Two Salvadoran Generals Ordered Deported for Civil War Torture
Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi
The memories are etched in Melecia del Carmen Casco's face. They show in the deep, thin lines that run across her caramel-colored forehead and in the prominent half-star patterns that surround her small brown eyes. Casco wears a turquoise cotton shirt with matching earrings. Her silver hair is pulled into a tight bun. In the green hills above El Salvador's Lake Suchitlán, she sits in front of her simple home next to a table with a basket full of warm tortillas as her teenage grandson lounges in a nearby hammock. And she begins to remember.
"The people were hidden near the lakeshore," she says. "The soldiers found them there. They started to shoot, and the poor people weren't able to cross the lake..."
In 1979, at the onset of El Salvador's brutal civil war, Casco and her husband, Tránsito, farmed cocoa beans and roses in the tiny village of Copapayo, 45 miles north of the capital. The family survived by frequently fleeing into the neighboring mountains. They lived for months at a time in the forest, emerging only at night and hiding among the rocks when they heard commotion. Sometimes they didn't eat for two weeks.
Casco's son Ramón was a radio operator for a guerrilla group fighting the right-wing military, and on November 3, 1983, he intercepted a transmission: The military was coming. That night Casco and five of her children loaded into a cayuco — a large canoe — and set off for Guazapa, a half-hour away across Lake Suchitlán. Another cayuco joined, but the lake was full of weeds, making it difficult to cross. Several families that had come to the shore decided not to go.
Casco's 15-year-old daughter, Gladys, also wanted to stay. She was skilled at first aid — her mother remembers how she once used her fingers to pull a fish bone from her sister's infected hand — and she wanted to help the villagers. Gladys was a kind girl, her mother says, tall and thin with short blond hair that frequently attracted attention. She always carried a little bottle of perfume and wore colorful skirts and blouses.
Gladys told her mother she would follow soon and asked for some cornflour. "Pero, hija," Casco recalls saying, "in what can I leave it?"
"That's OK," her daughter told her. "When I arrive, you'll give it to me then."
At this point in the story Casco pauses. After several seconds, when she starts again, her voice cracks, and the words barely come. "Y no me olvido..." — "And I don't forget..." — she manages. Then the 68-year-old begins to cry.
Casco has pieced together what happened next like a jagged jigsaw puzzle. The morning after she fled with her family, the Altacatl military battalion — named for a 16th-century native leader and under the command of the much-feared Maj. Domingo Monterrosa — surged into the hills around Copapayo. The American-trained soldiers wore heavy green-brown uniforms and high black boots, with automatic rifles strapped on their backs and machetes hanging at their hips. Looking to kill, they marched through the forest and tracked the villagers like animals. When they caught up with a group of dozens of women and children by the lake, the soldiers murdered several on the spot, leaving the corpses scattered amid the foliage. They rounded up the rest and marched four miles to San Nicolás, another tiny village, where they herded the villagers into a single dwelling and executed them.
Casco's sister Dolores and her ten children were killed in the house in San Nicolás; one nephew survived by playing dead. Between the killing by the lake and the massacre in the house more than 150 villagers were murdered — among them nearly the entire population of Copapayo.
The day after the offensive, another of Casco's sons found Gladys' thin cloth backpack on the lakeshore. Inside were a change of clothes — a skirt and blouse — and a tiny bottle of perfume. It's the last Casco knows of her daughter. "The sun rises one day, then another day," she says. "And I'm thinking of her."
After the massacre, the soldiers set the bodies on fire. The military high command, in response to journalists' reports on the bodies, issued a statement boasting of the massacre: "[We] confirm that the army caused about 100 casualties to the subversives during a military operation in early November."
Three decades later, the families of the victims of Copapayo — and the families of tens of thousands of others killed — have never seen any real investigations into the murders. They have never seen any trials for the commanders or compensation for their pain. They have never seen justice.
José García, who was minister of defense, and Carlos Vides, who was director of the national guard, were the two most powerful commanders of the Salvadoran military from 1979 to 1983, when troops killed an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 civilians as part of a 12-year war with leftist guerrillas. Both men settled in Florida in 1989. The next year, the U.S. government granted them political asylum. Now, more than ten years after the men were found liable for torture in a West Palm Beach civil suit, the U.S. government might finally reverse its support and force them to leave: In 2012, a federal judge ordered Vides deported, and in late February, García was also ordered out.
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.
"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.
