An appeals panel in Florida has upheld a deportation order against a former defense minister of El Salvador, who is alleged to have presided over human rights violations in that country, including the murders of four American churchwomen in 1980. Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova was allowed to retire in the U.S. in 1989. Now, a little known unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is trying to expel him as well as others charged with human rights abuses.
In 1980, Ann Schneider was a young schoolgirl in Nebraska; she remembers learning about the killings of three nuns and a missionary worker during El Salvador’s civil war. At the time, she says, she was in fourth grade at a Catholic school run by nuns. Schneider says the class talked about the case and the women — Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, who were nuns; and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary.
Schneider is now a historian with the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes unit of ICE. She is one of about 30 investigators, lawyers and researchers, who, along with a handful of FBI agents, track down suspected human rights abusers, such as Vides Casanova.
Schneider says “to contribute in some capacity to justice in these cases was very humbling, and to do so as part of the work of the U.S. government … there was a weight and an importance to that that just sort of sits with us all the time.”
The unit has arrested or deported human rights violators from the Balkans, Guatemala, Rwanda and elsewhere. Last year it won a case against an Ethiopian man living in Denver, who was accused of torture during what’s known in Ethiopia as the Red Terror of the 1970s.
Mark Shaffer, chief of the unit, says in the Denver case, it was a member of the city’s Ethiopian community who tipped them off. “This guy was identified by a woman who recognized him as the person who had tortured her and he had no idea but she absolutely recognized him.”
“That’s exactly why we do this work,” says Lisa Koven, chief of the human rights law section. “That’s our worst-case scenario. Because we take the sanctity of this immigration system very seriously, that’s why we’re all here.”
In recent years, Congress has passed legislation making it illegal for human rights violators to enter or live in the country. But Koven says it’s necessary to go after some violators on more tangential reasons, such as with the Ethiopian man, Kefelegn Alemu Worku, who was convicted of lying about his real identity.
“A lot of these atrocities and conflicts occurred well before these laws were on the books so sometimes what we end up doing here is going for an immigration route. Inside the building we like to call it the Al Capone theory,” Koven says. “If you have committed these crimes we will find a way to hold you accountable.”
Capone was a notorious gangster who was convicted and imprisoned on tax evasion charges.
One tool increasingly being used by the human rights unit to track violators is social media. ICE National Program Manager Frank Hunter says more and more, evidence of human rights abuses can be found posted on the Internet. Hunter says the explosion of social media over the years “went even into the remote parts of Africa, where it seems like everybody had a cellphone, everybody was out there taking photographs of these incidents that were occurring.”
Hunter and his team are building a database of videos and photographs as a way to identify violators and prevent them from entering the country, part of their work to ensure the U.S. is not a safe haven for human rights abusers.