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Bill Ford answered his telephone on Dec. 3, 1980, only to get some bad news. His sister, Ita Ford, a nun with New York’s Maryknoll Congregation and a missionary in rural El Salvador, had gone missing in that war-torn land along with three other churchwomen. Days later, the bodies of the women were dragged from remote makeshift graves. All four had been raped and murdered, victims of a bloody civil war that would take an estimated 75,000 lives before it would run its 12-year course. This murderous episode in Central American history provides the focal point of a harrowing yet enlightening PBS documentary produced, directed, and narrated by Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Gail Pellett. “Justice and the Generals,” which premieres nationwide Feb. 21, revisits not only the 1980 murders, but also an unusual civil trial conducted 20 years later in a West Palm Beach, Fla., courtroom, where Bill Ford and others sought justice for their slain loved ones in a wrongful death suit against two former senior Salvadoran generals. The generals — Jos� Guillermo Garc�a and Eugenio Vides Casanova — were within the purview of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida because, incredibly, they had retired to Florida after careers in the Salvadoran National Guard. Although pressure from the United States to solve the murders had led to the arrest, trial, conviction and sentencing in El Salvador of five National Guardsmen, Bill Ford and others believed that the low-level soldiers were merely scapegoats — trigger-men, perhaps, but hardly decision-makers. His sister and the other women, he concluded, had been killed probably because they had worked with the poor, often viewed by those in power as allies of leftist insurgents. The assassination of Oscar Romero, the popular archbishop of San Salvador gunned down after appealing to the military to stop the violence, was proof that clergy were no more immune to the terror than anyone else. Justice had been sacrificed on the altar of politics, Bill Ford contends. The Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations had poured billions into the Salvadoran government in an attempt to keep it from going communist. “The State Department was interested in protecting its client state in El Salvador,” Ford says in the film, adding later, “Part of the fight [for justice] was a fight with our own government.” So when the civil trial in Florida got under way Oct. 10, 2000, Ford and his fellow plaintiffs hoped that their case would provide some measure of retribution. It didn’t. The jury, while sympathetic to the plaintiffs, ruled against them, unconvinced that the generals fully controlled the soldiers who performed the murders. The case is now under appeal, and the generals are facing another suit in Florida filed by four former Salvadorans, now U.S. citizens, who were tortured in their homeland during the civil war. One warning: This film is not for the squeamish. One woman’s account of her torture is stomach-turning, and some footage is extremely graphic. How many corpses are too many? I don’t know, but I’m certain “Justice and the Generals” could have made its point with far fewer.

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