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  Number 345 | Abril 2010
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El Salvador

Monsignor Romero’s Murder: Thirty Years of Impunity

President Mauricio Funes made the following declaration on March 24, the 30th anniversary of Monsignor Romero’s murder: “In the name of the Salvadoran State I ask forgiveness for that assassination committed 30 years ago. First, I ask forgiveness of Monsignor Romero’s family, which has my deepest condolences and my unconditional support in its struggle to get to the truth. I ask forgiveness of the Salvadoran people, who were, are and will continue being Monsignor Romero’s great family, heir, custodian of his sermons and teachings. I ask forgiveness of the Salvadoran and universal Catholic Church, which has in Monsignor Romero one of its most exemplary pastors. I ask forgiveness of the thousands of families affected by such unacceptable and illegal violence, especially members of the religious communities who feel represented by Monsignor Romero’s spirit and keep alive his legacy of peace and respect forhuman rights.” All that remains is for the Amnesty Law to be overturned so that those responsible for murdering him and so many other Salvadorans can be investigated, tried and punished.

Elaine Freedman

In his homily of October 27, 1978, Monsignor Romero stated that “only justice can be the root of peace.” Nine months later, in June 1979, in light of the upsurge of both selective and massive repression by Carlos Humberto Romero’s government, he proclaimed, “I have faith, brothers, that one day all of this darkness will come out into the light and so many disappeared, so many murdered and unidentified bodies and so many kidnappings in which nobody knew who was responsible will have to come out into the light. And then, perhaps, we will be amazed by who their perpetrators were.”

Romero was well aware that sooner or later he, too, would join that mountain of “so many disappeared and so many murdered and so many bodies,” with only the “privilege” of having been identified and vindicated by the people of El Salvador, the people of Latin America and the world as Saint Romero. Yet even so, 30 years after his assassination, those responsible—the same people who murdered so many others—continue to enjoy impunity.

The Inter-American
Commission’s judgment

It has been 17 years since then-director of the San Salvador Archbishopric’s Office of Legal Tutelage, María Julia Hernández, and Romero’s brother Tiberio Arnoldo Romero, took Monsignor Romero’s case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an autonomous institution of the Organization of American States. And 10 years have passed since it issued its decision on the case.

The IACHR concluded that “the slow justice was not a spontaneous phenomenon. In this case, it emerged as a product of the strategic and concerted actions that hindered the Supreme Court of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office and the Courts from acting impartially and producing a fair trial, in accordance with the guarantees of due process.” It ruled that the Salvadoran State bore responsibility in the denial of justice in the case and made three recommendations: 1. Conduct a complete and effective judicial investigation with the aim of identifying, judging and punishing all of the perpetrators and instigators; 2. Make reparations for all the consequences of the stated violations, including the payment of just compensation; and 3. Bring the internal legislation into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, with the aim of rendering the General Amnesty Law of 1993 null and void.

The systematic refusal
of the ARENA governments

During the governments of Francisco Flores and Antonio Saca, the case remained stuck in the IACHR. The State of El Salvador denied responsibility in the assassination of Monsignor Romero and refused to comply with the Commission’s recommendations. It also refused even to discuss proposed reparations presented by the petitioners in a joint work meeting. That proposal included, among other reparations, the holding of a public event in which the State would recognize its responsibility and ask for forgiveness; the creation of a square in honor of Monsignor Romero’s memory; the prohibition of any homage to those responsible for his death; and the inclusion of the IACHR’s recommendations and conclusions in the history study plans of the Salvadoran school system.

At the end of Antonio Saca’s presidential term, Francisco Laínez, then Saca’s foreign minister and subsequently the presidential candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in 2009, initiated a questionable process of talks with the Salvadoran Catholic Church hierarchy, represented by Archbishop Sáenz Lacalle, a member of Opus Dei.

