Hernández sat in the thin grass in front of the wall and began to tell her story. She and her husband, Salvador, were peasants in San Pedro Agua Caliente, a tiny village east of the capital. In 1981 the military murdered him and left his battered and charred body on their patio. Hernández fled with her eight children, moving from village to village. One day, 16-year-old Andrés left to run an errand in San Vicente, several hours away. He never returned. Hernández heard he had been detained by the military, so she spent weeks visiting jails and demanding answers.

But she never found her son. She never saw his body. So now she walks to the wall, touches his name, and remembers. Sometimes she and other victims' mothers who have no graves to visit come here to pray.

This day, Hernández pulls out a crinkled old book filled with poems and songs.

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's been more than 20 years. I ask where they are," she sings, her voice soft and clear. "I ask the Supreme Court to take care of the mothers and help us to know the truth."

In 2009, following Senator Durbin's hearings, the Obama administration created a new Department of Justice division, the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. The section has landed a handful of prosecutions, most famously convicting Chuckie Taylor, the Orlando-raised son of Liberian dictator Charles, to 97 years for mass murder and torture in Liberia. But the judgments against the top two commanders of El Salvador's military operations are more significant. They represent not only a major indictment of the United States' former policy but also perhaps the government's biggest human rights victory yet.

"They're being held responsible for some of the signature human rights abuses for the decade," says CJA's Merchant. "The arc of justice, right? It's long... but each step is extremely important."

A few years ago, plaintiff Neris González, the former church worker, moved back to El Salvador to care for her ailing mother. She lives in a modest apartment in the capital with her disabled sister and works with rural women's rights groups, many of whom are also survivors. She's still tormented by thoughts of the guardsmen who shattered her life three decades ago. Sometimes she can't sleep for days. When she testified in court, an incredible weight was lifted off her shoulders, but she's not satisfied. "I felt we had achieved a piece of justice," she says, "because for me justice still isn't done for these criminals."

In 2007, Romagoza retired from La Clínica del Pueblo and returned to El ­Salvador, where he's a regional public health director. But he has continued to return to the States to testify. He feels an obligation, he says, to speak out for the millions who cannot. "When I was standing up to them," he says of his testimony, "I looked back and I saw... all the disappeared and the dead... I felt I paid the debt I had to pay."

The generals aren't likely to pay theirs. Of the $54.6 million verdict, only $300,000 has been recovered, and both men have appealed the immigration decisions, meaning the legal process is likely to drag on for years — leaving the generals free to maintain the same quiet, anonymous suburban lives they've enjoyed for decades.

In one photo, posted on Facebook by García's daughter María on May 12, 2013, the general, wearing a turquoise-blue polo, sits next to his wife. The two are on a bench on the family's front porch, surrounded by 12 squirming grandchildren, and one of the youngest, a light-haired boy about 3 or 4, balances on García's lap. The old general's eyes gaze off to the left, at another camera, but his facial expression is clear enough. He calmly smiles.

Even if García and Vides were deported, though, El Salvador's current amnesty law would mean they couldn't be charged — perhaps the single biggest pall still hanging over the victims.

"Amnistía inmoral," Hernández sings back at the memorial wall in San Salvador. "Our children are the most sacred, and they're the prisoners of impunity."

A couple of hours later, Hernández, now at her home, holds up the last picture she has of her son. It's a black-and-white shot taken after Andrés' first Communion. The image is faded and slightly damaged but still clear. Just 10 at the time, the boy is handsome, with a thin face and neat bangs that hang just above his eyebrows. Wearing a clean white dress shirt that's too big, he stares with big dark eyes directly into the camera. This boy was lost to a war that ended decades ago. But for his mother — and for thousands of mothers like her — the war continues. "We have to fight for our children," Hernández says, "until God calls us to the sea."

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