Mercy and vengeance clash 20 years after four American missionaries were raped and murdered in El Salvador.

8 1/2 Women
The paintings gaze down from the upper reaches of St. Vitus Church on Cleveland's East Side, framed by red marble pillars, gilded arches, and stained-glass windows celebrating centuries-old saints. In the portraits, Sister Dorothy Kazel smiles slightly, a nun's habit over her sandy blond hair, while Jean Donovan is dressed in black. Mother Teresa is to their right. Four honored Slovenian Catholics face them from another wall.

Though Kazel and Donovan died less than 20 years ago, many Catholics revere them as unofficial, modern-day martyrs. In El Salvador, the faithful have dedicated a roadside church to their memory. In Los Angeles, Jesuit volunteers live in homes that bear their names. And in Weymouth, 25 miles south of Cleveland, the Holy Martyrs Church devotes much of its mission as a parish to their examples.

The two women left Cleveland in the 1970s to serve as missionaries in poverty-stricken El Salvador, rescuing refugees during that country's civil war and teaching poor churchgoers that there was hope for a better life. In 1980, as the military and wealthy fought to hold onto power, Salvadoran national guardsmen raped and executed Kazel, Donovan, and two other American missionaries.

Kazel's body was exhumed from a shallow grave in El Salvador a few days after her killing and is now buried in Chardon's All Souls Cemetery. Yet in some ways, she was never laid to rest.

The killings incited international outrage, and the four dead women became powerful symbols of the persecution the Catholic Church faced in El Salvador. They also became the faces that brought home to many the horror of that country's death squads, and their sacrifice spurred many people to oppose the U.S. government's support for the Salvadoran military.

But only now, if the missionaries' families have their way, is there a final chance for justice -- not only for the four dead women, but for the thousands of victims of the death squads that once ruled El Salvador with terror. This October, lawyers for the families will go to court, suing two former Salvadoran generals who are now retired and living in Florida. The families hope the trial will expose the truth about the greater evil behind the killings. They aim to prove that the generals were responsible for the churchwomen's deaths because they commanded a "murder machine" that liquidated all opposition, peaceful as well as violent.

Even as the families ask a jury and judge to reward their 20-year quest for truth, however, forces are gathering in El Salvador to bring the story to a quieter close. Only two of the five guardsmen convicted of the killings remain in a Salvadoran prison, and this spring, the archbishop of San Salvador called on the government to pardon them and set them free.

The archbishop's proposal of forgiveness is part spiritual and part sign that El Salvador is trying to move on, eight years after the end of its civil war. The country is at peace -- but it's a peace acquired in part by accepting an imperfect accounting of the past. A broad amnesty now shields former combatants from war-crimes prosecution.

The missionaries' families are resisting that compromise. They are not yet willing to forget -- or put behind them -- the horrible crime. Before the women's deaths recede too far into history, before they become religious icons whose stories are enshrined in the past, the families want to write their own ending, one that answers their final questions.

A photograph of Sister Dorothy Kazel stands on a table near the front door of her brother's Rocky River townhouse. She's blond, middle-aged, wearing a T-shirt; tired yet radiant, with a hint of a smile. The picture is probably the last ever taken of her. The film was found in a camera she left at her home in El Salvador the day she died at age 41. In a corner of the dining room, on a pedestal, sits a small, craggy black bust of Robert F. Kennedy -- a human rights award given posthumously in her honor.

Dorothy Kazel, who grew up in a Cleveland family of Lithuanian American Catholics, broke off an engagement to join the Ursuline order of nuns at age 20. She taught at Catholic schools in East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights for nine years, and received a master's degree in counseling from John Carroll University before joining the order's Cleveland missionary team in El Salvador in 1974.

Jim Kazel, a quiet man with tough, chiseled looks, talks slowly and haltingly about his sister's death, as if speaking were like moving a heavy stone. His wife -- named Dorothy, like his sister -- is eager and effusive, a pious Catholic with an optimism grounded in her faith, quick to engage in conversation about her sister-in-law and childhood friend.

"There's a void in your life when something like this happens," she says. "You go on, you try to live a normal life . . . but there's always that missing person."

In most ways, the Kazels seem a typical family, with the usual range of personality quirks. They're a big Catholic family with six adult kids, two of them living at home for a while.