The Right in both government and the Archbishopric conspired to “erase” the case prior to an IACHR follow-up hearing
in 2007 requested by the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office. During the talks an attempt was made to reach agreements with “the affected party” (the Catholic Church) that would not involve compliance with the IACHR’s recommendations, but would end the discord among the Commission and Church faithful toward the government position. Both the Catholic hierarchy and the government tried to obviate the binding nature of the IACHR’s recommendations.

The government and Church held two meetings in less than a week, during which the government insisted that it would assume no responsibility in the case and was unwilling to repeal the Amnesty Law. The only thing it would negotiate was the recommendation on material reparation and symbolic moral reparation.

The ARENA government’s position was to be expected. It would have been improbable for it to adopt any other position given that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder and maximum symbol of the ARENA ideology, is at the center of the accusations of intellectual responsibility for the assassination of Romero, an act that is an essential piece of the party’s identity. Without Romero’s murder, it is impossible to imagine D’Aubuisson’s rise through the social and political fabric of the Salvadoran Right and the development of the ARENA party during the eighties.

Funes takes the initiative
in the IACHR

For lawyer Leonora Arteaga, a member of the Monsignor Romero Concertation, “the Salvadoran State’s actions under the new administration of Mauricio Funes, requesting a hearing by the Inter-American Commission for the purpose of recognizing its responsibility in this case, was really an unprecedented historic event.”

On November 6, 2009, David Morales, former legal adviser to the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office and current director of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Human Rights Office and thus the Salvadoran government’s representative before the IACHR in the Romero case, established two major issues. First, he accepted the Salvadoran State’s responsibility in the terms the IACHR had declared in 2000: responsibility for both the violation of the right to life and the lack of judicial guarantees and access to justice in the case. And second, he declared that the State was assuming two commitments for the reparation of the victims: the production of an official video on the life and legacy of Monsignor Romero and the holding of a public event to ask for forgiveness and recognize the State’s responsibility.

Very important, but much is pending

The two proposals for the Salvadoran State’s reparation, complied with in the framework of the 30th anniversary of Romero’s murder, are not its own initiatives. They were proposed in 2007 by the two institutions representing the victim: the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).

That proposal also included a public event to beg forgiveness in the Metropolitan Cathedral before the victims, the people and diplomatic representatives, and in the presence of the State institutions, particularly representatives of the Armed Forces. In the end the request for pardon was held at the National Comalapa Airport, where the government unveiled a mural dedicated to Monsignor Romero, El Salvador’s emblematic martyr.

Arteaga sees the event as “very important,” but is concerned that “nobody’s losing any sleep over this. It sits well with both sides.” The IACHR recommendations that would directly transform the situation of impunity in this and so many other cases remain pending.

What about the investigation,
trial and punishment?

In the historical November 2009 IACHR hearing, the Commission’s vice president gave the Salvadoran State a month to deliver a report on the progress made in its obligation to investigate Monsignor Romero’s murder and change the legislation in order to nullify the 1993 Amnesty Law.

In the context of this hearing, Morales’ declaration, affirming that the executive branch can only suggest that the Attorney General’s Office take up the case, again cast a shadow over expectations about compliance with this transcendental recommendation. This was later reinforced with the President’s declarations to the press following the official event at the airport.

Replying to questions from journalists, Funes said, “Go ask the Attorney General why he doesn’t open a inquiry into this case and go ask the jurisdictional organs why they don’t start an investigation into these cases. The Constitution of the Republic clearly delimits the investigation of crimes as the responsibility of the Office of Attorney General, so nobody is asking for the President to overstep the limits that correspond to his executive mandate.”

Despite this, many are hoping that President Funes will take the initiative in his capacity as head of State, given that he has referred to Monsignor Romero as the spiritual guide of his government. “We understand that at this point there have already been conversations between the executive branch and the Attorney General’s Office regarding the case,” explained Adelaida de Estrada, a lay member of the Monsignor Romero Concertation, “but this has been maintained at a very low level with respect to being the promoters of a process.”

