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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 224 | Marzo 2000


El Salvador

Monsignor Romero: Impunity in a Still-Open Case

ALLEGATION PRESENTED TO THE INTER-AMERICAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION Twenty years have passed since the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. On the anniversary of his death, the case has been resubmitted to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. This document sums up the legal course of a crime that shook not only El Salvador, but also the rest of Central America, Latin America and the whole world. It clarifies what happened and demands a response.

Viviana Krsticevic - María Julia Hernández

The events recounted here are based largely on the conclusions of the investigation the United Nations carried out through the Truth Commission for El Salvador in 1992-1993. To investigate the case of Monsignor Romero, the Truth Commission reviewed previous investigations and the judicial file as well as documents from various sources, and interviewed many confidential witnesses.

March 24, 1980: The assassination

On Monday, March 4, 1980, a professional assassin—the Truth Commission’s investigation did not succeed in discovering the sniper’s identity—acting on the order of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, leader of the death squads, fired a single shot that killed the Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez, in the middle of Mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador. Hours earlier, D’Aubuisson had met with Captain Alvaro Saravia, Fernando Sagrera and Captain Eduardo Avila in the home of Alejandro Cáceres in San Salvador. Cáceres informed those present that Monsignor Romero would give Mass that same day and suggested it would be a good opportunity to assassinate him. D’Aubuisson then ordered the assassination of Monsignor Romero and left Saravia in charge of carrying it out. Captain Avila, observing that a sniper was required, offered to contact one through Mario Molina. The details of this meeting in which D’Aubuisson and his accomplices planned Monsignor Romero’s assassination are based on the testimony of Amado Garay, then a driver for Alvaro Saravia, who was present at the meeting and who drove the car from which the sniper shot Monsignor Romero.

After picking up the sniper on Captain Avila’s order, Garay drove the individual in a red Volkswagen to the Hospital of Divine Providence and parked in front of the chapel where Monsignor Romero was giving Mass. The unknown man, who was bearded, ordered Garay to crouch down and pretend to be fixing something. As he did so, Garay heard a shot, turned around and saw the man, who "held a gun in both hands aimed out the right side of the car’s rear right window; the smell of gunpowder was in the air." This is what Garay declared in his statement to the Commission to Investigate Criminal Acts on November 19, 1987. The bullet, a single 22-caliber shot, fatally wounded Monsignor Romero by causing profuse hemorrhaging.

A non-violent man in a violent climate

Monsignor Romero was named Metropolitan Archbishop of San Salvador on February 3, 1977, and took office a few weeks later, on February 22. The country’s socio-political circumstances at this time strongly influenced his pastoral stands and activities. Monsignor Romero became an outspoken critic of the violence and social injustice that the Salvadoran people were suffering. His homilies aimed at publicly denouncing and containing the repression that was lashing the country during this time. For this reason, rightwing civilian and military circles saw Monsignor Romero as a dangerous enemy. They were deeply irritated by his homilies for including accounts of human rights violations.

It is no surprise, then, that the assassination charged here was preceded by a series of slanders, threats and attacks against Monsignor Romero’s life. A month before his death, at the end of February, Monsignor Romero met with various members of the second Government Junta and told them about the threats against him. He also commented that the threats seemed serious, and privately said that "not even in the time of General Romero was I so afraid." Around this time, the Papal Nuncio in Costa Rica, Monsignor Lajos Kada, also advised Monsignor Romero of similarly serious threats. Later, on Saturday March 22 and Sunday March 23, the nuns who worked in the Hospital of Divine Providence, where the Archbishop lived, received anonymous phone calls threatening him with death. Monsignor Romero referred to all this in his homily on Sunday, February 24, 1980. In speaking about one of these threats, he said among other things, "This week I received a warning that I am on the list of those who will be killed next week. But let it be known that no one can kill the voice of justice."
Two weeks before his death, on March 10, the Explosives and Demolition Unit of the National Police discovered a bomb near the high altar, behind the pulpit, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in San Salvador. Monsignor Romero had celebrated Mass in the Basilica the night before in memory of Mario Zamora Rivas, a political leader and attorney general assassinated by the death squads.

The bomb, which had not exploded, was found inside a suitcase containing 72 sticks of dynamite and an explosive device, enough to kill several of the people who officiated in this service or were seated in the first rows of the church. The investigation of this incident concluded that subversives had never before used this kind of bomb.

