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Chavez v. Carranza

El Salvador: The Civil War's Most Notorious War Criminal

Chavez v. Carranza

El Salvador: The Civil War's Most Notorious War Criminal



On November 18, 2005, a Memphis jury held Colonel Nicolas Carranza—the former Vice-Minister of Defense for El Salvador—liable for crimes against humanity, torture and extrajudicial killing. Carranza was ordered to pay $6 million in damages. The verdict represents the first time that a U.S. jury in a contested case has found a commander liable for crimes against humanity.

Carranza appealed the verdict to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. On March 17, 2009 the Sixth Circuit upheld the jury verdict. In May 2009, Carranza petitioned for cert with the U.S. Supreme Court.  His petition was denied.


The year 1980 in El Salvador was marked by rampant human rights abuses. The state security forces- working with plain-clothed death squads- carried out forced disappearances, sexual violence, torture and murder against civilians. Experts estimate that 10,000 to 12,000 unarmed civilians were killed in 1980 alone. Carranza, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Memphis, served as Vice-Minister of Defense of El Salvador from late 1979 to early 1981. In that position, he exercised command and control over the three units of the security forces that were responsible for widespread attacks on civilians: the National Guard, the National Police and the Treasury Police. Although Carranza was removed from his position as Vice-Minister due to pressure from the U.S. government over his human rights record, he was brought back in 1983 as head of the brutal Treasury Police. Carranza immigrated to the United States in 1985, where he gained citizenship in 1991.

The case against Carranza was brought by five courageous clients who survived abuses committed under Carranza’s watch:

Erlinda Franco is the widow of Manuel Franco, one of six pro-democracy opposition leaders of the Frente Democrático Revolucionario (Democratic Revolutionary Front, or FDR) who were abducted from a Jesuit school in San Salvador on November 27, 1980 by members of the Security Forces. They were later found murdered, and their bodies showed obvious signs of torture. The assassinations were among the most gruesome and shocking incidents carried out by the Security Forces during 1980, and they led directly to the commencement of the full-scale Salvadoran Civil War. The U.N. Commission on the Truth for El Salvador found that the FDR murders “outraged national and international public opinion and closed the door to any possibility of a negotiated solution to the political crisis at the end of 1980.”

Ana Patricia Chavez is the daughter of Humberto and Guillermina Chavez, who were members of the teachers union ANDES 21 de Junio. They were murdered in cold blood by plainclothed gunmen in July 1980 in the family’s home in Ahuachapán, El Salvador. Ana Patricia was forced to watch the beating of her mother and listen to the shots that took her life. Ana Patricia now lives in California.

Francisco Calder
ón was a worker at a cigarette factory in September 1980 when, late one night, uniformed members of the National Police knocked on his door. As he opened the door, plainclothes gunmen grabbed him and forced him to the floor. Francisco’s father, Paco Calderón- a school principal and member of ANDES 21 de Junio- came to the door and told the men to release his son. The gunmen tried to carry away Paco Calderón, but when they were unable to do so they shot him directly in front of his son. Francisco now lives in California.

Cecilia Santos was a student at the National University and employee of the Salvadoran Ministry of Education when she was arrested in a shopping center in San Salvador in September 1980. Cecilia was held in the National Police headquarters for eight days and tortured repeatedly. She was never given adequate legal representation or a fair hearing, and remained in prison for three years. She fled to the United States in 1983 after being released under a general amnesty. Cecilia now lives in New York, where she is the director of the Centro Salvadoreño, an organization that encourages socioeconomic and cultural progress among Latino immigrant communities.

Daniel Alvarado was an engineering student in San Salvador in 1983. He was abducted by five men dressed in civilian clothes while he was watching a soccer game at a friend’s house. He was taken to the headquarters of the Treasury Police, where he was tortured severely. In order to stop the torture, Daniel confessed to being involved in the assassination of U.S. military advisor Albert Schaufelberger. After a polygraph examination, U.S. officials concluded that Daniel was not responsible in any way for the assassination and that he had only admitted to the killing in order to stop the torture.



On December 10th, 2003, Chavez v. Carranza was filed jointly by CJA and the Tennessee law firm of Bass, Berry & Sims. The complaint was amended in February 2004 to add the claims of Daniel Alvarado. Brought under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), the suit charges Carranza with liability for torture, extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity under the established doctrine of command responsibility.

Trial & Verdict

The trial in federal district court in Memphis began in October 2005.  After two weeks of testimony, the jury found Carranza responsible for torture and extrajudicial killing and awarded a total of $6 million in damages.

The trial was marked by several important revelations. Former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White testified that Carranza had been a paid informant for the CIA while he was Vice-Minister of Defense in 1980. At that time, Mr.White asked the CIA station chief in El Salvador to remove Carranza from the CIA payroll on account of his deplorable human rights record, but no action was ever taken. Carranza admitted on the witness stand that he had been receiving money from the U.S. government since 1965.

Mr. White also testified as to the command roles played by Carranza and General José García, the named defendant in Romagoza Arce v. Garcia. Mr. White described Carranza as the “operational commander” of the Salvadoran military and security forces, while García served as the “public relations man.” He observed that the two were “inseparable."


Carranza appealed the jury verdict to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In an unusual development, on March 28, 2008, the Republic of El Salvador filed an amicus brief arguing that the judgment should be voided, on account of Carranza's entitlement to amnesty under El Salvador's 1993 Amnesty Law.  In response, a coalition of international law experts filed an amicus brief arguing that the 1993 Amnesty Law violates the Salvadoran constitution and international law.

During oral argument on October 28, 2008, the Republic of El Salvador contended that the U.S government’s endorsement of the 1992 Peace Accords should be interpreted as a de facto recognition of the extraterritorial impact of the Salvadoran Amnesty Law. However, the skeptical court pointed out that the 1992 Peace Accords made no mention of amnesty: the Salvadoran Amnesty Law was not adopted until 1993.

“It seems to me that we have this irony of the country of El Salvador coming to a federal court in the United States, representing what the Department of State’s position is on the extraterritorial effect of the Salvadoran Amnesty Law, when the official policy of the United States government is absolutely silent in this record. It’s not here.” - Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in an audio recording

Appellate Opinion

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the 2005 jury verdict on March 17, 2009, and rejected Carranza’s argument that U.S. courts should defer to the Salvadoran Amnesty Law.  The court held that “as a citizen and resident of the United States,” Carranza is “subject to civil liability for his violations” of U.S. human rights law.

Cert Petition

On May 28th, 2009, Carranza filed a cert petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the principle of comity in customary international law requires the United States to recognize the Salvadoran Amnesty Law and to waive jurisdiction over related matters in U.S. courts. In our brief in opposition, we argued that Carranza failed to prove his entitlement to immunity under the Salvadoran Amnesty Law. Furthermore, even if Carranza had successfully demonstrated his entitlement to amnesty, the Amnesty Law would not bar legal claims filed outside of El Salvador. Accordingly, we concluded, no conflict arises between the Salvadoran Amnesty Law and the ATS or TVPA, nor does any question of comity arise.

On October 5, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Carranza's certiorari petition.

CJA and pro bono co-counsel continue to pursue collection of the $6 million judgment against Carranza. To date, we have successfully garnished one of Carranza's bank accounts.