Rather, in another speech alluding to the 30th anniversary of Monsignor Romero’s martyrdom, the President stated that “If we remember and honor Romero’s memory we cannot and must not attack in his name those who attacked him while he was alive, those who cut his life short, and much less can we clamor for revenge…” Given that none of the country’s sectors is “clamoring for revenge,” many interpret this kind of comment as a reluctance to take the lead in a judicial process that could end up with real sentences for those instigators and perpetrators of the crime who are still alive.

Priest Miguel Ventura, historical liberation theology leader in El Salvador, commented that “In a country like ours, if the process to try the real murderers of a person as transcendental as Monsignor Romero isn’t conducted, we won’t reach true peace. It’s a necessary step to generate confidence among people that the new government won’t look out for the interests and privileges of just a few.”

The apple of discord
is the amnesty law

The Amnesty Law was approved unanimously by the Legislative Assembly in March 1993 to “generate confidence in the whole of society, with the aim of reconciling and reunifying the Salvadoran family.”

But rather than “confidence,” the law has maintained discord among Salvadoran society. Angela Romero, founder of the Association in Search of Disappeared Children whose daughter was kidnapped by the Armed Forces and whose peasant husband was murdered, recalls the passing of that terrible law with indignation: “How can you believe that all the big criminals who ordered the murders, massacres, disappearances, are going to go free? We want them to be tried. We want justice.” There are few signs from the Legislative Assembly of any initiative to repeal the law, as the parties of the Right have systematically expressed their unwillingness to even consider the idea.

The FMLN has waffled
on the amnesty issue

The FMLN has had many different positions on the issue and there has always been dissent within its ranks. In light of the Truth Commission process and as part of the negotiations over the reinsertion projects, Joaquín Villalobos, still a member of the FMLN General Commandership at the time, took the initiative The IACHR’s recommendations that would directly transform the situation of impunity in this and so many other cases remains pending.to bilaterally negotiate the Amnesty Law with the Cristiani government and the US Departments of Defense and State. Villalobos himself referred to this in 2009 in his article, “The other negotiation.” Although his actions did not represent consensus on the issue within the FMLN, its results were finally accepted by that political force.

Twelve years later, during events to mark the 25th anniversary of Romero’s death, the FMLN publicly declared that “the peace accords were violated when application of the Truth Commission’s recommendations was not accepted, and those enjoying impunity were rewarded through the Amnesty Law and the repeal of two articles of the Reconciliation Law. It amounts to a debt with Salvadoran society. The UN Human Rights Committee already pointed out two years ago that the right to truth was being violated and called for the repeal of that Amnesty Law, as we and other sectors have done.”

In its most recent public declarations on the matter, FMLN General Coordinator Medardo González stated, without committing himself to anything, that “there is a need to reflect and take a position on whether that Amnesty Law is to be removed or not, whether the path is to be left free to judge all the people who participated in these kinds of murder.”

The grassroots clamor
and honoring his memory

Since his presidential campaign, Mauricio Funes has sustained that he will not promote the repeal of the Amnesty Law and has repeated again and again that the wounds of the past mustn’t be reopened. Both the Monsignor Romero Concertation and Human Rights Ombudsperson Oscar Luna have urged the President to promote the repeal in the Legislative Assembly, while the annual grassroots pilgrimage to commemorate Romero’s murder every March 24 has made that demand its main slogan. But such calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Supreme Court Justice Mirna Perla argues that the Amnesty Law can quite simply be ignored, given that it is a secondary law that must be in accordance with the constitutional framework. “The Constitution of the Republic,” she explains, “establishes the right of people who have been victims of a crime to receive justice.” And she states that constitutional norms prevail over any secondary law. However, the non-application mechanism requires judges with a high degree of independence, integrity and bravery, a combination not easy to find among most of the justice system officials in El Salvador.