But Sister Dorothy Kazel's murder gave them an unavoidable public prominence. Her death was international news, and TV reporters crowded the Kazels' home after her body was found. In the 1980s, Jim and his wife traveled to Washington to confront El Salvador's president, José Napoleón Duarte, about Sister Dorothy's murder and the slow investigation into it. They've spent years trying to obtain classified government documents about the killings. In 1987, Dorothy Kazel wrote Alleluia Woman, a short biography of her sister-in-law.

Two years ago, human rights activists were interviewing people in El Salvador about the missionaries' murders. They learned that two Salvadoran generals, part of the military high command in 1980, had quietly left El Salvador several years before and settled in the U.S. The Kazels and the other churchwomen's families again found themselves on national TV, reacting to news footage that showed the generals enjoying comfortable middle-class lives in Florida.

A year later, attorneys for the families filed suit in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, seeking to hold the generals liable for the murders.

Although no one has unearthed evidence that the two generals directly ordered the killings, the families are suing under the theory that military commanders are responsible for the actions of their subordinates. One defendant, General José Guillermo Garcîa, was defense minister of El Salvador in 1980. The other, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, was the head of the national guard.

"They were the leaders at the time," says Jim Kazel. "They had to know something about it. Especially when they kill American citizens."

Recovering money is not the main purpose of the lawsuit, the Kazels say. Rather, they want truth. And they hope that, if the Salvadoran generals lose the case and face a monetary judgment, it might drive them out of the U.S., which would be at least a small victory for the families. "We felt it's not right for us to leave them to have a good life in our country," says Jim Kazel.

The families are suing under a 1992 law called the Torture Victims Protection Act, which holds foreigners on U.S. soil accountable for abuses they committed in other countries. The act is a favorite tool of human rights groups trying to reach across international borders to punish crimes against humanity -- a movement that almost put former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on trial in Spain last year (Great Britain eventually refused to extradite Pinochet because of his ill health).

At the trial, the families will argue that the missionaries' murders were part of a massive campaign by the military, and death squads linked to the military, to torture and execute the Salvadoran government's opponents. And they'll try to implicate the generals in a cover-up of the missionaries' deaths.

"There is enough evidence that the Salvadoran military, while these men were in positions of command, routinely committed war crimes," says Bill Ford, a Wall Street attorney and brother of slain missionary Ita Ford. "There were documented, horrible massacres throughout 1979 and 1980, the two years immediately prior to the women's deaths on December 2. These men knew that troops under their command regularly murdered innocent civilians, and they did nothing to stop it."

The families hope to call as witnesses human rights advocates, Catholic church workers, journalists, and 1980s-era leaders of the Salvadoran opposition.

The lawsuit against the generals is part of the growing international response to the impunity many alleged war criminals have enjoyed in recent decades. In contrast to the trials of German and Japanese leaders after World War II, justice has often proved elusive for the victims of smaller, more recent wars.

Often, the price of peace is a compromise that lets human rights violators go free. Dictators like Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner and Uganda's Idi Amin live out the rest of their lives in comfortable exile. The U.S. harbors its share of potential war criminals; Carl Dorelein, a leader in the Haitian military regime that killed thousands in the early 1990s, moved to the U.S. in 1995, then won $3.2 million in the Florida lottery.

El Salvador's 1992 peace agreement, which ended a 13-year civil war in which 70,000 died, created a United Nations Truth Commission to investigate wartime atrocities. But in 1993, when the commission named those it considered responsible for certain infamous assassinations and massacres, the right-wing Salvadoran government angrily rushed a broad amnesty through the legislature, ensuring that none would ever be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.

In the case of the four missionaries, the Truth Commission did not implicate Casanova or Garcîa in the actual murders. But it said there was substantial evidence that Casanova knew that five guardsmen had killed the American missionaries and "facilitated the cover-up" that hid their identities for months. It noted that Garcîa "made no serious effort to conduct a thorough investigation."

By the time the U.N. report came out, Casanova and Garcîa had already moved to the United States. Garcîa has told a reporter that he received political asylum in 1991 from the Bush Administration -- which had continued to support the Salvadoran military.

Garcîa and Casanova have denied covering up the missionaries' murders. Their attorney, Kurt Klaus, says his clients had no knowledge of the murders, didn't cover them up, and shouldn't be held responsible for them.

"They went through one of the worst periods in their country's history," Klaus says. "They were stuck leading the armies when the army was as divided as the rest of the country." Klaus acknowledges that members of the military committed human rights abuses, but denies the family's central claim: that "death squads were sanctioned by the army and out there killing people."

Klaus says Garcîa and Casanova shouldn't be sued for the actions of their soldiers. "Are you going to hold a chief of police responsible if a bad cop beats his wife or kills someone?" he asks. "Was General Westmoreland held responsible for the My Lai massacre?"

