Activist Casolo Goes From Salvador Jail to Media Trail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 10 minutes on CNN's "Sonya Live" television talk show passed by all too quickly for Jennifer Casolo, the American imprisoned in El Salvador for 18 days on charges she hid weapons for leftist rebels.

"I wish, I wish, I wish I'd said more important things!" she moaned after abandoning the set at Cable News Network's Hollywood studio. "Instead of taking an opportunity and throwing it away!"

But rarely does Casolo throw away opportunities these days.

In a few short weeks she has gone from political prisoner to virtual media star. Scarcely a month ago, she was captive in a country torn by civil war; today she is crisscrossing the United States on an 11-city speaking tour, negotiating movie and book deals and making the rounds of the talk shows.

An NBC camera crew trails her all over Los Angeles. Stars and activists from the Hollywood entertainment industry court her at parties.

All of this is a role Casolo, a tiny, Bible-quoting woman with a quick smile, embraces willingly--but not, she says, without reservation.

Thrust Into Limelight

"Because I've been thrust here, I have to speak," she says. "This position, of being the center of attention, is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do in my life.

"Someone said, 'Go, speak.' It was the door that was opened up. So I thought, go, do it."

Her critics are angry Casolo is afforded such a platform. She maintains her purpose is to tell the American public what she witnessed in 4 1/2 years of life and work in El Salvador. She would prefer to turn the focus on the plight of the Salvadorans, not on herself, she says. But, sure, if her story can make a little money, that's OK, too. Money, she says, to help "reconstruct" El Salvador.

So far, an entertainment attorney working for former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark, who was enlisted by Casolo's associates when she was first jailed, has received approximately 10 movie offers, Clark said in a telephone interview from New York.

"It does seem to be a terrific story," Clark said. "Church people working in a country like that, where priests are getting killed, guns are being found in your back yard. All sorts of things go on."

"The question," says Casolo, "is whether it (a movie) can be done with integrity."

In El Salvador, Casolo worked for a San Antonio-based group called Christian Education Seminars. She coordinated visits to El Salvador by delegations of church workers and congressional aides, arranging their schedules and escorting them to meet with representatives of diverse sectors, from military leaders to peasant organizers.

On Nov. 25, in the midst of the largest offensive ever launched by Marxist-led Salvadoran rebels, Casolo's work came to a crashing halt. A squadron of police raided the home she rented in a San Salvador suburb and allegedly unearthed a huge arms cache containing more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition, grenades, explosives and bayonets.

Police said the weapons were buried in Casolo's walled back yard to await delivery to the guerrillas. Casolo, who says she buried personal items such as papers and cassettes in her garden, but not weapons, was taken to jail.

After several days of interrogation at the hands of 20 or more National Police officers, she was arraigned on three terrorism counts and transferred to the Ilopango Women's Prison on the outskirts of San Salvador. She always maintained her innocence.

Coming 10 days after six Jesuit priests were murdered by gunmen later alleged to be members of the military, Casolo's case attracted wide publicity. Her supporters contended she had been framed as a way to discredit church work. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater practically pronounced her guilty. (He later apologized for his comments.)

Finally, citing lack of evidence, Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani announced Casolo would be released and deported. But, he added, he remained "morally convinced" of her guilt.

Casolo was taken from prison and put aboard a flight to Miami on Dec. 13.

"I told President Cristiani that if she (was expelled from El Salvador) and came back here, there would probably be a speaking tour, and it might not be in their best interest," Clark, who tried to persuade the government to allow Casolo to remain in El Salvador, said last week.

"He didn't say much but he certainly understood it. I told him how powerful the networking of the church seems to be."

Selling Her Story

Casolo and her handlers, including a New York City public relations firm, chose Los Angeles to launch the speaking tour, which will take the 28-year-old Connecticut native to 11 cities in six weeks.

"Los Angeles is a media center, a media capital of the world," said Sister Pat Krommer, a Roman Catholic nun who heads the Humanitarian Law Project. "All the (television) networks are here, there's a major newspaper. . . . We felt it was the logical place to begin."

