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El Salvador Frees 3rd Nun Killer

July 23, 1998

QUEZALTEPEQUE, El Salvador (AP) _ Still professing innocence, a third national guardsman convicted of raping and killing four American churchwomen walked free from prison Wednesday.

In a prison patio surrounded by mango trees, Daniel Canales told reporters that he would help further investigations of the crime. Church leaders, however, said the release of three men who were serving time in the 1980 slayings could permanently thwart efforts to find out who ordered the killings.

``We lost a great opportunity to make progress in justice and to know the historical truth,″ Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador.

``It seems that the cover-up has continued,″ Therese Howard, a spokeswoman for the Maryknoll order in the United States, said by telephone. Two of the victims were Maryknoll nuns.

In a nervous, subdued voice, Canales reiterated his innocence before television cameras and microphones. While Canales has admitted that he was at the murder scene, he has insisted he did not participate.

Despite church fears that the releases mean he and his former fellow guardsmen cannot be compelled to testify more, Canales promised to help reveal who ordered the killings.

``My country and the whole world has the right to know the truth,″ Canales said, wearing gray slacks and the light blue striped cotton shirt his wife brought him.

Canales said the low-ranking guardsmen who committed the 1980 murders ``were executing orders of superiors.″

After the news conference, he went to a parish church in Quezaltepeque, where he gave thanks for his release.

Five national guardsmen were convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing Roman Catholic nuns Ita Ford, Maura Clark and Dorothy Kazel and layworker Jean Donovan on Dec. 2, 1980. The women were suspected of sympathizing with leftist rebels in the 1980-1992 civil war.

Canales and another two former guardsmen freed Tuesday were released under a new law to ease prison overcrowding after serving almost 18 years of their 30-year sentences. A judge declared two others ineligible, one because of a weapons charge and the other because of his participation in a prison riot.

Canales said the masterminds of the crime ``were at the top and they could not fall, so they had to make (a cover-up) so that the weakest would pay for this crime.″

But only the leader of the squad, Sgt. Luis Colindres, is alleged to know where the orders came from. On his release Tuesday, he said he was innocent and denied any knowledge of such orders. Also released Tuesday was former guardsman Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura.

``I have always been innocent in the case,″ Colindres told reporters. ``I cannot tell you anything.″

Asked who had ordered the slayings, he replied, ``How do you know they gave me that order?″

The crimes caused outrage in the United States, which strongly supported the Salvadoran government during the 1980-1992 civil war. About 70,000 people died, many at the hands of military-backed death squads.

However, the prison releases have elicited very little attention and virtually no protests here in El Salvador, where people are anxious to put years of bloodshed behind. There were no angry editorials in the national newspapers, no protesters outside the prisons.

A 1993 U.N. report determined that the former national guard director, Col. Eugenio Vides Casanova, and Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia, tried to cover up the killings. It concluded that Vides Casanova knew the guardsmen had acted on the orders of superiors.

Prosecutors earlier this year rejected appeals to reopen the investigation, saying the 10-year statute of limitation for murder had expired. Relatives have argued that there is no such limit on political murders under international law.

William Ford, brother of Ita Ford, said Vides Casanova and Garcia both live in Florida. He said they ``should certainly be called to testify under oath in front of Congress about what they know about the orders to murder the women and the subsequent cover-up.″

Vides Casanova has denied the accusations, saying ``my conscience would never be able to rest if I knew their orders to kill came from above.″

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