Worldview Commentary No. 287 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

Author: Susan Good

“Bill Ford and the Struggle for Justice in El Salvador”

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Individuals can make a difference – especially talented and determined individuals. That is the lesson taught by the lives of Bill and Ita Ford.

William P. Ford, a New York lawyer who once worked at the Wall Street firm of Mudge Rose and later founded his own firm, died last week at the age of 72. But not before waging, and largely winning, a nearly three-decades-long campaign for justice.

His quest began on December 2, 1980. On that day his sister, Ita Ford, a Maryknoll nun, together with two other nuns and a lay missionary, was raped and murdered by national guardsmen in El Salvador.

At the time the staunchly anti-communist Salvadoran military denied any knowledge of the crimes. One month before, Ronald Reagan had been elected President of the United States, replacing Jimmy Carter. In the US dependency of El Salvador, the message was that human rights would now be subordinated to anti-communism.

Ita Ford and her sisters knowingly risked their lives to work with the poor of El Salvador. In the eyes of the Salvadoran military, however, they were guerrilla sympathizers. If a few nuns had to be sacrificed to save the patria from communism, so be it.

But not in Bill Ford’s book. Over the next three decades he relentlessly pursued justice, not only for his sister and the American nuns, but for the 75,000 Salvadorans killed during the civil war that lasted until 1992.

No lone wolf, Bill worked with the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First), the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco, and the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Individuals such as Robert White, US Ambassador to El Salvador under President Carter, played key roles as well.

Even in that good company, Bill’s role was singular. Through repeated visits to El Salvador and legal brainstorming sessions, this savvy Wall Street litigator was instrumental in securing the prosecutions and convictions of five Salvadoran national guardsmen for the murders, declassification of US government documents on the case, and broad congressional investigations and sanctions for human rights violations in El Salvador.

In 1993 the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador, for which I was a legal advisor, found that El Salvador’s Defense Minister in 1980, General José Guillermo García, made no serious effort to investigate the killing of the nuns, and that Colonel Carlos Vides Casanova, head of the national guard at the time (and later promoted to General), knew that the guardsmen who murdered the women had acted under orders.

Still, no justice was possible in El Salvador. However, Generals García and Casanova were rewarded with US visas to retire in Miami. Evidently their anti-communist services were deemed by some in Washington to outweigh their human rights crimes.

But their visas brought them within the reach of US courts. In 1999 Bill Ford became lead plaintiff in a suit brought under the Torture Victims Protection Act, suing the Generals for the torture and murder of the nuns. Bill also urged that a parallel suit be filed on behalf of three Salvadoran victims of torture. The suits accused the Generals of command responsibility for failing to punish the crimes and, in the case of the Salvadorans, to prevent them.

Bill’s own suit failed: the Generals flim-flammed a Florida jury into believing that they lacked “effective control” over their troops in 1980.

When the case of the Salvadorans came to trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were ready for this defense, which was ludicrous to anyone familiar with the rigidly hierarchical Salvadoran military.
This time the jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages of $54 million. The verdict was upheld on appeal and has been partially executed.

Nothing can bring back an Ita Ford, or her sisters. Nor give life to the countless Salvadorans who suffered similar fates. But our common humanity can find voice – and a champion – in a man who never gave up in the struggle for justice. As much as we are all shamed by the evil of men like García and Casanova, and their enablers in Washington, our faith in humanity’s potential for good is renewed by the examples of men and women like Bill and Ita Ford.

Thank you, Bill and Ita. You chose never to rest in peace, for as long as you graced this earth.

Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.