Klaus says he may call current or former U.S. officials as defense witnesses; a provisional list of possible witnesses includes Reagan Administration officials such as former Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. "When [Garcîa and Casanova] came to our country, they got medals from the secretary of defense and the secretary of state," Klaus says. Casanova and Garcîa both received Legion of Merit awards from the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1980s. Now, Klaus complains, "They're being sued for the exact same things they were decorated for.

"Sister Dorothy Kazel knew she was risking her life by staying in El Salvador as civil war neared. In 1979, she wrote a letter to Sister Martha Owen, a fellow nun back in Cleveland:

"We talked quite a bit today about what happens if something begins. And most of us feel we would want to stay here . . . If there is a war we can help -- like run a refugee center or something. We wouldn't want to run out on the people. Anyway, Al thinks people we love should understand how we feel in case something happens . . . If a day comes when others will have to understand, please explain it for me."

Owen had worked with Dorothy Kazel in El Salvador, distributing food; teaching reading, writing, and religious lessons; and training local church leaders among the landless peasants in the countryside. They were part of the liberation theology movement within the Catholic Church, which was trying to improve the condition of the poor across Latin America by "turning around some of the old theologies and mentalities that had kept people oppressed," says Owen, who returned to Cleveland in 1979.

Since El Salvador was one of Latin America's poorest countries, their mission was daunting. For many poor people in El Salvador, working for a better life meant challenging the country's wealthy landowners and the military dictatorship. As opposition to the regime increased, death squads with ties to the military assassinated many opposition leaders. More and more peasants began joining a left-wing guerrilla force, and the death squads often made no distinction between peaceful protesters and armed revolutionaries when they killed.

Priests who helped the poor organize were among those murdered. The Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, denounced the military's attacks on peasants during his nationally broadcast Sunday Masses. In February 1980, he asked U.S. President Jimmy Carter to suspend military aid to El Salvador, saying the aid encouraged repression. That March, he told Salvadoran soldiers they had a moral duty to disobey orders to kill civilians. The next day, the military high command labeled him a traitor, and a sniper shot him to death while he was celebrating Mass.

Dorothy Kazel had met Romero and attended his Masses. She and Jean Donovan, a Catholic lay worker who'd lived in Cleveland for three years before going to El Salvador, walked alongside Romero's body during his funeral procession. They witnessed the stampede when a bomb exploded amid the procession, random gunfire filled the square, and mourners rushed into the cathedral for safety.

Kazel decided to stay in El Salvador another year to follow Romero's example and support the poor, Owen says. Throughout 1980, Kazel and Donovan helped other members of the Cleveland missionary team bury death-squad victims. They drove a white van into combat areas to rescue people and get them to the church's refugee camps.

In September 1980, Kazel wrote to President Carter, describing a round of 20 death-squad killings carried out by Salvadoran soldiers driving U.S. military vehicles. The victims included a 12-year-old girl. "I would really like to know what you think of this situation, Mr. President, and whether you really realize how many innocent people we are helping to kill," she wrote.

Two of Kazel and Donovan's friends, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, both nuns from New York's Maryknoll order, were operating a refugee center in an area of heavy guerrilla activity, and they often confronted the commander of the local army barracks about the military's harassment of church workers. In November 1980, a sign was posted on their parish house with a drawing of a human skull with a knife in it. The message on the sign read, "This will happen to anyone who comes to this house, because the priests and nuns are communists." In a government meeting that month, according to a Salvadoran official who was present, Minister of Defense Garcîa alleged that church workers in the province where Ford and Clarke worked were collaborating with the guerrillas, and that action needed to be taken.

On December 2, Ford and Clarke's names appeared on a list of suspected subversives to be killed. That day, Kazel and Donovan went to the San Salvador airport to pick up their friends, who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. National guardsmen stopped their van outside the airport.

The four women's bodies were found in a grave the next day.

When he heard his aunt was missing, 12-year-old Daniel Kazel wrote a letter to God. "[It said] 'We're looking for my aunt, and if anybody's found her, let us know," he says.

Daniel was the youngest pallbearer when his aunt's body was brought back to Cleveland for a funeral, walking with her coffin down the steps of downtown's St. John's Cathedral. "The procession to the All Souls Cemetery, the cars, was over a mile long," recalls Daniel's brother Jamie, who was 10 at the time. "We'd look back and think, 'This is all for Aunt Dorothy?'"

