As a top commander in El Salvador during that country's brutal civil war, Carlos Vides presided over tens of thousands of civilian murders and systematic torturing. For decades Vides has lived with his wife in a comfortable home in Palm Coast, Florida, but now the former strongman is on the brink of being forced to finally face his victims at home: In a landmark decision, a U.S. Department of Justice immigration appeals board last week upheld an earlier decision that ruled Vides should be deported.
"He's got a little bit more time, but the clock is ticking," said Patty Blum, a lawyer with the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). "And then he's going to be on a plane out of this country."
From 1979 to 1983, Vides, as director of El Salvador's national guard, was a top commander in a Salvadoran military that killed and tortured tens of thousands of civilians during the bloodiest years of that country's civil war. For the next six years, while atrocities continued, he served as the country's minister of defense — effectively the nation's most powerful position — and then in 1989 fled to Florida, where a sympathetic American government allowed him to stay.
In 2002 Vides and Jose Garcia, his predecessor as minister of defense, were found liable for torture in a landmark civil suit, brought by CJA, in West Palm Beach. The decision opened the door for deportation proceedings, and in 2012 Vides was ordered out. (The cases were chronicled in a New Times cover story last year.)
The immigration court's ruling to uphold that decision was based on testimony from two surviving torture victims and focused on Vides' role in the 1980 rape and murder of four American churchwomen. Vides knew about those murders and actively participated in a coverup, the court ruled.
The decision was meant to set a precedent for American deportations of foreign commanders who committed atrocities at home. "You've got a guy who is at the absolute pinnace of command," she said. "The Vides decision was a roadmap on this kind of case."
Garcia's immigration appeal was several months behind Vides' case; last week's decision, Blum said, meant it's likely Garcia will also lose his case soon. Vides can still appeal again, to a federal appeals court, although his chances are slim to none. The new decision is also monumental, Blum added, because of its reverberations in El Salvador and throughout the Americas, where decades-old amnesty laws for former human rights abusers are gradually being overturned.
El Salvador "is a country that's been under... a blanket of silence." But now the surface of immunity, Blum said, is beginning to crack.