Before a crowd of 80 or so gathered at Balboa Park's Museum of Man on Saturday, Carlos Mauricio began with a caveat: his story isn't unique, except for the fact that he's able to tell it. For 15 years he never talked about what happened to him-a short span of silence compared to some survivors of torture who are never able to translate pain into language.
On a June day in 1983, five minutes before he was scheduled to teach a class at the University of El Salvador, Mauricio was ambushed, blindfolded and dragged into a waiting car in the university parking lot. He later found out police suspected him of heading up the FMLN, a leftist guerilla organization; a number of his friends, in fact, had already turned up dead. “I realized [my kidnappers] were the special unit of the army,” he said, “the same people who had killed a lot of friends of mine and dumped the bodies of tortured people they had killed.” The best he could hope for, he said, was a quick death.
Mauricio is one of an estimated 100,000 Salvadorans kidnapped and tortured by El Salvador's national police during the country's 12-year civil war that lasted from 1980 until 1992. In the early '80s, Mauricio said, it was rare for the police to release anyone alive. In his case, however, they let him go.
His talk was part of the museum's ongoing lecture series offered in conjunction with its Inquisition: Torture and Intolerance exhibit. While the main exhibit features torture devices dating back to the 1400s, a recent addition features videotaped narratives of modern-day survivors of torture. Mauricio is one of them. The exhibit and lecture series is co-sponsored by the San Diego-based group Survivors of Torture International.
It's estimated that 1,000 perpetrators of torture seek asylum in the U.S. every year. Complicating matters is that many of their surviving victims do the same. While there has yet to be a criminal trial against torturers living in the U.S., said lawyer William Aceves on Saturday, civil trials are allowed under 1992's Torture Victim Protection Act. On July 23, Mauricio along with two other Salvadorans were awarded $54.6 million in a Florida civil court for the suffering they endured under the watch of El Salvador Minister of Defense Jose Garcia and National Guard General Carlos Eugenio Vides. The trial was possible only because Garcia and Vides had sought political asylum in the U.S. in 1989 upon their retirement from the Salvadoran military. Both opted to settle in Florida, each in possession of a sizable amount of money.
In 2000, Vides and Garcia were tried together in a Florida courtroom for the murder of four female missionaries in El Salvador in 1980. In that case, their lawyer, Kurt Klaus, effectively argued that the two commanders were not responsible for the actions of the men under their command-an argument the jury fell for. In the case of Mauricio and his co-plaintiffs, Juan Romagoza and Neriz Gonzalez, the jury didn't buy the same argument. That the three plaintiffs lived to tell about their experiences and that Mauricio had acquired documented evidence, undoubtedly worked in their favor. Romagoza, a doctor, was suspended by wires wrapped around his fingers and received electroshock to his genitals. Gonzalez, a church worker who was eight months pregnant when she was kidnapped, was raped, beaten and made to drink the blood of a fellow prisoner who had been killed in front of her. Her baby died two months after his birth. Mauricio received perhaps the lightest torture, if it could even be called that-he was beaten repeatedly during a two-week period and strung up by his wrists, which had been handcuffed behind his back. Mauricio believes he was released only because influential friends staged a media campaign in his support, running newspaper ads demanding he be freed.
Upon his release from prison, he was told by a guard to leave the country-that next time he “wouldn't be so lucky.” Urged by a Jesuit priest to go to Belgium, he stopped in San Francisco on the way and never left. He earned master's degrees in education and genetic engineering from San Francisco State and now teaches high school science.
“In the back of my mind, I always kept the idea of having my day in court,” he said. “It was clear to me that healing the trauma must [include] confronting the perpetrators. Coming to the trial and telling the general, ‘You are responsible,' gave me relief. No therapy has done the good for me as when I told Vides and Casanova, ‘You are responsible; you did nothing to stop the torture.'”
When, on the stand, attorney Klaus accused Mauricio of being motivated by the potential cash settlement, Mauricio welcomed the question.
“I am seeking justice,” Mauricio told Klaus. “Thousands were killed and none are able to come here and say what I'm going to say.” In that respect, the money was unimportant, but the large settlement certainly didn't hurt.
“The generals that didn't blink an eye when they ordered the killing now can't sleep at night,” said Mauricio of the verdict.
“I will be homeless,” Mauricio mocked Garcia's post-verdict complaint.
“Indeed you will,” Mauricio said.
“I will be in debt forever,” was what Casanova had to say.
“Yes, you will,” was Mauricio's response.
Mauricio is part of an international movement to fight impunity and recently founded the Stop Impunity Project, an organization meant to raise awareness that the U.S. is providing safe haven for known torturers, often because of our government's own political interests.
Recently, the European Union committed $25 million a year to support organizations that work to prevent torture. The U.S. has yet to make such a statement. Notably, both Vides and Garcia received military training at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, an institution that's come under scrutiny for training known foreign assassins and violators of human rights.
Kathi Anderson, executive director of Survivors of Torture International, opened Saturday's talk with a moment of silence for Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who, along with his wife, daughter and three members of his staff, died in a plane crash on Friday. Wellstone, Anderson said, co-sponsored the Torture Victims Relief Act and helped to fund several survivors' centers around the U.S. “He was our voice in the Senate,” Anderson said. “We are grieving for losing him.”