as civil war broke out in El Salvador, the bodies of four American churchwomen were exhumed from a crude grave in San Salvador, the capital.  The women — Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, nuns of the Maryknoll Congregation in New York;  Dorothy Kazel, a nun in the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland; and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary from the Cleveland Mission — had been abducted, raped and murdered.  Bill Ford, brother of Ita Ford, along with other relatives of the women spent 20 years investigating the murders of these women who were doing missionary work in El Salvador at the time of their murders.   Initially the investigation led to the trial and conviction of five Salvadoran National Guardsmen.

But who was behind the murders?  It was clear to Bill Ford that the Guardsmen were only triggermen.  With the help of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) Ford set out to discover who ordered, paid for, directed and covered up the murders.

Maura Clark

By the mid-1990’s with the war over and amnesty declared for all human rights abusers, declassified U.S. government documents revealed that the State Dept. had withheld information pointing to involvement at high levels of the Salvadoran military.

The new information allowed Ford and other relatives to bring a civil suit against two senior Salvadoran generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Eugenio Vides Casanova, minister of defense and head of the notorious National Guard at the time of the women’s murders. The generals had retired to Florida and now faced the families of the victims in a West Palm Beach courtroom.

Bill Ford

Jean Donova

Justice and the Generals offers unique insight into a new chapter in international human rights law, an important step forward in the campaign to bring military commanders to justice for crimes committed within their ranks.  It also shows the creative contemporary use of the Alien Torts Claim law which was first used against pirates in the 18th century

Dorothy Kazel

This film follows the trial and includes harrowing interviews with several Salvadoran survivors of torture who use the same international and U.S. laws to pursue the same generals in a follow-up trial.  Their case – Romagoza vs. Garcia & Vides Casanova is represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco.

See the PBS website for a full background on the documentary, the history of El Salvador, the two human rights trials and the legal basis for pursuing human rights crimes committed in foreign countries in U.S. courtrooms.  Of particular importance is the Alien Torts Claim law, the Torture Victims Protection Act, and the doctrine of Command Responsibility. www.pbs.org/wnet/justice

Generals Vides Casanova & Garcia

Credits: Editor: Alison Amron; Cinematographer:  Ed Marritz;  Associate Producer:  Sidney Beaumont

Breaking News

The Long Arc of Justice: On July 23, 2002 a Florida jury found the Generals liable in the Romagoza case (the Salvadoran torture survivors vs. Generals Garcia and Casanova). The plaintiffs were awarded $54.6 million.

Bill Ford and the other families lost on appeal in the Churchwomen's case and their petition to the Supreme Court was denied.

In 2006 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal upheld the verdict in the Romagoza case. That year Vides Casanova was forced to relinquish $300,000 in assets.

In October of 2009 the U.S. Dept of Homeland Security instituted deportation proceedings against these two former Salvadoran Ministers of defense, Garcia and Vides Casanova, for assisting in torture of Salvadoran civilians.

On April 8, 2015 General Eugenio Vides Casanova was deported to El Salvador after U.S. Immigration Court found he had participated in torture and killings by virtue of "command responsibility."

On January 7, 2016 General Guillermo Garcia was deported from Florida to El Salvador.

It is incredibly encouraging to see a film that accurately depicts so many of the issues involved in securing justice and accountability, whether at a state, regional or international level.
It is a complex story, elegantly conveyed through the lives of people closely connected to the facts of the case. It is particularly strong in highlighting the strengths - and weaknesses of using courts to redress the massive violations of rights that occur in repressive regimes. The film invites dicsussion at a dozen levels.
Pellett expertly ties together the volatile political situation in El Salvador, the confounding diplomatic tangle, the novel legal questions, and the human tragedies that are at the center of the story.
...a riveting documentary. Far more than just a rehash of these shocking killings, however, the powerful and often-disturbing PBS presentation examines the difficult question of how society should deal with government-sanctioned human rights violations.
In her line of work, Gail Pellett is no stranger to tough subject matter...The Canadian-born Pellett is a documentary filmmaker best known for her many collaborations with Bill Moyers at PBS. Among their joint efforts was "Facing the Truth," a moving account of South Africa's effort to heal the deep wounds of apartheid by hving its victims face the perpetrators of government-sanctioned racial oppression in public forums. Her experience with the process South Africans called "restorative justice" informed Pellett's work on "Justice and the Generals."

5 Responses to “Justice and the Generals”

  1. marvin surkin says:

    This is tough journalism, passionate and clear, and still shocks after all these years and many
    misadventures of the US military and ¨allies.¨ It should be on everyone´s must list for the truth
    about US imperialism.

  2. Angelina Snodgrass Godoy says:

    Justice and the Generals is a deeply moving film that does an outstanding job explaining the tragedy that was the Salvadoran armed conflict and the multiple challenges to securing justice in its wake. I use the film in my undergraduate teaching and find it to be a very helpful way of introducing students both to the specific history of the Salvadoran war but also to broader themes of universal jurisdiction and the search for justice in US courts for crimes committed abroad.

  3. Scott Greathead says:

    The story “Justice and the Generals” tells is not over, and I am happy it has been updated to report that on April 8, 2015, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the former Defense Minister of El Salvador, was deported after immigration courts found that he had participated in torture and killings by troops under his command, including the murders of four American churchwomen in December 1980. A U. S. Immigration Judge ordered him deported from his retirement home in Florida despite having been a close ally of the U.S. during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, making Vides Casanova the highest-ranking foreign official to be deported under laws enacted in 2004 to bar human rights violators from residing in this country.

  4. richard brockman says:

    it’s a terrific film telling a horrific story. One cannot go away from it without wondering why the US always seems to back the status quo – almost no matter how gruesome or greedy – and as your film points out, we seem to ‘create’ a ‘leftist’ opposition (whatever that means) by buttressing anti-democratic, self-serving regimes…. we have a ways to go, and a lot to learn. Your film goes a long way towards showing us (as in US), some of the lessons we have failed to learn and which we still desperately need to understand because we keep repeating our basic error of supporting oppressive leadership principally because it seems to support ‘stability’ by opposing the counter-forces their oppressive regimes have spawned in the first place. No one ever said democracy was simple or easy.

    the film also beautifully and indirectly tells how hard it can be to get to ‘truth’ – whether it be the truth of what happened to someone one loves, or the truth about one self and about the ‘half-truths’ we are all to ready to accept.

  5. Gail Pellett says:

    From Julia Preston of the New York Times, Jan 7, 2016: The authorities have deported GeneralJosé Guillermo García, who was minister of defense in El Salvador in the 1980s, after an immigration judge found that he had a role in human rights violations in that period, including in the 1980 slaying of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero while the prelate was saying Mass in San Salvador. In a decision in February 2014, the judge found that “General García, a close ally of the United States during the Salvadoran civil war, should be deported for assisting “numerous acts of torture and extrajudicial killing while he was in command,” a Department of Homeland Security news release said.

Leave a Comment