Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 318 | Enero 2008


El Salvador

Who’s Defending Monsignor Romero?

Twenty-seven years of impunity after an assassination classified “a crime against humanity” by a US judge. Seven years of contempt by the Salvadoran state, as it sidesteps the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And since October 2007, a secret dialogue between the ARENA government and the Archdiocese of San Salvador to reach an “agreement.” So who’s defending Monsignor Romero?

Elaine Freedman

In March 1983, Brazilian bishop Pedro Casaldaliga wrote in his diary, “There is no way I can understand it, or rather I understand it too well: the photograph of the martyr Monsignor Romero with John Paul II on placards, which is utterly normal for the Pope’s visit, has been banned by the mixed government-Church of El Salvador commission. The martyr’s image hurts the persecuting and murderous government, and it’s natural it should hurt it. That it should hurt a certain sector of the Church is also natural, sadly natural.”

On October 11, 2007, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero again hit the headlines in La Prensa Gráfica: “Government asks Church for agreement on Romero case.” And once again, recent events related to the case of Monsignor Romero, the martyred priest who said he would be resurrected in his people, are all too sadly natural.

The truth commission’s verdict

The report issued in March 1993 by the three members of the Truth Commission—a former Colombian President, a former Venezuela Foreign Minister and a former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—included the following six conclusions on the assassination of Monsignor Romero:

1. Former Major Roberto D’Aubuisson gave the order to kill the archbishop and gave precise instructions to members of his security service, acting as a “death squad,” to organize and supervise the assassination.

2. Captains Alvaro Saravia and Eduardo Avila, together with Fernando Sagrera and Mario Molina, were actively involved in planning and carrying out the murder.

3. Amado Antonio Garay, the driver of former Captain Saravia, was assigned to drive the gunman to the Chapel. Mr. Garay was a direct witness when, from a red four-door Volkswagen, the gunman fired a single high-velocity .22 calibre bullet to kill the archbishop.

4. Walter Antonio “Musa” Alvarez, together with former Captain Saravia, was involved in paying the “fees” of the actual assassin.

5. The failed assassination attempt against Judge Atilio Ramírez Amaya was a deliberate attempt to deter investigation of the case.

6. The Supreme Court played an active role in preventing the extradition of former Captain Saravia from the United States and his subsequent imprisonment in El Salvador. In so doing, it ensured, inter alia, impunity for those who planned the assassination.

Case shelved in El Salvador

Five days after this report was issued, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly promulgated the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace. Known as the 1993 General Amnesty Law, this legislation exempted the perpetrators of atrocious and aberrant human rights violations from penal and civil responsibility, unacceptably annulling the rights of thousands of victims of those crimes.

Based on this Law, Judge Luis Antonio Villeda Figueroa definitively dismissed the case against Alvaro Saravia on March 31, 1993. He did not rule on Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) founder Roberto D’Aubuisson, arguing that he was never a formal suspect and that his death in 1992 had released him from any criminal responsibility. With that the penal process on the homicide of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero was closed and the case shelved, like so many others.

Six months later, the director of the Archdiocese of San Salvador’s Legal Protection Office, María Julia Hernández, and the Monsignor’s brother, Tiberio Arnoldo Romero y Galdámez, took the case to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (OAS/IACHR).

The IACHR proceedings took seven years and were characterized by zero collaboration from the Salvadoran state in handing over information; it even asked that the case be dropped. Meanwhile, the petitioners were joined by the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization with consultative status at the Organization of American States and the United Nations. They all stood firm in not accepting an amicable solution unless the Salvadoran state fully accepted its responsibility and pledged to take the necessary measures to investigate and punish those responsible for the crime.

