On the night of December 2, 1980, four North American churchwomen and missionaries–Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Catholic lay worker Jean Donovan–were brutally murdered in El Salvador. The murders, apparently committed by elements of El Salvador’s notorious death squads, were shocking, even by Salvadoran standards. The timing of the murders–during the interregnum between Ronald Reagan’s defeat of President Jimmy Carter on November 4, and Reagan’s taking office in January–seemed to carry the message that those responsible for the death squads expected that human rights would no longer be high on the agenda of the new US Administration. There was every reason to expect that this terrible crime would never be prosecuted, just like the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and tens of thousands of other Salvadoran death squad victims.
In the early morning hours of May 24, 1984, we sat in a small courtroom in the small town of Zacatecoluca, and watched a Salvadoran jury make history by convicting five members of the Salvadoran National Guard of the murders of the US churchwomen. Never before in the conflict-ridden history of El Salvador had members of the military been tried or convicted of murder.
If one man deserves credit for that history-changing event in El Salvador, it was our friend and colleague Bill Ford, the brother of Ita Ford, who died on June 1. A lawyer and indefatigable advocate, Bill refused to let the murders of his sister and her three companions go unpunished. He cajoled State Department officials and members of Congress for information about the case, demanding action. Days after the murders, he approached the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) for help. We gladly joined his cause.
Bill’s determination to bringing justice to the case of his murdered sister and her colleagues also brought a measure of justice for tens of thousands of Salvadorans who were murdered by forces supported, and in some cases trained, by the US government. Not content with the conviction of the five National Guardsmen, Bill spent much of the rest of his life pursuing the officers he was convinced were responsible for ordering those murders and many others.
In 1998, at Bill’s urging, Human Rights First sent two lawyers to back to El Salvador to interview four of the convicted National Guardsmen, who were then serving thirty-year sentences. That trip led to the discovery that two Salvadoran officers implicated in the crime–General Jose Guillermo Garcia and General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova–were living in retirement in Florida.
Thanks to Bill’s persistent search for justice, the two retired generals were tracked down in Florida. In July, 2002, following a four-week trial, a federal jury in West Palm Beach returned a verdict of $54.6 million against them for their responsibility for the torture of three Salvadoran plaintiffs.
Bill brought to these efforts a unique combination of skills and attributes. As a Wall Street lawyer, he drew on his analytical skills and attention to detail. He combined this with the passion and emotion of a family member personally affected by this senseless violence.
Deeply devoted to his family and his faith, Bill transcended his family’s loss to become an important voice for thousands who, like him, lost loved ones because of arbitrary violence in El Salvador. Because Bill Ford was such a powerful and persuasive advocate he became a voice of the voiceless for people from El Salvador. Perhaps more than any other individual he helped draw the attention of the US Congress and public the ugly reality of our country’s policies in the Salvadoran civil war. He also made it possible for journalists to write stories about El Salvador that actually got read in the United States, defying James Reston’s pithy observation that Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it.
We will always remember Bill for his tireless pursuit of justice. We will miss his voice of moral clarity.