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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
El Salvador verdicts 'could open floodgates'
Plaintiffs Neris Gonzalez (left) and Carlos Mauricio outside Florida court house
There is evidence the US knew about the torture

The conviction of two Salvadorian generals by a Florida jury as liable for the torture of three civilians during the country's civil war could open the floodgates for further such cases.

Conservative estimates suggest that at least 40,000 civilians were murdered by the US-backed Salvadorian military during the civil war in the 1980s, and many more were tortured.

There is strong evidence that this was a systematic policy in which US intelligence agencies were also closely involved.

During the civil war, the United States used the same defence for its support of El Salvador's military as that used by the two retired Salvadorian generals during their trial in Florida.

The massive human rights abuses committed by the army, it was argued by US officials, were the work of rogue, out-of-control soldiers.

The infamous Salvadorian death squads were shadowy, uncontrollable paramilitaries.

Systematic murder

But testimonies from all sides at the end of the war, along with declassified US documents, show a very different picture.

In the countryside in El Salvador, there was, for several years, a systematic policy of murdering everyone caught inside guerrilla-controlled territory, including old people, women and children.

In the cities, the infamous death squads were nothing more than fronts for military intelligence units which tortured and murdered tens of thousands of left-wing sympathisers.

It was a well-planned, if extremely brutal, dirty war.

US role

The court in Florida concluded that the two former Salvadorian generals must have known about the torture carried by those under their command.

But this argument could equally apply to the US officials running much of the war effort.

The CIA had advisors attached to the intelligence units which did the torturing and killing.

Likewise, some Salvadorian army officers with the worst records later turned out to be on the CIA payroll, and have subsequently become US citizens.

The guilty verdicts in Florida raise questions which many in Washington would prefer to forget.

See also:

24 Mar 02 | Americas
25 Mar 00 | Americas
20 Jul 02 | Country profiles
18 Jul 02 | Americas
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