The IACHR’s ruling

The IACHR ruled on the case on January 4, 2000. The investigation had included a number of irregularities, including the fact that the National Police went to the crime scene almost four days after the fact and provided no information or evidence whatsoever to help in the investigation; the testimony of Saravia’s driver, Amado Antonio Garay, who confessed to having transported the gunman to the site of the assassination, was rejected by the Supreme Court; there was no proper investigation of Major D’Aubuisson, Captains Saravia and Eduardo Ávila or civilians Eduardo Sagrera, Mario Molina and Walter Antonio “Musa” Álvarez, despite the existence of important incriminating elements; eyewitness Pedro Martínez was forcibly disappeared 20 days after he had picked up the injured Monsignor Romero to get him to the hospital; the attempt to kill Judge Atilio Ramírez Amaya, the judicial official in charge of the case just three days after Romero’s death; and the failure to investigate the kidnapping and subsequent death of “Musa” Álvarez, whom the IACHR accused of helping pay the killer.

The IACHR ruling concluded that “the sluggish pace of justice was not spontaneous. In this case it came about as the result of strategic and concerted actions that kept the Supreme Court of Justice, the Office of the Public Prosecutor of the Republic and the Courts from acting impartially and seeking a fair trial with due process guarantees.” It ruled that the Salvadoran state was responsible for the denial of justice in the case and issued three recommendations to it:

1. The holding of a complete and effective judicial investigation to identify, try and punish all of the direct perpetrators and planners of the violations established; 2) make reparations for all the consequences of those violations, including the payment of just indemnity; and 3) adapt its internal legislation to the American Convention, with the aim of nullifying the 1993 General Amnesty Law.

“If I talk, El Salvador trembles”

Like all OAS member states, El Salvador is obliged to comply with the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. According to the established agreements, the countries have a period of approximately three months to initiate compliance, but by July 2007 there was still no indication that the Salvadoran state was taking any steps in that direction.

However, some 4,000 kilometers north, in Fresno, California, former Salvadoran Air Force captain and right-hand man to Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, Alvaro Saravia, was convicted by a civil judge in September 2004 for his participation in planning the crime. He was judged under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act. In an unprecedented ruling, Judge Oliver Wagner called the assassination of Monsignor Romero “a crime against humanity.” Saravia, who had been living in the United States since 1987, did not attend the proceedings or send any legal representation.

Two years later Saravia was interviewed by the newspaper El Nuevo Herald, “from a country in Latin America,” just weeks after he appeared in a bookshop in Honduras. Saravia asked for forgiveness and showed a willingness to reveal the names of the others involved, including the man who pulled the trigger. “I’d tell it all if they’d guarantee my life, a job, a country where I could live... If I talk, El Salvador trembles.”

Back home, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Sáenz Lacalle, told El Nuevo Herald that he received “the message with Christian joy and surprise.” He added that “God always pardons when there is true repentance and a desire to make amends. How good it is that someone with such a heavy load on his conscience can unburden it and find the peace and friendship of God.” These events were not followed up by either the state or—barring its granting of pardon—by the Church. Saravia’s declarations, however, were another reminder that there was still much to investigate.

Adding fuel to the fire:
D’Aubuisson the “Meritorious Son”

In early 2007, ARENA, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) joined forces to approve the honoring of two deceased citizens as “Meritorious Sons” of El Salvador. One of them was former President José Napoleón Duarte, icon of Salvadoran Christian Democracy; the other was ARENA founder Roberto D’Aubuisson.

This would have been D’Aubuisson’s second public recognition in recent years, the first being a plaza and monument built in his honor using public funds from the municipality of Antiguo Cuscatlán, whose mayor is an activist in the governing party. These works were unveiled on June 22, 2006, by Elías Antonio Saca, President of both El Salvador and ARENA’s executive committee.

The proposed honor and the monument before it were flagrant provocations for those victims still waiting for compliance with the IACHR’s second recommendation of material and moral reparations. On the day of the vote, members of the Christian base communities, human rights groups and individuals who sympathize with Monsignor Romero turned up at the Legislative Assembly to support a written demand that the initiative not be approved, presented by Maria Julia Hernández on behalf of the Archdiocese’s Legal Protection Office.

At the same time, CEJIL and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) sent letters to the various Assembly benches asking them not to approve the conferring of this honor. It was rumored that several US congress people also got in touch with Salvadoran legislators in an effort to stop the initiative.

