Last month five national guardsmen were convicted in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, of the murders of four American missionaries whose names are ingrained in our public conscience: Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke. For the families and people involved in the case, the verdict represents the resolution of a long struggle.
Two of the victims, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel, were members of the Cleveland Missionary Team and were from my home city. Because of the lack of response from appropriate United States government agencies and the El Salvador government, their families asked me to serve as their liaison with the governments. Since their deaths in December 1980, not one week has gone by in which my office has not been engaged in some effort related to the case.
Justice was not easy to achieve. The families of the slain women had to overcome attempts by the El Salvador government and certain US government agencies to delay and, at times, obstruct the process of justice.
The verdict is a testament to the persistence of the families, the dedication of a few US and Salvadorean public servants, and the courage of a Salvadorean judge and jury. Above all, the verdict sets an important precedent: It represents the first conviction within memory of the Salvadorean military for a civilian murder.
But if the conviction of the guardsmen solved the question of actual guilt for the crime, it did nothing to resolve the question of responsibility - responsibility that reaches to the highest level of the El Salvadorean government. It was Colonel Garcia, the minister of defense, who, a few weeks before the murders of the women, told a Cabinet meeting that ''something must be done about the missionaries in Chalatenango.'' It was this same minister of defense who accused the church of Chalatenango of being ''subversive'' when Archbishop Romero complained to him of military harassment in 1979. It was Col. Eugenio Vides Casanova, the current defense minister and then National Guard chief, who was alleged in a recent report prepared by former federal Judge Harold Tyler to have condoned and orchestrated the coverup of the investigation.
These are the people the US continues to entrust with the military and economic assistance whose use we cannot guarantee or even monitor. The Reagan administration's reliance on military intervention is a heavy-handed substitute for a well-thought-out, sensitive strategy for dealing with deep-seated problems. It is the most visible sign, not of our national strength, but of our weakness. In human terms, it is costing many innocent lives.
My personal representative to the Zacatecoluca trial told me of interviews with dozens of Salvadorean refugees in El Salvador. They spoke of deliberate attacks by military aircraft on groups of noncombatant civilians. Women and children showed the scars of napalm and phosphorous bombs, reminiscent of Vietnam.
If our government lacks the imagination and wisdom we should have learned from our own history, we should look to other governments like Mexico to point the way to a diplomatic solution. El Salvador President Duarte's promises of democratic change will be meaningless without the diplomatic component.
If the US is to contribute to the solution of the Central American crisis, our foreign policy should be directed toward negotiations to end violence and restore a civilian economy. Continued US aid must be linked to the restoration of an independent Salvadorean judicial system that protects its citizens. Multilateral agreements must be the basis for providing regional security.
The US must make human rights a cardinal principle of its foreign policy once again. This is crucial if the Zacatecoluca verdict is to have any lasting meaning. After the 1980 US presidential election, Reagan advisers signaled that the Carter human-rights-oriented diplomacy was at an end in our hemisphere. A new era of military expedience and tolerance of the deprivation of human rights was beginning. The signals were not missed in El Salvador where a reign of violence began that has resulted in over 40,000 deaths.
The deaths of the churchwomen and other Americans signaled the demise of respect for US foreign policy. Zacatecoluca and the inauguration of a new administration in El Salvador are an occasion for all to resolve that they shall not have died in vain.