Ironically, in his homily on March 23, the day before his death, Monsignor Romero commented on the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." He called on the Armed Forces and the security forces in the country to stop repressing the people. The day of his assassination, his homily was given in memory of the mother of his friend Jorge Pinto, owner of the opposition newspaper El Independiente.

A negligent investigation from the very start

The judicial process began the same day, March 24, as case number 134-80 under the direction of San Salvador’s Fourth Criminal Court judge, who at that time was Atilio Ramírez Amaya. Unfortunately, it was clear from the outset that the process was thoroughly ineffective and improper. Though it dragged on for thirteen years, there was never either the ability or the desire to sanction the crime’s material and intellectual authors. In 1993, the Truth Commission concluded that "the investigation to determine responsibilities in the assassination of the Archbishop was not only ineffective, but also extremely contradictory and plagued by political motivations."
Negligence in the investigation began at the very start. Although the importance of investigating the scene of the crime in a homicide case is obvious, the National Police did not go to the chapel in the Hospital of Divine Providence to look over the scene and take the first photos until nine days after the crime. On top of this inexcusable negligence, the police also failed to collect material evidence of the crime at the scene. The police justified its lack of professional effectiveness in the search for evidence on a true fact: the nuns, Mothers Delfina and Luisa Isabel, had already washed away the traces of Monsignor Romero’s blood. What the police never explained is why they did not meticulously investigate the site where the weapon had been fired. It is also worth emphasizing that the nun’s pious acts could have been avoided if the police had acted immediately to prohibit anyone from touching the scene until they had meticulously collected all available evidence.

The failure to take these first measures presaged the negligence characterizing the actions of everyone responsible for the investigation. Other oversights followed. For example, the crime was committed during Mass before many people, some of whom may have seen what happened. Considering the fact that the authors drove a car and fled in it, it would have been important to have evidence about the car, which witnesses might have been able to provide. The police, however, made no effort to identify possible witnesses and obtain their statements. Not until nearly a year after the assassination did an eyewitness name Pérez García testify.

The deadly weapon

Judge Ramírez Amaya decided that the Policlínica Salvadoreña should do the autopsy on the Archbishop. A small hole, barely 5 millimeters in diameter, was found in the right thorax where the bullet entered the body. It did not leave the body but rather fragmented, provoking an internal hemorrhage that was the cause of death. Three of the fragments were taken for study. In an interview with the Truth Commission, Judge Ramírez Amaya maintained that the kind of bullet used could only have been a 22 or similar caliber. The police confirmed that it was a 22 caliber by the weight of the fragments, without reaching any more precise conclusions. This finding was never entered into the file, however. Not even the x-rays were included in the file. And three weeks after the crime, the National Police Director claimed that it was impossible to determine the caliber of the weapon. This closed many doors in the criminal investigation and made it infinitely more difficult to identify the specific weapon.

Worse than negligent

There is no doubt that efforts to block the investigation into Monsignor Romero’s death went beyond what can be defined as negligence. First, a campaign of terror was unleashed against Judge Ramírez Amaya, a key person in the investigation. Second, documents were hidden that contained information relevant to the assassination, including names of people who, it was later confirmed, had participated in planning, carrying out and covering up the crime. Third, Major D’Aubuisson waged a public campaign supported by the Armed Forces to try to falsely blame the assassination on the guerrillas.

With respect to the acts of intimidation, Judge Ramírez Amaya, who was in charge of the ballistic investigation, was shot at his own home on March 27, three days after being assigned to the case and while the autopsy was being carried out. The judge resigned from the investigation and left the country to reside in Costa Rica. The Truth Commission concluded that "there is sufficient evidence to show that the failed attempt to assassinate Judge Atilio Ramírez Amaya was a deliberate act to discourage the clarification of the events."

Evidence against D’Aubuisson

Regarding the hidden documents, the San Luis estate in Santa Tecla was searched on May 7, 1980, less than two months after Monsignor Romero’s assassination, and 12 active and retired military officers and 12 civilians were arrested, including Major Roberto D’Aubuisson. They were formally accused of conspiring to organize a coup d’état to overthrow the government. Several documents were seized on this occasion, including a Report of Accusations compiled by a South American informant against Monsignor Romero, an agenda belonging to Captain Alvaro Saravia, and two lists of top officials in the Salvadoran Armed Forces.

