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Updated 06/22/2006

Impunity Denied: The Case of Archbishop Oscar Romero

On March 23, 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador sent an impassioned message to human rights abusers in his country during his weekly homily:  “In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression.” 

At a time when Salvadoran military and paramilitary forces were increasingly attacking supposed “dissidents,” this was a brave request, but it was not unusual for a man whom many considered to be “the voice of the voiceless.” The next day, as Romero was performing mass, a car carrying a professional assassin pulled up to the door of the church. The man fired a single, fatal shot to the archbishop’s chest and drove away. 

Romero’s assassination helped spark 12 years of civil war in El Salvador, and the murder both angered and frightened the populace. A civilian-military junta had taken over the Salvadoran government after a coup d’état in 1979, and military and paramilitary forces became increasingly bold and violent in their attempts to silence dissent. By killing the nation’s most revered religious leader, with impunity, the right-wing paramilitary solidified its image as a violent oppressor. And as a result of this heinous crime, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a union of leftist guerrilla groups, subsequently gained popular support. 

Until recently, the perpetrators, though known, have remained free and have never stood trial. That changed, however, in September 2003 when the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a civil suit against Alvaro Saravia, who was living in Modesto, Calif. at the time. Saravia was in the Salvadoran Air Force until 1979, when he began working with Roberto D’Abuisson, a far-right organizer and former major in the National Guard. D’Abuisson, who died of cancer in 1992, organized paramilitary groups and death squads as well as a right-wing political party that later came to rule El Salvador. He also ordered the assassination of Archbishop Romero.  

Both the U.N. Truth Commission in El Salvador and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in separate investigations, found that Saravia was a principal intermediary in organizing the archbishop’s murder. He provided weapons, transportation and payment to the hired assassin. Soon after the U.N. commission published its findings in 1993, however, El Salvador passed an amnesty law that granted immunity to all human rights abusers involved in the civil conflict. 

CJA filed a civil case against Saravia in the Federal U.S. District Court in Fresno, Calif., under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. The case was filed on behalf of relatives of Romero whose identities have not been disclosed for security reasons. Saravia was not present during the trial, nor did he have legal representation; he is believed to be in hiding. 

The court heard testimonies from a range of experts, diplomats and colleagues of Romero. Former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White said he believed the military knew about and protected death squads. Salvadoran Judge Atilio Amaya testified to the failure of the National Police to even appear at the crime scene or take evidence. He also recounted attempts on his life by persons allegedly connected to the National Police. Other witnesses emphasized how strongly the country valued the archbishop. Dr. Francisco Acosta stated, “For us, Oscar Romero was like Martin Luther King for the United States, or Gandhi for India.”  

Perhaps the most damning evidence was presented by Saravia’s driver in El Salvador, Amado Garay. On the day of the assassination, Garay testified, he picked up Saravia at his home and drove him to a house in an upper class neighborhood of San Salvador, where he dropped off Saravia and picked up the unidentified professional assassin.  Garay testified that he drove the sniper to the church under Saravia’s orders. After dropping off the sniper at the same house, he picked up Saravia and drove him to a meeting in San Salvador where he told D’Abuisson “mission accomplished.” 

On Sept. 3, 2004 Federal District Court Judge Oliver Wanger found Alvaro Saravia responsible for Romero’s murder and ordered him to pay $10 million in damages to the archbishop’s relatives. Although Saravia’s conviction and punishment is largely symbolic, the decision was hailed as long-awaited justice for Romero’s family and admirers, as well as a strong statement against impunity in general. Furthermore, according to CJA Litigation Director Matt Eisenbrandt, the decision may provide sufficient grounds for the U.S. immigration service to deport Saravia—which would send the important message that the United States will not provide a safe haven for human rights abusers. 

For more information

Complete information on the Romero case from the Center for Justice and Accountability

“The archbishop, the death squad and the 24-year wait for justice.” Independent UK; Aug. 24, 2004

“Man Is Found Liable in Killing of Salvadoran Archbishop.” The Associated Press.The New York Times; Sept. 4, 2004

“Ex-Salvadoran officer ruled liable in killing of archbishop in 1980.  First trial ever in case, but ex-airman has disappeared.” Tyche Hendricks. San Francisco Chronicle; Sept. 4, 2004

“New winds of justice for El Salvador.” Francisco Acosta. The Tidings; Oct. 1, 2004