By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Today is the day when we acknowledge the sacrifices made by those who have died serving our country and protecting our liberty.
An honorable goal, certainly. But in a country of immigrants and a world of complex relationships, where the Cold War past has given way to the War on Terror present, the enemies of freedom and defenders of liberty are not always as obvious as we might think.
Today I’ll be thinking of Carlos Mauricio, a 59-year-old teacher who fought for freedom in a secret Salvadoran jail and finally earned it in a West Palm Beach court.
And there’s no question of his sacrifice. Mauricio gave up his life. He just didn’t die.
In June of 1983, men in civilian clothes came into Mauricio’s agricultural science class at the University of El Salvador and asked him to move his car. When he walked outside, members of the Salvadoran national police grabbed him and threw him into a car. They took him to national police headquarters.
But Mauricio was never charged. His only crime was that he had spoken out against an oppressive government. A government, facing a civil war, that the United States endorsed and supported because it was anti-communist. In 1983, we were still in the midst of the Cold War.
“They wanted to exterminate the civilian opposition,” said Mauricio of the Salvadoran authorities.
He was held for three weeks, including eight days of beatings and torture.
For Mauricio, those three weeks were a divider between two lives. His life before June 1983. And life after June 1983.
When he was released, he realized he couldn’t stay in the country and made his way to the United States, where he eventually became a high school substitute teacher in Washington, D.C.
The fight between tortured and torturers is a war that has been going on as long as there have been the powerless and the powerful. It’s just that we don’t acknowledge it, much less put up monuments to its heroes.
According to the Harvard Human Rights Journal, “Statistics on torture show that during 1998, no less than 125 countries reportedly tortured people. Furthermore, torture or ill-treatment, lack of medical care, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading prison conditions resulted in deaths in fifty-one countries.”
There are an estimated half a million torture victims now living in the United States, and that figure may be dramatically underreported. Florida, a state with long-held ties to Central and South America and the Caribbean, is believed to be home to a significant number.
And not just torture’s victims — but its perpetrators.
Six years after Mauricio fled his country, Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, a former Salvadoran Defense Minister and the man responsible for the national police, also made his way to the United States. Granted admission by a grateful government, he settled in South Florida.
The tortured and the man responsible for that torture were now both simply immigrants.
”We were part of the same community,” Mauricio said. “And in that community, you come across each other. Victims find perpetrators.”
In 1999, with the help of a group called the Center for Justice and Accountability, Mauricio and two other Salvadoran victims of torture filed suit against Vides Casanova and another former defense minister, Gen. José Guillermo García.
In 2002, in a West Palm Beach Court, Mauricio was finally able to face the man responsible for his torment.
“I wanted him to explain to me why, having the power to stop my torture, he didn’t,” Mauricio said.
In that courtroom, Mauricio finally regained his life.
He wept as the two generals were found guilty and hit with a $54 million judgment (although they’ve paid just a fraction of it).
And he turned into an advocate for human rights, spending part of the year teaching human rights at the University of El Salvador. He continues to teach high school science here in the United States, as well as to speak out against figures such as former Bush Administration lawyer John Yoo. Yoo was instrumental in developing “extraordinary rendition,” the practice of transferring terror suspects to other countries, where torture allegedly took place. The practice was explained in this 2005 article in The New Yorker.
And he has certainly not forgotten Vides Casanova.
“After I was thrown on the floor in that jail — bound, beaten, tortured – like so many others, I had no power,” Mauricio remembered. “Now, we’re the ones who hold the power.”
Mauricio was in Orlando last week as Vides Casanova faced deportation by the Department of Homeland Security.
“What struck me was how old he looks now,” Mauricio said. “He had painted his hair. And looked more scared. But we can’t forget that he consciously gave the orders to kill tens of thousands of civilians.”
The Orlando hearings are the second this year, and a judgment may not be given until perhaps as late as January. But Mauricio can wait.
“It’s part of the process that we started back in 2002 in West Palm Beach,” Mauricio said.
Mauricio’s hope is that Vides Casanova will be deported and then face justice in El Salvador. When the civil war in El Salvador ended, a general amnesty was part of the peace accord. But Mauricio hopes that, with the leftists who were once persecuted now holding power in El Salvador, the amnesty will be overturned.
“His case needs to be heard in El Salvador,” Mauricio said.