Under such pressure, the PCN withdrew its support. It was also no secret that there were serious disputes within the PDC, given that D’Aubuisson had participated in the torture and exiling of Duarte during the 1970s. In the end the PDC requested a change to the legislative agenda to avoid the vote, which the head of the ARENA bench, Guillermo Gallegos, justified as follows: “We did it to avoid any damage... The bill goes back to the commission, but we could approve the recognition sometime in the future.”

Although the project was frustrated by national and international pressure, the proposal added further fuel to the fire and again highlighted the government’s unwillingness to assume its responsibility in the Romero case.

How to compensate for the crime?

David Morales, the Legal Protection Office’s legal adviser in 1990-1995 and 2005-2007 and currently the lawyer representing the victims, explained that the Office and CEJIL requested a hearing at the IACHR in July 2007. Its purpose was to follow up on its 2000 ruling because in a joint working meeting the state of El Salvador had “denied its responsibility in the assassination of Monsignor Romero and rejected both compliance with the Commission’s recommendations and the idea of discussing a reparations proposal presented by the petitioning institutions.”

Among other forms of reparation, that proposal included holding a public ceremony in which the state would recognize its responsibility and ask for forgiveness, creating a plaza in memory of Monsignor Romero, prohibiting any homage to those responsible for his death and including the IACHR recommendations and conclusions in the Salvadoran school system’s history study plans.

October 2007:
The Washington hearing

The hearing to follow up on the IACHR’s recommendations took place in early October 2007. Representing the Archdiocese, David Morales presented a missive from the Salvadoran ecclesiastical hierarchy stating that a dialogue had been initiated between the government and the Church in which the two parties expressed “a willingness to continue listening to each other” and to take as much time as needed to do so. At the same time, he mentioned the state’s non-compliance with the recommendations and stated that Monsignor Romero’s case had become “an international symbol of impunity.”

The main lawyer representing the Salvadoran Foreign Affairs Ministry is Carlos Méndez Flores, who defended the material authors of the massacre of the Jesuits in 1989 and has defended the accused in famous corruption and fraud cases, such as those involving FEDEFUT and FINSEPRO-INSEPRO. In Washington, Méndez Flores again denied any state responsibility in the Romero case and reaffirmed that “there was already a judicial investigation,” while somewhat contradictorily saying that the state “has at no moment expressed its recognition of the American Convention on Human Rights or the Commission’s actions.” He asked for a “temporary halt” so that, “God willing,” agreements could first be reached on “the situation” with the Salvadoran Catholic Church’s highest authority, Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle.

Although the Commission’s rapporteur assessed the dialogue as “important” and “valid,” he also reiterated that the recommendations issued in 2000 are “obligatory” and “binding.” Acknowledging that the recommendations as a whole have not yet been complied with, he made clear that compliance cannot be replaced by the dialogue. He added that the Commission’s main interest is compliance and that the IACHR’s decision on whether or not to include the non-compliance in its 2007 report to the OAS’s General Assembly had not yet been made.

The fact that El Salvador refused pressure to join the Inter-American Court until 1995 is an underlying limitation on any solution to the case presented to the IACHR. When it could no longer avoid it, the country signed on condition that it would not accept suits for human rights violations that took place before 1995. This meant that cases like Monsignor Romero’s and others that occurred during the Salvadoran civil war could not be presented.

Fired by the Church
for “labor disloyalty”

The day after the hearing in Washington, Monsignor Sáenz Lacalle released a communiqué disparaging the participation of his representative, David Morales. “We lament that the position of the Archdiocese of San Salvador has not been duly put across during the meeting held on October 10 in the city of Washington D.C. The dialogue will continue in the search for true peace. The memory of Monsignor Romero demands of us respect, patience, responsibility and firm commitment to work for peace in our beloved El Salvador.”

Twelve days later, Morales was notified by the Archbishop that he had been fired for “labor disloyalty.” “These are internal affairs of the Archdiocese that have to do with the fidelity of its employees,” explained Sáenz Lacalle during a press conference. “There has been rather unprincipled behavior.”