"Sí," 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.
Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador in 1980, frequently met with the military's top commander, pressing him to stop the civilian killings. "García would mutter something about the 'idiosincracías' of the Salvadoran military," said White, now 87 and retired outside Washington, D.C. "He meant that they'd always solved their problems by killing people."
In April 1983 García resigned as minister of defense, and Vides was appointed in his place, serving until 1989. That year, both men fled to Florida, where most of their children had been sent years earlier. Two of García's daughters, María and Martha, had already bought a house in Plantation for $124,000 in 1983; one of Vides' daughters, Marta, was enrolled at Florida International University.
García and his wife of 30 years, Marta, settled into the Plantation home. Vides and his wife, Lourdes, the daughter of a prominent coffee baron, settled in Palm Coast and built a 2,600-square-foot, three-bedroom stucco home. The U.S. government continued its unabashed support: After receiving political asylum, in 1993 both were awarded the Legion of Merit, for outstanding service to the U.S. military.
December 12, 1980, was the Day of the Virgin Guadalupe in the tiny village of Santa Anita, three hours by dusty, potholed roads from the capital. Dressed in white suits and flowing pastel dresses for the holiday, dozens of campesinos from the surrounding villages descended on the town's plaza. After a mass at the small church, all the children received the traditional blessing, and the villagers began a processional around the square.
A few minutes later, a small medical team visiting from San Salvador, led by a slight man with dark hair and eyes and a compact face, began setting up a volunteer clinic at a house next to the church. A crowd quickly gathered.
Two green army trucks pulled up with a half-dozen or so men on top. Some wore civilian clothes and others the dark-green uniforms of the military; all clutched black, American-made M60 machine guns. A commotion erupted, but the medical team and its young surgeon, Juan Romagoza, urged calm: It was a holiday. They thought the soldiers would leave them alone.
The trucks came to a stop near a huge tree that grew in the middle of the plaza. The soldiers stepped down. Then they opened fire.
Romagoza felt a flash of heat on his right ankle, then the warm sensation of blood soaking his sock. He looked down and saw the bullet had knocked off his boot, but the pain hadn't yet come. The doctor tried to run, only to realize he couldn't move his foot. Then he felt another flash, this time on his head — a bullet had just grazed his temple. More shots were fired; corpses lay scattered on the ground. After several minutes of silence, the doctor heard a commander give the order to leave no one alive.
A soldier walked up to him, positioned the barrel of his machine gun against the doctor's head, and pulled the trigger. But he had accidentally left the safety on. Before he could shoot again, he noticed Romagoza's backpack. The surgical tools inside, the soldier declared, were the unassembled parts of a special weapon.
The doctor showed his medical credentials, but the soldier ignored them: Romagoza, he barked, was a guerrilla commander. A group of soldiers dragged the bleeding doctor onto the back of one of the trucks, covered him with a tarp, and drove a few minutes to a waiting helicopter. When it took off, the soldiers tied Romagoza next to the door, opened it, and threatened to throw him out. Several minutes later the chopper landed at a garrison called "El Paraíso." Romagoza was laid on a cement table, stripped to his underwear, and blindfolded, the blood from his face quickly staining the cloth red. Then the questions began:
"What were you doing with these people?"
"Who were the other guerrilla commanders?"
Each time Romagoza answered, the soldiers punched him. With an iron rod, they delivered electrical shocks to his chest, hands, and legs.
The following day, Romagoza was taken to the national guard headquarters in San Salvador. There the shocks were delivered through alligator clips clamped to his ear, tongue, and the wound on his ankle. He was often left suspended by ropes for hours — once, while he was hanging and defenseless, guardsmen walked in and told him they would make sure he never performed surgery again. Then a soldier shot him through the left forearm.
After more than two weeks, the tormenters said their colonel, "El Mazizo" — "Burly One" — would visit. It was Vides. When the director of the national guard walked into Romagoza's cell, a few guardsmen joked that the doctor should be in the cemetery — he already smelled like death. Vides laughed.
Several days later, Romagoza, barely clinging to life, was taken to a new room full of wooden coffins. He was placed inside one and left for three days, until finally, on January 5, 1981 — 24 days after he was first detained — an uncle, who was a military lieutenant, walked into the room and took Romagoza into his arms. By then the doctor weighed less than 80 pounds. He couldn't walk on his own.
Still, in that moment, he found new life. "I had been born again," he would say years later.
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.
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."
