From Archives to Court: Historians and Human-Rights Abuses

Ann Schneider, PhD'08, recently finished five years of archival research. The results were not destined for an academic press but a court house. Schneider's subject is Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova. Vides was head of the Salvadoran National Guard and later its defense minister during El Salvador's civil war of the 1980s, a bloody decade that saw the deaths of over seventy-five thousand civilians, including the rape and murder of three US nuns and a Catholic laywoman by members of the guard. He escaped prosecution for abuses committed under his watch and emigrated legally to the United States in 1989, at a time when Washington backed the Salvadoran right-wing government.

Schneider is one of three historians in the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit within the Department of Homeland Security. Working with attorneys, analysts, and special agents, Schneider constructed the historic narrative to justify the case for Vides's deportation for acts of torture and murder. Unlike the majority of the unit's cases, which uncover individuals who lied about their past to gain entry into the United States, Vides's past was well known. Indeed he argued on appeal that it was “manifestly unjust” for the US government to deport him, asserting "that his conduct [in El Salvador] was consistent with the ‘official policy’ of the United States."

Vides's appeal not only failed but also set a precedent. He is the highest ranking official ordered deported for "command responsibilities." Schneider's research, together with the testimony of two torture victims and Robert White, former US ambassador to El Salvador, convinced the Board of Immigration Appeals that Vides "was aware of these abuses during or after the fact, and through both his personal interference with investigations and his inaction, he did not hold the perpetrators accountable." Vides is currently in detention.

Schneider's interest in justice and human rights is evident in her 2008 dissertation, "Amnestied in Brazil, 1895–1985," an investigation of the ambivelent use of amnesty across the political spectrum in Brazil, which revealed conflicting ideas about justice and the proper consequences of political opposition over time. The members of her dissertation committee were Dain Borges, chair, Emilio Kourí, and Michael Geyer.

Schneider recently discussed the Vides case on National Public Radio.

By Joanne M. Berens, MFA’93, jberens@uchicago.edu.