President Funes argues that the Amnesty Law does not need to be repealed to judge Monsignor Romero’s murderers given that his assassination is classified as a crime against humanity. However, repeal is necessary to ensure justice in the many other cases of murder and disappearance. Romero never accepted privileges for himself and his greatest talent was to throw in his lot with the poor of his land. Honoring his memory and complying with the IACHR’s recommendations that the Salvadoran State recognized as “binding” in November 2009 would involve honoring the grassroots clamor to repeal the amnesty.

The Church’s position

The current Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, supports the official position held by ARENA, the National Conciliation Party, the Christian Democratic Party and the President: “The Amnesty Law mustn’t be eliminated. Possibly, very possibly, we’d be stirring up things that would upset us as a society, and halt its reconciliation on both sides.” Such a position is no novelty in the Catholic Church, but it still hurts the thousands and thousands of Catholic faithful who lost relatives in the state repression of the seventies and eighties.

This kind of declaration, cushioned with words such as “possibly” and phrases such as “I’m not sure” and “at the end of the day it’s the representatives that will decide,” are a clear example of what Ventura criticizes when recalling that “Monsignor Romero was generating a position among people with his words and his example. He led people to take a position. But now the Church’s declarations are so watered down that it makes no difference whether they say them or not.”

Will the Legal Tutelage Office
remain a petitioner?

Of even greater concern have been the actions taken by the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office in following up on the IACHR case, given that it was the first petitioner in the case, representing the Church, the Romero Galdámez family and the Salvadoran people in their fight to establish the truth.

Days before the November 2009 hearing, the Legal Tutelage Office sent an official written communiqué to the IACHR stating that it would not be participating. Although non-participation is not the same as formally withdrawing from the case, it was clear that, under the guidance of Monsignor Richard Antall, the Office was relinquishing its predominant role in seeking justice in the Romero case. Under Antall, the Legal Tutelage Office has stopped participating in press conferences, mobilizations, forums and joint work arenas with social organizations interested in the case.

Arteaga commented that the Legal Tutelage Office’s action should move us to reflection and cause us indignation and pain, and that “this could open up a new chapter in the Inter-American Commission, because who will legally represent the case of Monsignor Romero then?” CEJIL accompanies local organizations in their proceedings before the IACHR, but this is not national representation.

She points out that since 2000 the IACHR itself has recognized the Salvadoran people as an aggrieved party in the case, in addition to Romero’s family and the Catholic Church. This means that representing the case is not limited to the Catholic Church. Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s other brother, Gaspar Romero, has taken a more active role in the case since 2009, but is limited by his delicate physical health. All of this highlights the possibility, first mentioned in 2007, of the Monsignor Romero Concertation or some other organization representing the Salvadoran people taking a leading role in the legal arena.

If figures such as Monsignor Romero had not passed through the Salvadoran Catholic Church, nobody would have expected anything other than what the Church has traditionally offered: unconditional support for the country’s dominant class. However, like Romero, other members of the clergy have also lived and continue to live their religious commitment through sharing the Salvadoran people’s search for liberation. For this reason, despite knowing the institutional Church’s political position and modus operandi very well, the Salvadoran people, whom Romero called his “prophet,” continue to await “a bishop on the side of the poor” and repeatedly feel betrayed by the ecclesial leadership.

Commemorating Romero’s death:
The mayor’s presence sparks anger

March 20 saw the “march of the lanterns,” a Mass celebrated in the atrium of the Metropolitan Cathedral, and a grassroots vigil in the Civic Plaza, all of them activities organized by the Monsignor Romero Foundation year after year under the direction of Romero’s friend, Monsignor Ricardo Urioste. As always, the activity was massively attended this year. The large turnout of young people, sparkling with energy, was particularly notable, once again belying that generalization about the apathy of today’s youth.

The March 20 activities had a bitter edge for the people gathered in the Civic Plaza. Sitting on the stage where the Mass was performed, alongside the seven bishops celebrating it, was the man many call the most successful ARENA politician of the moment: San Salvador’s Mayor Norman Quijano. Accompanied by his family, Quijano was given three official welcomes: one from the archbishop, one from a Guatemalan bishop and one from Monsignor Urioste. And each time, the public reacted with whistles and cries of “Norman, murderer!,” “Death squad member!,” “Get him down from there!”… Father Jon Sobrino, by contrast, was cheered when he called for a complete investigation into the case, the apportioning of responsibilities and the trial of the perpetrators and instigators.

