THE ISSUE: An El Salvadorian man who lived as a legal resident of Apalachicola for more than 20 years, raising a family, working as a grocer, was deported last week on the grounds he committed human rights violations during a civil war there 30 years ago.
THE IMPACT: A community tries to make sense of how and why an upstanding citizen who sought a clean break from his past is answering for it now.
The blood of a brutal civil war in Latin America more than three decades ago spilled into the heart of Apalachicola last week, with the deportation of a well-respected local grocer on the grounds he committed war crimes while a young soldier in his native El Salvador.
Four months to the day he was apprehended by immigration officials as he drove to his job as a manager of the Piggly-Wiggly, Apalachicola resident Jose Francisco “Pancho” Grijalva Monroy, 49, was flown back to his home country of El Salvador Friday.
According to friends, he arrived safely, and was released by U.S. authorities into the arms of his family in San Salvador. Immigration officials there detained him briefly, and both his lawyer and others active in the field of human rights said he is unlikely to face prosecution in El Salvador.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which shared virtually no information on the case during Grijalva’s four-month incarceration in a Wakulla County detention facility, issued a news release last week providing scant details on what he is alleged to have done in the mid 1980s, while a teenaged conscript into the Salvadorian Army.
The release said that according to court documents, Grijalva testified that as a Salvadorian soldier, he tortured leftist guerrillas by hanging them by their hands from trees and slapping their chests with his bare hands. The release said he also admitted that he tied suspected guerrillas to the back of an army Jeep and dragged them on the road until their skin came off.
The news of Grijalva’s alleged acts stunned the community, especially those who have come to love and respect him, his wife and their two school-aged sons. The congregation at First United Methodist Church, where the older son is active in the youth group, prayed for Grijalva as part of the service Sunday morning, no doubt echoing the tangle of emotions shared by those at the Catholic Church and other places of worship.
“I have known Pancho for the last seven years and see nothing but a good man, with a great heart to help others, especially the children, teaching soccer and coaching them,” said Luis Ramon Valenzuela, a Mexican immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, who has experience with outreach to bridge understanding between both sides of the border.
“There are many folks making conclusions of a man that has given his life, more than 20 years, doing the right thing in this country and county,” he said.
Those of his co-workers, including his former boss Lee McLemore, attest to Grijalva’s dedication and compassion for others. One fellow worker said he lent her money in a pinch, as he did others, and that she now better understands what he meant by a comment he made to her at the time.
“You’re a good man, Pancho,” she told him.
“I haven’t always been a good man,” he replied.
A common story, a complicated issue
Tallahassee attorney Gisela Rodriguez, who entered the proceedings in the days leading up to Grijalva’s relocation to Miami and subsequent flight out, said his situation in the mid-1980s as a young army recruit was typical.
“This is a very common story for many in El Salvador, who were forced to go into this conflict,” she said. “This is not a simple issue. It’s very profound and the roots are very, very deep. It all starts with understanding the story behind this conflict.”
The civil war El Salvador began in 1980 when the military dictatorship, backed by the Reagan administration, targeted those they suspected of supporting social and economic reform, often including trade unionists, clergy, independent farmers and university officials. During the junta, and on through the emergence of an elected right-wing government, thousands were killed over 12 years, the most prominent of whom were Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot to death in 1980; four US church workers, raped and murdered that same year; and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, shot to death at home in 1989.
Historians say, without exaggeration, that military death squads wiped-out entire villages believed to be assisting guerrillas, the most famous of which was El Mozote, where 1,000 villagers were killed in 1981.
“There is no question they were doing the U.S. bidding,” said Raymond Bonner, who broke the story of the infamous massacre for the New York Times. “I’m not getting into moral equivalencies, but the government was far more vicious than the guerrillas.”
Bonner, author of "Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War" said he recently returned from a trip to El Salvador and was startled to see the interest in that war, where as many as 75,000 people died at the hands of death squads that terrorized the population.
“I was stunned that the questions I got about El Mozote. Thirty-five years later, the country still seems obsessed,” he said.
Rodriguez said Grijalva’s family told her he deserted the Salvadorian Army in 1986 at age 19, and that as a result of that decision, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, of which he served 11 months. She said that in 1995, fearing for his life, he fled the country at age 28, and made a new start in Apalachicola.
Other than an assault charge, dropped by local prosecutors, Grijalva led an exemplary life, and was backed by his employer as he sought permanent residency, with full U.S. citizenship the eventual goal.
But the temporary protective status under which he was admitted involved an ongoing bureaucratic challenge, and as the political winds shifted, so too did the urgency in which the case was handled.
Are there limits to accountability?
According to Terry Karl, a Stanford University political science professor whose scholarship and legal work has shaped U.S. policy regarding human rights in Latin America, said America’s approach to torture and other crimes against humanity began picking up more than a decade ago.