For years afterward, their family shielded the boys from the disturbing details of their aunt's death. But once adults, they began reading their family's thick stack of government documents about the killings.

In January, Daniel and Jamie visited El Salvador, the first members of the Kazel family to go there since the murders. People who knew their aunt hugged them, told them stories about her, gave them back gifts she had given them, and showed them articles and pictures they kept of the four churchwomen.

The brothers heard the disturbing details of their aunt's death -- how she was raped and shot. They went to the sites that marked her last hours: the roadblock where the guardsmen stopped her, the place where they killed her, the grave where her body was found. A church dedicated to the four women stands there now.

"When we actually went to the gravesite up on the mountainside, you truly felt that it was holy land you were standing on," Jamie says. "I felt a lightheadedness. My legs were weak . . . I felt her presence." He brought home stones from the site; he carries one in his pocket, and some sit on the mantel in the Kazels' living room.

Daniel, who recently earned a master's degree in screenwriting from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment for five years, is working with Jamie on a screenplay dedicated to their aunt. It's a semifictional story of a young man whose sister is murdered in El Salvador.

Daniel says he decided on a fictional approach because there are already documentary films about the churchwomen, and because he wants to make the film commercially successful so more people see it. So he created a main character who becomes a delinquent out of rage over losing his sister, then escapes from a juvenile detention center and makes his way down to El Salvador to learn who killed her. The facts of their aunt's story are mixed in with the fictional plot -- the murders of the churchwomen, the generals facing a trial in Florida. The goal, he says, is to tell people about the missionaries' selfless work.

"I felt I had to do something to pay my respects and make people aware of it," he says. "You see people around today, they're pretty much selfish. How many people would die for their jobs?"

Daniel has his father's striking, squared-off features. Until recently, his blond hair -- which he has in common with many in his family, including his late aunt -- was dyed black. He talks with a certain cynicism, both about American society and about El Salvador.

Jamie, soft-featured and bespectacled, is studying for a master's in counseling from John Carroll University, just as his aunt did. "There's not a night I don't go by and pray to her," he says.

In 1984, after several investigations and the withholding of a portion of U.S. military aid to El Salvador, a Salvadoran court convicted five national guardsmen of raping and killing Dorothy Kazel and the other American missionaries. Each man was sentenced to 30 years in prison. It was the first successful prosecution of soldiers for politically motivated killings during the civil war.

But the victims' families and many others were convinced that the full truth was never uncovered. Five men led by a subsergeant would never have killed Americans without higher orders, they said. During the trial, one defense attorney briefly suggested they'd received such orders, but the guardsmen didn't testify to it.

In 1993, the U.N. Truth Commission declared there was sufficient evidence to conclude that the sergeant, Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán, had higher orders. It didn't directly accuse anyone of giving the orders, but it noted who Alemán's commander was at the time: Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Edgardo Casanova Vejar -- a cousin of Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova. It accused Casanova and other officials of covering up the crime and said Garcîa did not seriously investigate the case.

Then, in 1998, four of the five guardsmen -- all except Sergeant Alemán -- confirmed to an American lawyer that Alemán had claimed he had orders to execute the churchwomen. "Each of them told us roughly the same story," says Scott Greathead of the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights. "They were ordered to do it by this sergeant. He'd told them there were higher orders. None of them would have done it if he hadn't told them there were higher orders. In varying degrees, each expressed regret." But the guardsmen didn't know who gave Alemán the orders, and Alemán wouldn't talk.

Soon after, Alemán and two of the guardsmen were released from prison under a legal reform bill meant to relieve prison and court-system overcrowding. Greathead's organization asked the Salvadoran judge to question Alemán about where his orders came from before releasing him, but the judge replied that, under the law, release was mandatory.

"No one, to my knowledge, in the Salvadoran government or the U.S. government ever questioned Alemán as to where his orders came from," says Bill Ford. "They didn't want to know the answer, so they didn't ask the question." Neither government, the families believe, wanted it known how deeply the Salvadoran military command was involved in the churchwomen's deaths. Because the Salvadoran military was fighting a Marxist guerrilla force, Cold War politics led the Reagan Administration to continue supporting the military throughout the 1980s.

"There was enormous pressure at the time to prosecute and convict these five guys," says Greathead. "But also to limit it to these five guys, so that they wouldn't be embarrassing the Salvadoran military as an institution or calling into question the policy of [U.S.] support of the Salvadoran military."

