Still, in that moment, he found new life. "I had been born again," he would say years later.

He said the plaintiffs "dramatized" and "embellished" their testimonies.

A few months after his release, Romagoza, hidden amid sacks of salt and onions on a relative's truck bed, left El Salvador for Guatemala and soon after continued north to Mexico. He finally received medical care and found work in a ­restaurant. But he also began volunteering at a clinic for fellow refugees; after two years, a patient asked him to accompany her north to monitor her insulin. Romagoza did, and then decided to keep going.

In April 1983, with a group of Guatemalans, he walked across the desert into California. Later he moved to San Francisco and then Washington, D.C., where he began volunteering at La Clínica del Pueblo, a tiny, weekend-only medical and legal sanctuary for Hispanic refugees. Within a few years, Romagoza — who would never again perform surgery, just as the torturers promised — had become the organization's director. Under his leadership, the tiny clinic transformed into a full-time, well-funded haven for Washington-area Latino medical care.

General José García (middle), shown on a military helicopter in the 1980s, was El Salvador's minister of defense from 1979 to '83.
© Harry Mattison
General José García (middle), shown on a military helicopter in the 1980s, was El Salvador's minister of defense from 1979 to '83.
Harry Mattison, a Time magazine photographer who now teaches in Maryland, took this photos during the Salvadoran Civil War.
© Harry Mattison
Harry Mattison, a Time magazine photographer who now teaches in Maryland, took this photos during the Salvadoran Civil War.

It was there, in fall 1998, that Romagoza met Patty Blum, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. A vocal woman with short, wavy hair, broad shoulders, and a huge smile, Blum worked with the nascent Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which aimed to prosecute human rights violators. She remembers walking through Washington's largely Hispanic Adams Morgan neighborhood to a quiet office plastered with dozens of black-and-white posters and pictures from El Salvador. She sat with Romagoza and quietly talked about his experiences, as well as a potential lawsuit: The target would be the two men most responsible for sanctioning Romagoza's torture.

Romagoza signed on. He viewed the suit, more than anything, as a way to finally begin a years-overdue healing process — for himself, yes, but also for the thousands of others he knew he represented. "The mothers who were left waiting for their children," he said. "The children who were left waiting for their parents."


At 10 a.m. November 14, 2007, Dick Durbin, a Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, stood on the dais of a large, wood-paneled Senate chamber and delivered opening remarks for a subcommittee hearing on human rights and American law. "What a cruel irony," the senator said, "that we have constructed laws that exclude victims but somehow have allowed those who are responsible for these hideous acts to find sanctuary in our midst."

An hour or so later, the commission heard testimony from Romagoza. In a black blazer with a crisp white shirt and striped purple tie, the doctor sat in the front row. "I am a surgeon," he began in Spanish, speaking slowly and confidently. "The tools of a surgeon are his hands, but my hands have become useless."

When he finished, the senator responded. "I could not help but think as you were telling your story how painful and difficult it must have been to get up this morning and dress and come to tell this story again... I could not help but think as you testified of how this morning might have started for these two generals... in the soft breezes of South Florida, drinking coffee and reading the paper and going about their business under the protection of the United States of America... That is wrong."

The United States has always been a haven for the persecuted. Less known is America's role as a shelter for their ­persecutors: After World War II, prominent Nazi scientists such as Wernher von Braun and Kurt Debus, their histories covered up by the U.S. government, were recruited to serve the military. In the decades since, scores of notorious human rights violators, from the Haitian dictator Prosper Avril to the Serbian commander Ratko Mladic, have also found their way to the Land of the Free — and often to South Florida.

"Think about it," says Pamela Merchant, the current executive director of CJA. "We've got Haiti. We've got El Salvador. We've got Guatemala. We've got Cambodia. We've got Liberia, Rwanda... Sometimes people come in and lie their way in, or other times we've let them in because we were their allies."

On May 11, 1999, CJA sued García and Vides on behalf of Romagoza and two other plaintiffs: Neris González, a pregnant church worker who was left for dead in a dumpster by the side of the Pan American Highway after two weeks of rape and torture by the national guard; and Carlos Mauricio, a biology professor who was abducted in front of his students and then detained, beaten, and shocked at the national police headquarters.

The suit was filed in conjunction with another one brought by the relatives of four American churchwomen famously murdered in 1980. Together the cases would set a new legal precedent: For the first time, an American jury would be asked to determine the guilt or innocence of foreign generals based on the idea of command responsibility — essentially that a commander should be liable for the actions of his subordinates.

The complaints were filed on a Tuesday. A few days later, Kurt Klaus Jr., a 40-something Miami divorce attorney with a boyish face, dark glasses, and a brash streak, received a phone call from his wife's old FIU classmate Marta Vides Demmer — daughter of Carlos Vides. "Marta asked me who was the best lawyer in Miami," Klaus said. "And I told her it was me."

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