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El Salvador: the road ahead

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Last month five national guardsmen were convicted in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, of the murders of four American missionaries whose names are ingrained in our public conscience: Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke. For the families and people involved in the case, the verdict represents the resolution of a long struggle.

Two of the victims, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel, were members of the Cleveland Missionary Team and were from my home city. Because of the lack of response from appropriate United States government agencies and the El Salvador government, their families asked me to serve as their liaison with the governments. Since their deaths in December 1980, not one week has gone by in which my office has not been engaged in some effort related to the case.

Justice was not easy to achieve. The families of the slain women had to overcome attempts by the El Salvador government and certain US government agencies to delay and, at times, obstruct the process of justice.

The verdict is a testament to the persistence of the families, the dedication of a few US and Salvadorean public servants, and the courage of a Salvadorean judge and jury. Above all, the verdict sets an important precedent: It represents the first conviction within memory of the Salvadorean military for a civilian murder.

But if the conviction of the guardsmen solved the question of actual guilt for the crime, it did nothing to resolve the question of responsibility - responsibility that reaches to the highest level of the El Salvadorean government. It was Colonel Garcia, the minister of defense, who, a few weeks before the murders of the women, told a Cabinet meeting that ''something must be done about the missionaries in Chalatenango.'' It was this same minister of defense who accused the church of Chalatenango of being ''subversive'' when Archbishop Romero complained to him of military harassment in 1979. It was Col. Eugenio Vides Casanova, the current defense minister and then National Guard chief, who was alleged in a recent report prepared by former federal Judge Harold Tyler to have condoned and orchestrated the coverup of the investigation.

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