Casolo left Los Angeles for San Francisco on Friday, and her next stop is Seattle.

Krommer, who is also on the board of Christian Education Seminars, is organizing and sponsoring the series of engagements, along with the Office of the Americas, a Los Angeles-based group opposed to U.S. intervention in El Salvador.

Budget for the tour is $41,000, a bill that was footed by a private donor whom Krommer declined to identify. Other money is being raised at several of Casolo's appearances, which will go to Christian Education Seminars and to Casolo herself, Krommer said.

At a fund-raising dessert party at the Beverly Hills home of Talli Wyler, the widow of film director William Wyler, television actor Robert Foxworth, formerly of "Falcon Crest," made the pitch for donations, and collection baskets were passed around.

Much bigger money, of course, would be generated by a movie. Experts in the industry believe Casolo could probably sell her story, but development of a full-length movie would depend on a complete story line, drama, characters, romance and resolve.

"Headlines aren't enough. . . . There has to be a back story, and there has to be a big finish," said Barbara Corday, until last week executive vice president for prime-time programming at CBS Entertainment.

"Even a true-life story based on a real incident that got a lot of press has to stand up as a good movie on its own in order to get made. Millions of people will not remember this happened a year from now."

Accusations of Guilt

Those who believe Casolo to be guilty are outraged at the amount of attention she is receiving. They accuse her of trying to manipulate public opinion to exonerate herself of the charges.

Accuracy in Media, a conservative organization that monitors the press, has been tracking Casolo's tour. In each city she visits, Accuracy in Media offers reporters pages of material to outline the case against her.

"The evidence linking Jennifer Casolo to the arms cache found in her garden is strong, and there is abundant reason to doubt her self-portrayal as a religious pacifist with no political agenda," the organization said in a news bulletin.

During an appearance on Michael Jackson's radio talk show on KABC, the comments from listeners were divided evenly between the sympathetic and the critical--including one man who suggested many church workers in El Salvador are communists.

Casolo also says she has received a small amount of threatening hate mail.

But just about everywhere she went last week, Casolo's articulate, careful and seemingly rehearsed story-telling apparently impressed--even inspired--many in her audiences.

Few question her commitment. Some suggest she may be naive.

Casolo says she always tried to keep her opinions to herself while she was working in El Salvador, that she tried to serve as a "bridge" between visiting delegations and the Salvadorans, so that visitors could see a complete, unadulterated, multifaceted picture of a complex country.

Now, however, her opposition to the right-wing Salvadoran government and to U.S. support of it has become clear. Her politics seem to color some of her analyses. For example, though she condemns violence from all sides, she is eloquent criticizing the military but falters when asked to comment on controversial tactics employed by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas in their recent urban offensive.

And it is evident that she empathizes with what many see as a class struggle in El Salvador.

"My sympathies are with the poor and those who try to be peacemakers. If that's enough to get me in prison, then that's an honor, too," she told The Times in an interview last month inside prison.

"I identify completely with the suffering of the Salvadoran people. I used to be ashamed of being poor when I grew up, embarrassed at my clothes. I learned through the Salvadoran people that poverty is not the result of individual failings but a result of unjust structures."

Casolo has admitted she buried personal items in her back yard, but she contends they were placed in a part of the garden apart from where the weapons were allegedly found. The items include tapes of Latin American protest music, written proposals for development projects such as a clinic and a chicken coop, and manuals that instruct peasants on how to make posters and pamphlets.

She said it was necessary to hide the items to keep them out of the hands of army troops who, as part of a crackdown on the church and on dissidents, were raiding the homes and offices of numerous foreign church workers and missionaries.

Becoming Politicized

During its investigation, the military released a videotape that it said showed the excavation of Casolo's back yard the night of the raid on her house. The tape, which has several interruptions, covered a portion of the raid showing weapons being removed from a large, deep tunnel-like cavity, along with items that officials said belonged to Casolo.

It is not clear whether the items Casolo admits burying are the same items the military claims they removed from the tunnel. Casolo said last week she had not yet seen the videotape.

That Casolo, an honors graduate from Brandeis University, would end up in El Salvador is the result of both happenstance and design.