“What happened was a lot of people, both low-level and high-level people who committed war crimes, used those mechanisms that were supposed to protect victims of war and they came to the United States,” she said.
A 2002 report by Amnesty International, “United States of America--a safe haven for torturers” called attention to the problem of shielding people who had committed war crimes in their native countries, and by 2007 a bipartisan consensus emerged in Congress that steps needed to be taken to deport those perpetrators.
“There was growing pressure to say the U.S. shouldn’t be a safe haven for people who commit torture, that people should be deported no matter how high or low they are,” Karl said. “There wasn’t any real policy about removing people from the US who were engaged in human rights abuses.”
After Congressional hearings in 2007 led to a strengthening of anti-torture statutes, ICE established in 2009 the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center to draw on the expertise of agents, lawyers, intelligence and research specialists, historians and analysts to conduct a broader enforcement effort.
Since 2003, ICE has obtained deportation orders against and physically removed 785 known or suspected human rights violators, and facilitated the departure of an additional 108 such individuals, according to the news release.
Among the most high-profile El Salvadorians deported, from South Florida, were Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who served as the nation's minister of defense during the stretch Grijalva was a foot soldier, and Gen. José Guillermo García, who also directed the nation’s military.
“People were pretty shocked these guys were living in Florida,” said Karl. “The much lower level guys never had access to money that ministers of defense had.”
Six years ago, in Feb. 2011, an immigration judge ordered Grijalva removed from the country. His appeal was dismissed in Aug. 2012, right before the end of President Obama’s first term.
““They might not have cared about him,” said Carolyn Patty Blum, senior legal advisor for the Center for Justice and Accountability. "They (the Trump administration) are going back to thousands of cases that had outstanding deportation orders because they weren’t a priority for the previous administration."
Blum noted that the issue of child soldiers, widespread in Africa, bears on the story 30 years ago in El Salvador.
“Forcible recruitment was true during the entire conflict and it really wasn’t framed as a child soldier paradigm. People have looked back and said ‘This is a child. Both sides were using underage men and forcibly recruiting,’” said Blum.
“You just don’t want to be 18 years old in El Salvador at that time. That’s who all the victims were,” said Karl. “And the army sent people in as fodder; they weren’t too much better.”
Karl, who has prepared political asylum testimonies for the U.S. Supreme Court on down, said she understood well the reaction of many Apalachicolans to Grijalva’s case.
“I could see why it would tear this community apart,” she said. “It’s extremely shocking to find out that his past may not be what you thought it was.”
Karl did not flinch from defending the laws enforced on Grijalva, underscoring the mandate, that she helped bring about, that such abusers be denied U.S. entry and then be removed back to their own country whenever possible.
“This is a measure of accountability, that the US should not be safe haven for human rights abusers,” she said. “it’s very important to know that torture is a crime against humanity and dragging people alive behind a truck is a crime against humanity; it’s not just torture or murder in the context of what was happening in El Salvador. In that sense there’s no statute of limitations.”
Karl described a wartime context full of widespread, ruthless acts of intimidation of the enemy, terrors that generally, and in some cases thankfully, ended in the victim’s death.
“As someone who has done a lot of work on torture and interviewed torture victims, I can tell you that it’s like child abuse,” she said. “It stays in your spirit. I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed who saw this happening to family members..
“All you have to do is to have seen one of those and you never forget it. Your people in their communities have not seen the families of whomever they injured. If it was their sons or daughter who was driven behind a truck, if it were their child, they would feel differently,” said Karl.
Apalachicola resident Beth Wright, who continues to maintain a GoFundMe site on behalf of Grijalva’s family she started several months ago, said she considers it the “ultimate in hypocrisy for our government to deport someone who was forced to do unspeakable things upon pain of death when he was still a child.
“Our hands are not at all clean. We all supported this as U.S. taxpayers, willingly or not,” said Wright. “People have been referring to him as a war criminal, but I don't see how you can be a criminal if you haven't been charged with any crimes.”
Karl said these factors mitigate in the punishment, but not the culpability, aspect of such cases. “You can’t just say somebody made me do this, that does not free you from crimes against humanity and criminal guilt,” she said. “While I think this doesn’t make him less responsible for his acts, it does raise the question of when is there going to be accountability for our acts?
“In these cases, what is unjust is not that Salvadorans are being held accountable for criminal acts that they may or may not have committed, but there has been no accountability about the way the US fostered, armed, paid for, encouraged them. There’s been absolutely no accountability.
“Anyone who thinks that the U.S. could direct the Salvadorian Army and tell them what to do does not know the Salvadorian Army at that time. They’re nationalistic people, they have their own way of doing things, and the US absolutely cooperated in that.
“The US knew people were being tortured and never stopped aid. We knew it from very early on,” she said. “Had we done something differently there’s a good chance your community would not be facing what it’s facing now.”