Loyalty to whom?
Silence about what?

David Morales recalls that he carried out the mission given him by his bosses to report on the dialogue and says, “I assume the loyalty the Archbishop expected from me was my silence.” Silence about the Salvadoran government’s non-compliance and his own fears that the government is seeking an agreement with the Church outside the framework of the IACHR’s recommendations.

In a communiqué he wrote after learning of his dismissal, Morales gives a long account of events surrounding the “dialogue” between the Church and the government. “I decided to mention them because of my conviction that their role in the circumstances mentioned here does not represent the unanimous feeling of the Catholic Church in El Salvador or the people of God, or even all of the Archdiocese’s ecclesiastical hierarchy.”

A few days before the hearing, Foreign Affairs Minister and current ARENA presidential pre-candidate Francisco Laínez had asked the Archbishop of San Salvador to initiate a dialogue on the Romero case. In less than a week, the government and the Church held two meetings in which the former insisted that it would not take responsibility for the case and was unwilling to repeal the General Amnesty Law. The only negotiable issue was the recommendation on material reparation and symbolic moral reparation. “The Monsignor [Sáenz] himself said that we have to think about the common good...,” confirmed Abigail Castro de Pérez, the Salvadoran Ambassador to the OAS. “If the General Amnesty Law is not kept in force, we would be going against the common good of our country,”

A dialogue “not in secret”
but “in silence”

According to Morales, “in both dialogue meetings, the state proposed that neither party should provide the Inter-American Commission with information about non-compliance with the recommendations.” Monsignor Richard Antall, the human promotion vicar for the Archdiocese of San Salvador, was designated by Saénz Lacalle to represent him in the meetings with the government and was kept on despite technical-legal observations made to him in private by the Legal Protection Office during the two dialogue sessions.

More surprising still was the revelation of the following detail during the IACHR’s follow up hearing: the dialogue meetings between Church and government should remain “private so they wouldn’t get caught out.” Sáenz Lacalle argued that common points underpinned the dialogue, such as the state’s recognition that the assassination of Monsignor Romero was a “repudiable” act. He insisted that “there is nothing secret in the dialogue; it is simply a meeting in which there are no agreements. It is better to remain not in secret but in silence until results are attained.” The archbishop then added that the dialogue aims to establish an “agreement to reunify Salvadoran society.”

Juan Daniel Alemán, a lawyer for the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES), was drafted into these conversations as a personal delegate of Sáenz Lacalle. It was a rather odd twist, given that FUSADES is the lead institution behind the country’s neoliberal policy and while he does have broad legal experience in the mercantile and civil fields, Alemán has no recognized capacity in the area of human rights or in the Archdiocese.

Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that many laypeople are questioning where the archbishop’s loyalty lies: with Monsignor Romero, his family, the Catholic Church, the Salvadoran people or the Salvadoran government.

Archbishop Sáenz Lacalle:
“Don’t muddy the waters”

Sáenz Lacalle was more direct with the organizations from the grassroots movement, reminding them that politicizing the figure of Monsignor Romero would do a lot of damage to the canonization process going forward in the Vatican. It’s not the first time this particular admonishment has been heard from the archbishop. He issued the same warning at the beginning of the year upon learning of the grassroots protests, supported by FMLN representatives, against the initiative to name D’Aubuisson as a “meritorious son.”

On that occasion he was even less subtle. Referring to the homage to D’Aubuisson, he said that “each individual can have whatever sympathy or appreciation they want for whatever figures they want, and that must not be a motive for social unrest.” The prelate then referred to the 1993 Amnesty Law, thanks to which “all parties were able to run in the elections and the winners were those with the most votes and at the moment the Assembly has a very healthy poly-party composition.” He explained that “if crimes committed by one side and the other have been pardoned under the amnesty, it’s not worth raising them again because they do nothing more than muddy the waters.”

“We want a bishop
on the side of the poor!”