Times have changed in El Salvador since the 1992 peace treaty. Former guerrillas serve in the legislature, along with members of a party once led by a death-squad organizer. Though legislative amnesty protects wartime human rights violators from prosecution, most of the military's worst officers were nudged into retirement after the war, as the military was cut from a force of 60,000 to 20,000.

"The country has largely come to peace with and within itself," Georgie Ann Geyer, a prominent writer on Latin American issues, declared in the Washington Quarterly last year, calling the country's transformation "amazing."

Today, the two men still in prison for murdering Dorothy Kazel and her friends have served 16 years. While their sergeant and two comrades were released in 1998 on good behavior, they stayed because of bad records as inmates; it's alleged they participated in a prison uprising.

They've petitioned the Salvadoran government for pardons. And their cause has attracted an unlikely supporter: Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle, who holds the position Oscar Romero once held -- leader of the Catholic Church in El Salvador -- has decided to support a pardon for the men who killed the church workers. "Let's show mercy and pity. They have shown repentance, and that's the correct conduct," Saenz said in April.

Perhaps it's not really a surprise, coming from a leader in a faith devoted to forgiveness, living in a country that has accepted amnesty for war criminals as one of the compromises that made peace possible.

But American Catholics who knew the four missionaries have struggled with the archbishop's decision. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke's Maryknoll order supported the archbishop's call for releasing the two men in the spirit of the church's year of Jubilee, which calls for forgiveness of debts throughout the year 2000, says Sister Helene O'Sullivan, president of the Maryknoll Sisters.

"There is a debt that these men owe," O'Sullivan says. "At this point, there's been a certain amount paid. Also, we don't want to extract it in a sense of vengeance."

But the Maryknolls disagree with the archbishop about supporting a full pardon for the two. "The pardon is almost like nothing happened," says O'Sullivan. "You can't do that. It happened, it was horrible. It's like wiping the slate clean.

"You can't wipe the slate clean, because there has not been justice. Even for the [church]women. We still don't know who the intellectual author of crime was."

Dorothy Kazel's Ursuline order hasn't taken a position on the archbishop's decision. Sister Martha Owen, also an Ursuline nun, seems torn when asked about the situation. "There should be punishment" for what the guardsmen did, but "probably, at this point, it's been enough," she says. "Keeping them in prison doesn't serve any other purpose anymore."

But forgiving is much harder for the Kazels. "We feel we're very spiritual, we're very good Catholics, we try to do what's right," says Jim Kazel's wife Dorothy. "But something like this is too deep-seated to really say, 'Forgive them.'"

She finds the archbishop's call for mercy hard to accept. "He probably doesn't have a sister that has been killed and murdered," she says.

The Kazels want the guardsmen to stay in prison. "I don't see why they [would] pardon someone who committed murder," says Jim Kazel. "They should pay their dues."

One of the guardsmen, Francisco Contreras, recently told a reporter, "I'd like to ask [the victims' families] their pardon, and I want them to know that it wasn't our fault."

But the Kazels don't accept that notion. "He should have disobeyed the orders," Jim Kazel says. "I think they should stay in prison. I don't show mercy."

Bill Ford also disagrees with the archbishop's position. Jean Donovan's brother Michael did not respond to requests for an interview.

The U.S. State Department also opposes the pardon requests. "We have repeatedly said we are against that," says Thomas Genton, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. "Those who are convicted of those crimes should pay their full debt to society and should not be released.

"We made that known to Salvadoran authorities, when the initial release request was made a year ago. We expressed dismay [over] the other three who had been [released]. We felt the heinous nature of their crimes warranted continued detention."

Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador in 1980, hosted Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan at the U.S. Embassy the night before they were killed, then watched as their bodies were exhumed two days later. He went on to become a strong critic of the Reagan Administration's support of the Salvadoran military. But, he says, "I don't disagree" with the archbishop's position.

"There's a profound difference between a couple of enlisted men trained to follow orders or else and [men with] command responsibilities," he says.

White and O'Sullivan both say the key to justice today is the families' lawsuit against the Salvadoran generals. White will be one of the plaintiffs' witnesses at the trial.

"It could be an avenue to a greater understanding of what was really going on at the time," including the death squads' ties to the Salvadoran military, O'Sullivan says.

"A lot of times in Latin America, you hear [about] a call for reconciliation. And it always means that the victim is the one that has to be reconciled to the fact that the ones who perpetrated the crime now are finished with it and don't want to be questioned, and want to go on with their lives," says O'Sullivan.

"But the victims, they're gone forever, and their families just can't go on that way. Reconciliation means there has to be truth. They have to know the truth about their loved ones."

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