In the words of Adelaida de Estrada, “It’s a lack of respect to the people to have individuals from a political project that produced Monsignor Romero’s death sitting in a place where they are calling for justice for this and other murders.” Monsignor Urioste gave a different interpretation in his intervention before the angry public. “You haven’t learned!” he admonished them. “If Monsignor Romero were here, he’d respect people regardless of their differences.” As Mayor Quijano told the press, he was at the Mass because he had been invited by the Cathedral parish.

Reflecting on the position of the ecclesial hierarchy, Estrada concluded that “we cannot punish a people that gets annoyed, becomes indignant when it’s being mocked. Christian indignation is a right and the Catholic Church must be more cautious. The people have been hit by the murder of the bishop and by so much injustice.”

Grassroots reactions
against D’Aubuisson

On March 24, the actual date of Romero’s murder, the grass roots continued its reaction in front of the monument to Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, erected in 2006 by the mayor of Antiguo Cuscatlán and inaugurated by then-President Elías Antonio Saca. The Grassroots Coordinator for Justice went there to demonstrate its indignation at the monument to the mastermind of the assassination.

They painted silhouettes of murdered people around the monument, threw eggs at it and bathed its commemorative plaques in black paint, replacing them with graffiti that said “Cristiani murderer” and other phrases alluding to the relationship between the ARENA party and the death squads.

While certain media, such as the digital newspaper El Faro, called such acts “vandalism,” the protesters were in fact providing grassroots follow -up on the moral reparation proposed in 2007 by María Julia Hernández, then director of the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office, who called for the prohibition of acts of homage to Romero’s murderers.

The communiqué released by the Grassroots Coordinator for Justice stated that “30 years after Monsignor Romero’s martyrdom, different social organizations are present in the square bearing the name of his murderer, Major D’Aubuisson, to protest the impunity that has been and continues to be enjoyed by Romero’s murderers and by the criminals who ordered the death of innocent civilians.”

Impunity still present

The grassroots protest against impunity not only covers historical cases like Monsignor Romero’s and those of other people murdered during the armed conflict, but also political murders still taking place today.

In the context of the 30th anniversary, Miguel Rivera, the brother of Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, an activist against the Pacific Rim mining company in Cabañas and that movement’s first martyr, said, “There are many cases like the one involving my brother Marcelo, who was killed for following the Monsignor’s example, and they are enjoying impunity as well.”

In February 2008 a grouping of several social organizations presented the Attorney General’s Office with a letter demanding it investigate a number of murders of human rights promoters in El Salvador, “because authorities responsible for investigating the crime are declaring a priori that the murders are committed by youth gang members or common criminals, which unquestionably affects our country. These declarations are made with no prior investigation and omit the parameters established by the Joint Group for the Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups with Political Motivation in El Salvador to determine the probability of politically motivated criminal actions. These parameters are: modus operandi, the victim’s profile and the perpetrators’ impunity.”

This covered 15 cases of “possible political murder,” a list that by the end of 2009 had increased to 26, according to the human rights organizations. At the end of Elías Antonio Saca’s presidential term on May 31, 2009, none of these cases had been exhaustively investigated, let alone resulting in a resolution that identified the perpetrators and instigators.

After nine months of the new government and six months of the new attorney general, the only thing that has changed is that the list has grown. In Cabañas alone there were five murders in 2009 related to the mining company’s actions.

Those who expected a radical and immediate change in the situation of impunity with the new government are still dissatisfied. The Salvadoran system is designed to favor those with more and until the system is changed it will be difficult for the correlation of forces to produce a positive balance with respect to real justice. In the words of Miguel Rivera: “It needs more than a simple change of government in El Salvador for there to be justice in our country.”

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in el salvador.

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