That weekend, Klaus met with García, Vides, and Marta in the living room of his home in the posh Bay Point neighborhood of Miami and Klaus explained the basis of the case. He's still not sure if the generals ever really understood. "They seemed dismayed the whole time," he said. Klaus told the men he would bill at his regular rate, $250 an hour. "I figured it's really just a tort case. It's not that complicated."
On June 24, 2002, one day before García's 79th birthday, the torture suit began in West Palm Beach. Over the next four weeks a team of witnesses and experts, including Ambassador White, testified about the strict command structure of the Salvadoran armed forces and the civilian massacres overseen by García and Vides. The three plaintiffs spent hours describing the gruesome torture they experienced, often bringing the courtroom to tears.
During their testimonies, García, rarely lifting his head, wrote constantly in a small notebook. Vides sat silent and stonefaced. Klaus argued the generals were defending democracy and simply lacked control over rogue murderers — the same strategy he had used successfully in the churchwomen's suit two years earlier.
Klaus maintains the plaintiffs "dramatized" and "embellished" their testimonies. "'I'm a victim. I'm a victim,'" he said mockingly. "The case was about one thing: money."
On July 23, Judge Daniel Hurley read the jury's decision: García and Vides, as commanders, were indeed liable for the tortures and for the murder of González's baby. The damages: $54.6 million.
"I felt as if the tombs of all the dead were opening up and the victims were shouting, 'Justice!'" says González, now working with women's rights groups in El Salvador.
After the verdict, García approached the plaintiffs to offer his hand. "This hand you have to offer to the people of El Salvador," González told him. "You have to tell the people you were the one responsible for the massacres, for the tortures, for the disappearances."
In 2004, after reports that as many as 1,000 foreign human rights violators were living in the United States, Congress passed an immigration reform measure known as "No Safe Haven." The aim was twofold: to identify human rights abusers — the perpetrators of genocide, extrajudicial killings, torture — before they entered national borders, and also to identify and expel the foreign violators already here. By 2007, the initiative had led to the deportation orders of dozens of human rights criminals, many former Nazis, like Osyp Firischak, a Chicago resident whose Ukrainian police unit had exterminated thousands of Jews in Poland. But the U.S. government had never used the law to go after top foreign commanders, such as García and Vides, who had presided over abuses but weren't accused of actually spilling blood.
At the 2007 hearing, Marcy Forman, a seemingly nervous Homeland Security representative, was on the stand when Senator Durbin, his previously friendly tone now tough, noted that García and Vides had already been found liable for Romagoza's torture.
"Why has the department... not sought to remove these human rights abusers from our country?" he pressed.
Forman stumbled. "I would have to get back to you and get you an answer on that question," she replied.
"I hope you will."
Six years later, in February 2013, García had an appointment at a Miami immigration court. A year earlier, Vides had been ordered deported, and García's trial wasn't going well either. Prosecution experts had rattled off a litany of human rights abuses that had occurred under García's watch, and when he took the stand, he finally admitted the obvious: Yes, as minister of defense, he had in fact known about the abuses. "When I say I knew it," García said, "it was public knowledge that cannot be denied."
But the next day, García resolutely maintained he'd had no power to stop the abuse. Michael Horn, a judge with 30 years of experience, pressed him: "You were the minister of defense," he said, his voice loud and firm. "Why didn't you resign? Why did you let it go on, knowing of the atrocities against the civilian population by the military?"
"I cannot evade responsibility," García finally responded. "But I consider that different from culpability."
"This court will make that decision," Horn said.
One year later, on February 26, 2014, the court did: García was "subject to removal from the United States." In a scathing 62-page decision, Horn cited 11 human rights atrocities that took place under García's watch. "The magnitude of the killings and torture by the Salvadoran armed forces, coupled with evidence that [García] did not make any genuine effort to end these practices," Horn wrote, led "this court to conclude that these atrocities formed part of [García's] deliberate military policy as minister of defense."
The wall in the northwest corner of San Salvador's sprawling green Parque Cuzcatlán is roughly nine feet tall and nearly 300 feet long. It's made of polished black granite, and etched in its surface, in neat white letters, are more than 30,000 names. On a hot Saturday afternoon in May, 74-year-old Dolores Hernández, her mane of curly silver hair glinting in the sunlight, strode to the wall's eastern edge. She raised her right arm and extended her index finger until it touched a name: Andrés Mira Hernández.
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.
"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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