In December of 1980, the bodies of four American missionary women working in El Salvador were discovered in a crude grave. The women- Catholic nuns Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan were working in this particularly volatile country at a time of enormous upheaval. Justice and the Generals chronicles the fight of Bill Ford, the brother of one of the victims, and other family members to bring those responsible for the murders to justice.
For most of the 20th century, El Salvador had been ruled by the military, which protected a wealthy class of minority landowners. In the 1970s, an armed opposition emerged. By the beginning of the 1980s, the country was in the midst of civil war. As people demanded democratic rights, the military responded brutally, targeting students and anyone seen as opposing the existing rule. The Catholic Church, having long sided with the elite, began to champion the rights of the poor and encourage reform. The missionary women, who transported refugees and distributed food and medicine to the poor, were thus seen as dangerous people.
Bill Ford's struggle for justice became embroiled in U.S. foreign policy, as the Reagan administration supported the Salvadoran military in their quest to stem the leftist uprising. Access to complete reports and information about the case was stymied. Though the five guardsmen responsible for killing the women served time for murder, the families endeavored for those who had actually given the orders to be brought to justice as well.
Ford sought help from the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, and eventually a civil case was brought before a U.S. District Court in Miami, as the generals thought to be accountable are found to be residing in West Palm Beach. This was a landmark legal proceeding in many respects. The prosecution employed "command responsibility theory," based on precedent established after WWII to try crimes against humanity. The theory claims that superiors can be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates when an atmosphere of expected behavior exists. Although the generals were not convicted, the case established a foundation for other torture justice cases, also covered in the film. Shawn Roberts of the Center for Justice and Accountability states: "There are certain kinds of crimes that are held to be so internationally abhorrent, that the people who are alleged to have committed them are considered to be the enemies of all mankind and can be brought into court wherever they're found."
Justice and the Generals - Bill Ford, brother of slain nun, Ita Ford, who has lead campaign to bring those responsible for his sister's death to justice. Photo: Geraldine Runio/Thirteen.
This film is not appropriate for young audiences as it contains vivid descriptions of acts of torture. Programmers may want to warn adult audiences as well about the graphic content.