Seeking justice for victims across borders

The nonprofit group CJA tracks down those who commit crimes in one country and flee to another – and hauls them into court.

Peter Dejong/Pool/Reuters/File
Three judges pose for photographers at the International Criminal Court in The Hague Dec. 5, 2011. While a few prominent political and military figures charged with crimes are tried by this court, many others hide by escaping to other countries. The nonprofit Center for Justice and Accountability tries to track them down and bring them to trial.

Last August, federal agents in Massachusetts arrested a man in his late 60s. The man, Inocente Montano, had lived quietly north of Boston since 2002. Then, in May, Mr. Montano, who had been a military officer in El Salvador in the 1980s, was indicted by a judge in Spain for his involvement in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests and two women during the civil war. Now Montano endures home detention, facing US charges, held by one government and wanted by another. 

American law enforcement has arrested hundreds of people like Montano – foreign former military commanders or officials now living in the United States despite involvement abroad in torture, extrajudicial killings, or other serious human rights abuses. These hundreds are dwarfed by the survivors around the world who are themselves victims of such acts or are relatives of the abused or dead.

For many survivors it has been decades since they were harmed. They have been denied by politics or corruption any redress in their home countries. Their histories show that one consequence of war is that peace may offer no justice.

A small San Francisco-based nonprofit organization called the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) works to find a measure of justice – and, just as importantly, truth – for such victims.

 “So often what happens in cases involving state-sanctioned violence is the state also hides any evidence,” says Pamela Merchant, the CJA’s director.  “It’s hugely important for survivors to have their stories acknowledged at all.”

Montano was named in a 1993 United Nations report on human rights abuses during the Salvadoran war. It was the CJA that in 2008 first filed a criminal complaint in Spain for the Jesuits’ killings (20 people were included in the May indictments).  It was the CJA that in August publicized Montano's presence outside Boston and his military past. 

As part of a criminal investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations arrested Montano that month.  He was charged in November with making false statements on an immigration application and perjury. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly described the independent investigations of the CJA and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that lead up to the arrest of Mr. Montano..]

Yet much more of CJA’s work has focused on litigation in US courts to achieve civil judgments for clients from Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia

“Most of our cases are civil litigation – often we never see any money [from judgments]; it’s more about [having] your day in court and confronting the atrocity and the abuser, and having the opportunity to tell the truth,” Ms. Merchant says.

Along with pro bono counsel, the CJA (with just 10 employees) has won millions of dollars in judgments for its clients and has brought the importance of human rights to the attention of American politicians and news media. 

Even in victory, though, the CJA’s cases often depict a dismaying reality: After a war, peace, no matter how welcome, can fail to deliver justice and transparency.

In a 2008 result in Florida, the CJA won a $37 million judgment against a former army officer in Peru who led a 1985 massacre of villagers high in the Andes Mountains. The incident was one of the worst in the conflict between Peru and the Shining Path insurgents. The CJA’s clients, two women, then 12 years old, watched the officer and his men shoot their families and burn them alive. As many as 69 people were killed in what became known as the Accomarca Massacre. 

The Peruvian officer, Telmo Hurtado Hurtado, never paid for his acts. He was charged with making false statements and abuse of authority. But a 1995 amnesty law passed by then President Alberto Fujimori invalidated Hurtado’s sentence and protected him from additional prosecution. Later, many of the 20-year conflict’s atrocities were publicized by a truth and reconciliation commission, and the Peruvian government nullified the amnesty in 2002.  Hurtado fled to the US.

“The Truth Commission was unique in that it did not recommend amnesty for perpetrators of abuses. In theory, then, [the commission] should have opened up a steady stream of criminal investigations and trials of human rights violators,” says Miguel La Serna, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. “In practice, however, only a small percentage of these perpetrators – many with close ties to the government and security forces – have actually been brought to justice.”

The CJA based its case against Mr. Hurtado on the Alien Tort Statute [AST], which allows the US federal courts to hear lawsuits filed by foreign nationals for torts committed in violation of international law.

 “ATS litigation can be a great measure of last resort when there are no other legal options available to the victim,” says Mark Drumbl, a law professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law

In another victory, the US government extradited Hurtado to Peru in July to face additional charges related to the massacre. 

“A big part of what we try to do is to ensure that these people are held accountable in their home country,” Merchant says.

 But the significance of US civil judgments can be limited by larger political contexts in the victim’s home country. 

“Law only gets you so far in preventing human rights abuses,” Professor Drumbl says. “One critique I would make of groups involved in ATS litigation for such abuses is that [the work] doesn’t necessarily make for effective political transition.”

In 1980, Cecilia Moran, then a 27-year-old government statistician, was jailed and brutally tortured by the national police in El Salvador. She was charged with being a “subversive” and held until 1983, despite never once being allowed to speak to an attorney. 

In 2005, Ms. Moran was a plaintiff along with four others in a Memphis, Tenn., case brought by the CJA against Nicolas Carranza, who as El Salvador’s vice minister of defense in 1980 was responsible for the national police. Mr. Carranza was found responsible for $6 million in damages. 

He appealed, arguing that he was protected by a 1993 Salvadoran amnesty law passed to protect those involved in abuses during the war. The appeal was rejected.

“When CJA came to me about the case, I told them I would like to participate, because it was important that the rest of the world knew who he was and what he did,” Moran says. “I was so satisfied when I heard it said in a court of law that he was responsible.”

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