On hearing about events surrounding the IACHR follow up hearing, various social and church organizations committed to the poor and human rights met at the Hospitalito la Divina Providencia, where the terrible killing of Monsignor Romero took place 27 years ago.

After hearing David Morales’ account and applauding his firm defense of the case, the public was invited to propose possible lines of action. The list of 28 proposals was testimony to the diversity of people who feel they are victims of the government and Church in the Romero case and to the level of grassroots rejection generated by current events. The proposals ranged from “inform the OAS General Assembly of the Salvadoran state’s contempt” to “demand Sáenz Lacalle’s resignation as Archbishop of San Salvador” and “eliminate the monument to D’Aubuisson.”

Amid cries of “We want a bishop on the side of the poor!” a Follow-up Commission on the Case of Monsignor Romero was formed to design and head up a strategy of grassroots action based on the population’s feelings.

Campaign for truth and justice

The commission, made up of human rights institutions, Christian base communities, a student organization and interested individuals, has conducted various activities, including press conferences, a statement signed by 83 organizations aimed at the Episcopal Conference of El Salvador and follow-up of the process.

December saw the launch of the Campaign for Truth and Justice in the Case of Monsignor Romero, which will end in mid-2008 and includes actions such as a meeting with the archbishop and the foreign affairs minister, grassroots mobilization and negotiations with the Antiguo Cuscatlán Mayor’s Office to eliminate the monument to D’Aubuisson, citizens’ petitions, forums and cultural events.

Where is the Salvadoran
Church’s prophetic voice?

Last year was hard for the Salvadoran grassroots church. In March, Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino was sanctioned by the Vatican and forbidden from teaching at any Catholic center. Archbishop Sáenz Lacalle made his position quite clear in the case: “I ask the Lord for father Jon Sobrino to be obedient to the Church’s teachings.”

The Society of Jesus has been one of the victims’ main allies in their struggle to overturn the Amnesty Law, which the IACHR has recommended be annulled in all cases involving war-related human rights violations. This law is an obstacle to any real process of national reconciliation.

Nonetheless, in November 2007 different voices in the Society of Jesus and its institutions began to detach the issue of “truth and forgiveness” from that of “criminal trials.” The most obvious example appeared in an editorial of the Process weekly news bulletin (number 1268), which referred to “the search for absolute justice” as “no less extreme” than “extreme impunity.” The author called on human rights defenders to climb down from their “ethical and legal maximalist” position and explore “an intermediate path.” It was confusing for the victims to hear their struggle being described as extremist. Hearing “absolute” justice being disparaged this way leads them to speculate what could be meant by “non-absolute” or “relative” justice. Many victims feel they are in danger of losing an important ally.

A good part of the Salvadoran clergy doesn’t agree with the path chosen by the hierarchy in the Romero case. When the Church-government dialogue was publicly revealed, a group of approximately 25 priests sent a letter to Monsignor Sáenz and Monsignor Antall expressing their discontent, insisting that “the Monsignor is not a piece of merchandise and cannot be negotiated.” They have yet to receive an answer and, like the rest of the population, don’t know whether or not the negotiations have advanced in silence.

As Romero said,
“The people are my prophet”

A new theory emerged on the Romero case in the forum held at the Hospitalito Divina Providencia. It was suggested that in addition to the Church and the Romero-Galdámez family, the Salvadoran people were also offended by the murder of Monsignor Romero. They therefore called for the Salvadoran people to be recognized as an offended party and suggested that the people and their organizations should have a voice in the legal process surrounding the case.

Such a situation would be unheard of, but those proposing it do not believe that anything exists in the American Convention to block it. Furthermore, it’s already backed up by the precedent set by Judge Oliver Wagner in the United States when he classified Romero’s murder as a “crime against humanity.”

It is possible that the people themselves will assume the prophetic voice and the role of plaintiff in the assassination of their pastor. And as the man who pronounced that “the people are my prophet,” Monsignor Romero would surely have been delighted by such a scenario.

Elaine Freedman is a popular educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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