The "Saravia Agenda," as it was called, provided several pieces of information related to Monsignor Romero’s assassination. It referred to the purchase and delivery of a lot of weaponry, including 223 munitions, a type of 22-caliber bullet, as well as a Bushmaster and five AR-15 rifles, both of which fire22-caliber bullets, the caliber used to kill Monsignor Romero. Several people who directly participated in the assassination were named several times in the agenda. The name "Amado," the driver assigned to transport the assassin, was also mentioned, and there were records related to gasoline payments for a red car at the disposition of Captain Saravia. None of the documents seized at the San Luis estate were made available to the Fourth Criminal Court, and only years later, through the work of the Commission to Investigate Criminal Acts, did the court gain access to a copy of the agenda.

"The guerrillas did it"

With respect to the false accusations implicating the guerrilla in the assassination, D’Aubuisson broadcast a television spot in March 1984, during the presidential campaign, in which he presented a video of "Pedro Lobo," a supposed FMLN comandante, confessing to being an accomplice in the assassination of Monsignor Romero. Nearly immediately, "Pedro Lobo" was identified as a common criminal imprisoned from 1979-1981. He declared that he had been offered $50,000 to take responsibility for the assassination. In August 1985, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office presented the declaration of Roberto Adalberto Salazar Collier, "Pedro Lobo," to the Fourth Criminal Court. Salazar reiterated his statement on this occasion, but without mentioning D’Aubuisson’s name. Attempts by Judge Ricardo Alberto Zamora Pérez’s office to get the television stations to provide him a copy of the video with Salazar Collier’s earlier declaration came to naught. The Prosecutor’s Office then insisted that the television stations reveal who had provided and withdrawn the video, but the judge declared the petition out of order.
Nonetheless, D’Aubuisson continued to insist, with Armed Forces backing, that the guerrilla organization had assassinated Monsignor Romero. In September 1985, D’Aubuisson cited to the press a book entitled La conspiración del silencio (The Conspiracy of Silence) by Manuel de Armas, which alleges that Cuban agents carried out the crime.

1984: Case closed

The result of the Fourth Criminal Court’s investigation into the assassination of Monsignor Romero was that by the time concrete conclusions were finally reached on who was responsible, these people were dead, disappeared or out of the country in the United States. Even when it was still possible to extradite one of those responsible, Captain Alvaro Saravia, the Salvadoran Supreme Court actively tried to prevent the extradition and thus obstruct, once again, any possibility of achieving justice. With no results, the case was closed on December 12, 1984, over four years after the assassination.

1986: Case reopened, two sought

Not until January 1986, nearly six years after the assassination, did the Commission to Investigate Criminal Acts—established by José Napoleón Duarte’s government in the context of an electoral campaign against political sectors linked to the death squads—begin investigating Monsignor Romero’s assassination, and issue a report blaming the death squads. For the first time, this report included a photocopy of the "Saravia Agenda," six years after the Salvadoran government obtained it.

One of the commission’s steps was to take Amado Antonio Garay’s statement on November 20, 1987, and present it to Judge Zamora. In it, Captain Alvaro Saravia’s driver revealed all the details of the events surrounding Monsignor Romero’s assassination, and named Saravia and D’Aubuisson as involved in planning the crime and Héctor Antonio Regalado as the sniper. Regalado was second in charge of D’Aubuisson’s personal security, under Saravia. When Regalado testified before the commission, he denied having fired the shot, and the commission found no persuasive evidence that he had participated in the assassination. Garay did not know the bearded man who fired the shot that killed Monsignor Romero’s, and implicated Regalado on the basis of a photo taken in 1969, with a beard painted in, since his face most resembled the description he had given to identify the sniper.

Based on Garay’s testimony, Judge Zamora ordered Captain Saravia’s detention on November 24. Saravia, however, was in the United States at the time. Zamora also assigned the Central Elections Council to certify former Major D’Aubuisson’s condition as a congressional representative, the first step in requesting withdrawal of his parliamentary immunity so he could be required to testify in court. This never happened.

The Supreme Court’s complicity

Captain Saravia filed a writ of habeas corpus to prevent the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from requesting his extradition, which the Supreme Court did not address until a year later. In December 1988, the court ruled in totally unjustified form that "the testimony of Garay does not merit full faith. The witness gave his declaration seven years, seven months and twenty-four days after the events he relates occurred, which affects the credibility of his testimony."
This argument regarding Garay’s testimony on Saravia’s involvement has no validity. It is worth recalling that Garay worked as Saravia’s driver at the time of the crime. After nearly eight years, Garay may well have forgotten the exact words Saravia used when he ordered Garay to drive the assassin to the scene of the crime, or when he himself reported to D’Aubuisson on the result of the action. But, given the nature of the crime and the person who gave the order, it is unacceptable for the Supreme Court to allege that Garay did not remember the origin of his participation in the events, no matter how much time had elapsed. The Court also ruled that the prosecutor general did not have the authority to request Saravia’s extradition, again blocking the possibility that at least one of the assassins would finally be held responsible.

