CARLOS MAURICIO and Martin Almada can only marvel at the self-righteousness with which the United States has insisted on punishment for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The two former political prisoners--both survivors of brutal torture at the hands of U.S.-backed thugs--know all too well of the United States' duplicity when it comes to bringing monsters like Milosevic to justice.
While the United States has put on a good show in the Milosevic affair, it has helped stall the efforts of Mauricio and Almada to hold accountable the people they believe bear ultimate responsibility for human-rights crimes committed not only against them, but against hundreds of thousands of other Latin Americans.
Mauricio and Almada sat on a bench in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House recently and recounted their stories of cruelty, terror--and U.S. complicity.
In 1983, at the height of the civil war in El Salvador--as U.S. military aid and advisers were flowing into the tiny Central American country in proportion with the innocent blood being shed by government forces and their death squads--Mauricio, then a biochemistry teacher at the El Salvador University, was yanked out of his classroom by men in civilian clothes.
The goons handcuffed, blindfolded, and beat him in front of his students, then took him to a clandestine torture center at the National Police Headquarters, where he was interrogated and tortured for a week and a half. The security forces overseeing his interrogation accused him of being a guerrilla commander--a charge Mauricio steadfastly denied.
Mauricio says he was one of the lucky ones: He lived to tell about his ordeal. Many of his colleagues and co-workers were killed by security forces or death squads.
Now, Mauricio and two other survivors of torture and rape at the hands of Salvadoran security forces have filed a civil suit in a U.S. district court against two Salvadoran generals who now reside in Florida. The complaint against the generals claims that the former defense ministers, as overseers of El Salvador's reign of terror, "bear personal responsibility" for the crimes perpetrated against the plaintiffs, as well as the "pattern and practice of systematic human-rights violations committed in El Salvador from 1979 to 1983."
The "crimes against humanity" charges against the generals are not unlike the ones that have been brought against Milosevic, yet the United States has not been quite as gung-ho in assisting with the case against the Salvadorans.
That's to be expected: After all, the terror apparatus that these men controlled would not have been possible without the help of the United States, and this inconvenient fact no doubt has dampened the will of U.S. officials to see justice served in Mauricio's case or any other that might involve its former clients in El Salvador.
Or those in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay. When the military leaders of these countries decided to team up in the 1970s to wipe out leftist elements throughout South America, they also were assisted by the United States in the form of training, intelligence, and arms.
The brainchild of none other than former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, this international wave of state terror--dubbed Operation Condor--swept up people like Martin Almada. The Paraguayan schoolteacher was kidnapped by security forces in November 1974, after completion of his doctoral studies in Argentina. Almada was interrogated and tortured by a group of military officers that included several foreigners.
Puzzled by the multinational composition of his captors, he soon learned from other prisoners--including a Paraguayan police officer and a well-known Argentinian leftist--about Operation Condor.
After an Amnesty International campaign helped win his release, Almada moved to Paris and began research to find out the identity of his captors, as well as the cause of his wife's mysterious death. He eventually turned up documents and diaries mentioning Operation Condor, which he handed over to the Spanish judge who would later indict Pinochet on charges of genocide, torture, terrorism, and abduction.
Almada's research, as well as other recently declassified documents, suggest that high-ranking U.S. officials, including Henry Kissinger, were kept informed of Operation Condor activities. (Judges in Chile, Argentina, and France have summoned Kissinger to answer questions about his knowledge of Operation Condor.)
Almada says his goal is not to embarrass the United States, but he, like Mauricio, demands accountability. "We want to find the truth, that's all," Almada says. "Then justice will come. We are thirsting for justice--not vengeance."
But Almada's thirst might not be slaked for a while, if ever. As he and Mauricio both realize, the world's lone superpower may talk a good game of the rule of law and respect for human rights, but its need to cover up its own involvement in atrocities calls for sometimes jettisoning these principles.
RICK MERCIER is a copy editor for The Free Lance-Star.