Inspired by a high school Spanish teacher who imparted the "social realities" of Latin America, Casolo says she planned her life to include a year of college study in Spain and then, after graduation, work in a Latin American country. What she did not count on was that the Latin American country would be El Salvador.

"I didn't want to go to a dangerous place," she said, describing her motives after graduating from Brandeis in 1983.

"I had my jeans jacket, my scarf from Europe, and I barely believed in Jesus. I didn't want to join one of these Christian-y groups. I didn't want to join the Peace Corps and become an instrument of Reagan policy. I wasn't very political, but I knew enough to know that I didn't want to do that."

She turned to the Brethren Volunteers Service of Elgin, Ill., social-action arm of the pacifist Church of the Brethren, known for its draft resistance during the Vietnam War era.

The Brethren dispatched Casolo to Seattle to work with Salvadoran refugees. Living on the third floor of a church with 23 refugees, Casolo said, she helped them get free dental and medical care, attended PTA meetings and, most importantly, helped fill out their applications for political asylum in the United States.

Hearing their tales of torture, rape and repression at the hands of Salvadoran authorities persuaded Casolo that she should work in El Salvador.

Cries of the Imprisoned

"I met people who had faced death and lived, and I wasn't so afraid anymore," she said. "I felt I could not separate myself, as a U.S. citizen, from the war that was happening there. . . . I didn't know what I was going to find in El Salvador. I wasn't going down as a radical. I just wanted to do something for the people."

What happened over the next years, she said, was not a process of radicalization as much as a "deepening of understanding."

The story Casolo most often tells when she speaks to groups involves an interrogation, three days into her arrest, and the young police lieutenant who became her foil.

She was placed in a so-called "hairy room," a 6-foot-by-6-foot cell where the floor and walls were covered with shag carpeting for soundproofing. It was one of eight such cubicles lined up in a row.

Casolo says she could watch other prisoners--Salvadorans--blindfolded, shoeless, being led into adjoining booths.

"I didn't witness the interrogations," she tells one audience as she fights back tears. "I heard them. From the soundproof rooms, I could hear the cries, the moans, the screams. I could hear flesh hitting flesh. Furniture hitting flesh. Choking. Vomiting."

A consular officer from the U.S. Embassy who visited her regularly brought her a deck of cards. She says she taught some of her jailers card tricks and games.

One night she was playing the card game Concentration with four of her guards, when word spread that "The Lieutenant" was coming. Quickly, they gathered the cards and put them away.

The 24-year-old, fair-haired lieutenant entered her cell with two other officers and began what Casolo described as a good-cop, bad-cop routine. The lieutenant wore a T-shirt with a picture of the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character wearing jammers and dark shades. The label "Sun Devil" was printed on the shirt.

"His first question to me was, 'What does "Sun Devil" mean?' " Casolo said. She told him--"Diablo del Sol"--then produced her own T-shirt, which protested a nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon. Her shirt said, "No Diablo."

"That sort of set the terms for the night," she says.

Symbol of Love

The night wore on, with questions repeated endlessly. Who gave her the weapons? Where did they come from? Endlessly, she repeated she did not know.

When at some point during the night, the screams in the next booth became louder than she could bear, Casolo said she closed her eyes and settled into a meditative position. Tears streamed down her face. She repeated the vows of a nun who asked God to let her be a symbol of what it means to love.

The police accused her of crying for her "terrorist friends." She responded they were the same tears she would shed for any of them.

With that, the lieutenant ordered his men to halt the beatings of the prisoner next door.

The tone of the conversation changed, she said. She and the lieutenant shared stories of their families, of what it was like to grow up poor, of how, in their own ways, each had tried to forge ahead and do more with their lives.

"I saw his humanity," Casolo said.

Casolo says she is concerned that her current national tour could go to her head, make her forget what she says are the values of humility that she learned in El Salvador.

"The real challenge now is to maintain those values and operate in this medium," she said. To do so, she plans to join a "faith community" in Washington, living a modest life in humble surroundings with other activists, talking of peace and eating rice and beans.

"I hope that will keep me faithful," she said.

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