1993: the truth is told and amnesty decreed

On March 15, 1993, five years after these events, the Truth Commission for El Salvador issued its report, which included its conclusions on the case of Monsignor Romero. The Truth Commission had been established in the Peace Accords that put an end to twelve years of war.

Five days later, on March 20, the government of President Alfredo Cristiani and the National Congress issued decree number 486, the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace, thus conceding "broad, absolute and unconditional amnesty to all those persons who have participated in any form in the commission of political crimes, common crimes linked to these, and common crimes committed by a group of no less than twenty persons, before January 1, 1992." It specifically adds that this "amnesty is extended to persons referred to in article 6 of the Law for National Reconciliation, contained in legislative decree number 147 of January 23, 1992." This decree refers to "persons who, according to the Truth Commission Report, participated in serious acts of violence that occurred since January 1, 1980, whose mark on society has made it especially urgent that the public know the truth."
In article 2, the General Amnesty Law expands the definition of a political crime to include "crimes against the public peace," "crimes against judicial activity," and crimes "committed with the motive or as a consequence of the armed conflict, without taking into consideration the person’s condition, militancy, affiliation or political ideology." Article 6 of the law expressly overrides the norm on the ineligibility for amnesty of those found responsible in the Truth Commission Report. The National Reconciliation Law stipulated that the legislature could issue a resolution on these cases up to six months after the release of the report.

Case slammed shut

On March 31, eleven days after the Amnesty Law was passed, Judge Luis Antonio Villeda Figueroa, one of the five judges who have participated in the case of Monsignor Romero, definitively suspended charges against Captain Alvaro Saravia based on the Amnesty Law. He did not issue a verdict on D’Aubuisson’s role in the crime, on the grounds that D’Aubuisson was never charged since he had enjoyed immunity as a congressional representative throughout the process. By this time, D’Aubuisson was dead. Judge Villeda Figueroa made no mention of former Captain Eduardo Avila, Fernando Sagrera or Mario Molina, who were mentioned in the Truth Report, though not in the Fourth Criminal Court’s investigation.

This decision from the Fourth Criminal Court was confirmed on May 13, 1993, in consultation with the First Criminal Chamber of the First Section of the Center on the grounds that it was "decided in accord with the law." With this confirmation, all possibility of achieving any kind of justice in the case of Monsignor Romero was completely closed.

Truth without justice

The Salvadoran government has never denied that Monsignor Romero was assassinated at the hands of state agents, operating as death squads. As the government of the Republic of El Salvador indicated in its response to the suit filed with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission at the end of 1993, El Salvador accepted the Truth Commission Report’s conclusions.

The government of El Salvador stated that "the Truth Commission Report represented a very important, necessary step in the Salvadoran peace process." It added in its official declaration that the "Office of Ombudsperson for Human Rights, an institution created by the Peace Accords, concluded a public statement on March 27, 1993, with a call to the government of the Republic, the various political sectors, the Armed Forces and the institutions of the Republic to consider the conclusions and recommendations of the Truth Commission Report from an ethical and historical perspective, as a necessary choice in affirming peace, an indispensable step towards effective reconciliation and a starting point for establishing a national consensus to pardon and begin the common search for a democratic society."
But in granting full amnesty to all people named by the Truth Commission as responsible for serious human rights violations, even those who had already been condemned in the courts and those thousands whose crimes were never investigated, the Salvadoran government closed all possibility that the victims and the victims’ families will ever see justice done.

A legal framework of impunity

With the amnesty decree, El Salvador established norms that would become a complex legal framework of impunity on behalf of state agents who committed human rights violations. This framework has blocked the Salvadoran people’s authentic transition to democracy. When there are no laws to punish the violent brutality that led to the deaths of thousands, including Archbishop Romero, what lessons can the bloody experience of a civil war leave the Salvadoran people? The state’s total unwillingness to punish those responsible is a direct challenge to its own authority. How can a government that has lost all credibility govern a people? Those governments suffering from anarchy need not look beyond their own pasts to discover the cost they have had to pay for their own impunity.

