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The Truth about the murder of Oscar Romero may be approaching its conclusion.

Matt Eisenbrandt - The Tablet - Wed, Oct 11th 2017


One person characterised the impact of Blessed Oscar Romero’s murder in El Salvador on 24 March 1980 as “of a magnitude that is hardly describable”. I was only four years old, and the significance of the event did not register in my world at the time. Twenty-four years later, though, as a green lawyer at the California-based Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA), I found myself part of a team taking one of his killers to court.

At first glance, it seems astonishing that the only trial ever held for Romero’s murder took place in a courtroom in the United States. But perhaps it should not be so surprising: El Salvador has never provided justice for the murder not only of Romero but of thousands of other civilians killed in decades past, most of them at the hands of government soldiers.

During a civil war sparked in part by Romero’s death, impunity was the rule. Following the conflict, and just five days after a detailed truth commission report named those responsible for the most notorious atrocities, El Salvador’s legislature passed a sweeping amnesty law that blocked prosecutions for the next 23 years.

The US played a dominant role in the civil war. Its government bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars, along with weapons, training and advisers, on the Salvadoran military despite knowing it was responsible for unspeakable abuses, including the El Mozote massacre. The conflict forced more than one million civilians to flee their homes, and many of them survived perilous journeys before eventually finding refuge in the US. Other Salvadorans, however, left their country by choice. Senior army figures, some with close ties to the US Government, retired to such places as Tennessee and Florida.

There were US victims of the repression as well. In late 1980, Salvadoran security forces ambushed, raped, and murdered four women: Maryknoll nuns Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan, a lay missionary. The women, much like Archbishop Romero, became symbols of the military’s barbarity.

These Catholics were targeted under the perverted rationale that they were “communists”. The steadfastness of their families in seeking justice for the women’s deaths eventually led to the discovery that two of the men responsible, both Salvadoran ministers of defence during the war, had relocated to Florida. Although a legal effort to hold them accountable for the murders failed, it created an opening that eventually allowed us to bring the assassination of Romero to court in the US. 

Before my time at CJA, the organisation was already implementing a strategy to address the presence of Salvadoran war criminals in the United States by suing them on behalf of US-based survivors. The first victory came in 2002, when a federal jury held the former ministers of defence responsible for the torture of three Salvadorans. The verdict showed that these lawsuits could succeed when the defendants were living in the US, and it exposed the absurdity of the amnesty law that had blocked such cases in El Salvador. The $54.6-million judgement, however, reflected a US approach, with civil lawsuits the avenue to justice rather than criminal prosecutions. The ministers of defence owed large sums in compensation to the survivors – but they did not go to jail.

When CJA discovered that another perpetrator was living in the US, it gave us the opportunity to seek justice for Oscar Romero. There was substantial evidence that Álvaro Saravia, a former air force captain, was implicated in Romero’s murder, and reports indicated that he was living in Modesto, California, two hours from our office in San Francisco. I had only just settled in as a new lawyer at CJA when I found myself in the team working on the investigation. Together with a private law firm, we launched the case against Saravia in September 2003.

At the time of Romero’s assassination, Saravia was a key member of a death squad headed by another ex-military officer, Roberto D’Aubuisson, who died in 1992. Though D’Aubuisson would later claim greater fame as a politician, in 1980 he was running paramilitary operations while also holding press conferences with Salvadoran businessmen denouncing his opponents as communists and traitors.

D’Aubuisson’s alliance with wealthy elites did not stop with those public events. Some of these oligarchs also funded and supported D’Aubuisson’s death squad. Many of these people had business, school, or family connections to the US. While we believed that Saravia should be held accountable for his crimes, he was not our only target – he had long been a scapegoat for others who also bore responsibility for Romero’s death. We hoped to work up the chain of command and gather enough evidence so that those at the top with ties to the US could also be brought into the case.

Our trial against Saravia began in August 2004. Saravia himself was not present. He had disappeared around the time we filed the case. Despite our extensive efforts to track him down, by the time the trial began we had yet to speak directly to him. Because of Saravia’s extensive connections with the US, the suit could still go forward as a “default”. This gave us the opportunity to introduce evidence not only of Saravia’s role in the assassination of Romero but also the impact of Romero’s death on El Salvador and the world, which would determine the punitive damages Saravia would be ordered to pay.

I only truly began to understand the impact Romero had made during the year I spent transfixed by his case. In the days before the trial, I shed tears while I read through the file with the declarations we had collected from people from across the social spectrum, each a testimony to the transforming role Romero had played in their lives. South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu described him as “one of those great men to be remembered and revered for his defence of human rights and belief that this is a moral universe”. The Jesuit Jon Sobrino wrote: “Romero helped me more than anything with being human in a world of death and injustice.”

At the end of the trial, the court declared that Romero’s murder was “a crime against humanity”, and found Saravia legally responsible. The $10-million verdict sent Saravia into hiding, from which he has still not emerged. He has never paid a penny of what he owes, nor has he seen the inside of a jail cell.

The last few years, however, have provided some glimmers of hope. In 2015, after many tortuous delays, the Vatican at last beatified Romero as a martyr. The following year, El Salvador’s Supreme Court, citing international human rights standards, finally invalidated the amnesty law. Since then, a few criminal cases concerning atrocities committed during the civil war have been launched or reopened. The defence ministers found complicit in torture by a US court have been deported to El Salvador; they face a criminal complaint filed there by two of the torture survivors who had sued them in Florida. One faces charges for the massacre at El Mozote. The homicide case against Álvaro Saravia for Romero’s murder has been reinstated. And Pope Francis, who recently made Romero’s friend Gregorio Rosa Chávez El Salvador’s first cardinal, is soon to canonise Romero.

Tremendous though these developments are, it is too soon to declare victory. Real progress can only be made in the criminal cases if the Salvadoran authorities show a serious commitment. The prosecutor’s office has already pointed out that it lacks personnel and resources. The president, once a guerrilla commander, has criticised the revocation of the amnesty law. The Salvadoran Supreme Court recently invalidated arrest warrants issued against military officials for their alleged involvement in the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989.

Though cautious, I am hopeful that the repeal of the amnesty law in El Salvador will provide an avenue to finally bring real justice in the case of the murder of Oscar Romero. Álvaro Saravia is currently the only named defendant but there is an opportunity to prosecute other conspirators still living. The truth commission and other investigations, including ours, produced a list of people with direct ties to Romero’s assassination. Other Salvadorans have been linked to support for Roberto D’Aubuisson’s death squad. A full accounting of their crimes is long overdue.

If the magnitude of Oscar Romero’s murder is “hardly describable”, as the US federal court judge Oliver Wanger declared in his 2004 verdict against Saravia, the Government and courts of El Salvador owe the Salvadoran people nothing less than a full investigation into all those alleged to be responsible, no matter how high up the social and political ladder the evidence leads. Only then will justice truly be achieved for El Salvador’s saint.

Matt Eisenbrandt is a US human rights lawyer and the author of Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Oscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice (University of California Press).

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