If the orders are upheld, it will be a victory not only for Salvadorans like Melecia del Carmen Casco, whose wounds, in the absense of justice, have never healed, but also for millions of victims around the world who have demanded the United States stop sheltering murderers and torturers from places like Serbia, Haiti, and El Salvador.

"He meant that they'd always solved their problems by killing people."

"They had no heart for our children," Casco says of the military commanders. "So we have to have hard hearts for them."


Northwest 13th Court in Plantation is a typical middle-class Florida suburban street: neat ranch houses, tidy green lawns, bleached-white sidewalks, Ford pickups. On a Thursday in early May, when the evening light was just turning soft, an elderly man answered the door of a beige house. He wore a brown plaid shirt tucked into tan pants, and his white hair was parted evenly to the right. His face was friendly and handsome, with a prominent mole on the left side of his chin.

Mattison's images show nuns being forced out of a cathedral, a crowd desperately trying to escape being trampled.
© Harry Mattison
Mattison's images show nuns being forced out of a cathedral, a crowd desperately trying to escape being trampled.
A photo depicting soldiers with those they had killed.
© Harry Mattison
A photo depicting soldiers with those they had killed.

"," he confirmed, he was José Guillermo García Merino, the former defense minister. A young voice from inside, perhaps concerned at the presence of a visitor, asked if everything was OK, and García responded reassuringly. Asked about his potential deportation, he would say only, "It was a difficult time... We fought honestly to defend democracy. What would hurt me the most would be if now they reversed everything we did..."

Then the friendly grandfather and convicted human rights abuser closed the door.

García was born June 25, 1933, to a single mother in San Vicente, a medium-size city in central El Salvador famous for its twin-cratered volcano. The family was middle-class, and the young García attended high school in his hometown before entering the military academy in San Salvador at age 20.

While at the academy, according to a CIA cable, "he had few friends, although he did develop a strong sense of loyalty to the military." In 1956 he graduated as top cadet. The distinction qualified him as presidenciable — likely material for top national leadership — and for the next 18 years he rose steadily through the Salvadoran military ranks. In 1962 he graduated from the U.S. military-run School of the Americas, then located in Panama, and in 1974 was appointed president of the country's telecommunications agency.

Three years later, according to the CIA, he expected to be appointed president of the country. When Carlos Romero was chosen instead, "García believed that he was sidelined because of his reputation for honesty and integrity."

In May 1979, El Salvador was burning. The military government, increasingly paranoid about the rising threat of communism, cracked down on anyone believed to be loyal to the left — peasants, medical workers, professors. Bodies, often decapitated, regularly appeared in dumpsters or by the side of highways, the work of paramilitary death squads. While serving as military commander of San Vicente, García and a group of other leaders plotted a coup.

Among the conspirators was a colonel named Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who was a close personal friend of García's and had entered military training at age 17. "[The army] first tries to form your moral values, your ethical values," Vides would later testify. "[There] is also the aspect of patriotism." (Vides, who now lives in Palm Coast, near Daytona Beach, did not return calls seeking comment.)

Nicknamed "El Chato" — "Snub Nose" — Vides graduated second in his military class of 1959. He later trained in Peru and was director of the Salvadoran Institute of Industrial Development, where, according to the New York Times, "he got a reputation for honesty and won the respect of a lot of people."

On October 15, 1979, the coup was successful. García became minister of defense, and three days later Vides was appointed director of the national guard. But instead of tempering the abuses, as they had promised, García and Vides soon emerged as even more murderous than their predecessors. "The armed forces are prepared to kill 200,000 to 300,000 if that's what it takes to stop a communist takeover," Vides announced at a meeting of the ruling junta a month after the takeover.

After five months of increasingly brazen civilian murders under García and Vides, the country's most vocal human rights supporter, the beloved Archbishop Óscar Romero, pleaded for an end to the terror in his weekly homily. "In the name of God!" he yelled. "Stop the repression!" The next day, while the archbishop gave afternoon mass at a small ­hospital for the terminally ill, a red ­Volks­wagen pulled up, a gunman fired a single .22-caliber bullet, and Romero was dead. The Salvadoran Civil War had officially begun.

The United States, deeply paranoid after communists took over Nicaragua, robustly supported the Salvadoran military against the leftist guerrilla coalition known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Over the next 12 years, American taxpayers provided $6 billion in aid, weapons, helicopters, and training.

"The government of El Salvador," President Ronald Reagan declared in 1983, "is under attack by guerrillas dedicated to the same philosophy that prevails in Nicaragua, Cuba, and, yes, the Soviet Union."

He barely mentioned the human rights atrocities of the previous four years, among the worst ever in the Western Hemisphere.

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