In granting amnesty, the Salvadoran state washed its hands of its duty to investigate. In the case of Monsignor Romero, the judicial process under the authority of San Salvador’s Fourth Criminal Court was closed 13 days after the Truth Commission published its final report on the true facts and circumstances of the assassination, including the names of those responsible.

The Truth Commission’s limits

It is worth observing that, in its recommendations, the Truth Commission did not ask the Salvadoran government that those individuals identified as responsible for crimes be accused in a criminal court. Despite the Truth Commission’s importance in establishing the truth about what happened, it cannot be considered an adequate substitute for a judicial process when the state has not exercised its punitive functions.

It is also important to emphasize that the Salvadoran government gave the Truth Commission a very short period to investigate serious human rights violations committed during a war that lasted over a decade. The Truth Commission had only eight months to complete an investigation of events that occurred between 1980-1991. Obviously, it would have been impossible in eight months to discover the truth of the many terrible injustices committed during a war that cost the lives of over 75,000 Salvadorans. This was not even the objective. The Truth Commission’s mandate was to investigate the most significant events, those that had the greatest impact on society in general. The work of the Truth Commission concluded with the clarification of events in cases such as the assassination of Monsignor Romero and the massacre of El Mozote. In response to most of the denunciations the Truth Commission received in this short time, it only managed to include the names of the victims or their family members and the account of what happened.

"Serious and troubling" reactions

The publication of the Truth Commission Report provoked negative reactions from several of the state institutions named by the United Nations experts as responsible for the violations and thus potential candidates for reform. As mentioned by the commission in its 1994 Annual Report on El Salvador, the Salvadoran Armed Forces issued a statement on March 23, 1993, in which it refused to recognize the import of the Truth Commission Report, describing it as "unjust, incomplete, illegal, anti-ethical, biased and impertinent," and affirming its "pride in having fulfilled its mission to defend our people and contribute, as demonstrated by its actions throughout this period, to the pacification and preservation of our democratic, republican system."
With respect to the judicial branch, the branch of government most heavily criticized by the Truth Commission Report for its ineffectiveness and tolerance of impunity during the conflict and its inability to function, the Supreme Court of Justice also officially rejected the report.

In its 1994 Annual Report on El Salvador, the commission described the Salvadoran authorities’ attitude in response to the Truth Commission’s recommendations, both in relation to individual investigations and in general, as a fact with "serious and troubling" ramifications for reconciliation.

While the Amnesty Law was adopted as a reaction to the report, the Salvadoran government itself tried to minimize the relevance of its contents and never took any steps to recognize its own responsibility in the slightest.

No sanctions, no reparations

In the case of Monsignor Romero, none of the components of reparation have been fulfilled. None of the people affected or family members of the victim has received any monetary compensation for material or moral damages. The Salvadoran state has not recognized responsibility for what happened, nor has it privately asked forgiveness from the Archbishop’s family, nor has it publicly apologized to the Salvadoran people, nor has it sanctioned any of those responsible. Although the Salvadoran people know the truth of what happened, impunity continues to reign over such a significant crime.

The Salvadoran state is responsible

At the end of 1993, the Monsignor Romero case was presented before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, headquartered in Washington DC. On at least two occasions—on February 13, 1996 and April 2, 1997—the commission reiterated to the Salvadoran government, in response to its total silence, that it must respond to the allegations and provide the evidence pertinent to the case. Not until February 2, 1998, nearly five years after the case was presented to the Commission, did the government respond to its petition for the first time.

In its late response, the government merely defended El Salvador’s Amnesty Law. The official response also accused those who filed the complaint with the commission of "having particular interests influenced by other concerns" and no real commitment to human rights. The Salvadoran government thus made quite clear that it does not intend to fulfill its international obligations and is simply trying to get the commission to close the case.

The Salvadoran state’s responsibility in the violation of the right to live and other rights related to guarantees of judicial protection and due process is clear. For this reason, the Center for Justice and International Law and the Legal Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador denounce El Salvador’s violation of the American Convention on Human Rights and respectfully request that the commission declare the state in violation of articles 4, 8, 25, 1.1 and 2 of the Convention and stipulate the reparation for damages caused by the violation of these rights. We also request that the commission communicate with the government of El Salvador to require the remission of all items contained in the judicial file of case number 11,481 on the assassination of Monsignor Romero.

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