MEXICO CITY - As of Oct. 22, an eternal flame will burn continuously outside
the Metropolitan Cathedral in the capital of El
Salvador, as an everlasting tribute to Catholic Archbishop Oscar
Arnulfo Romero, a leading light in the struggle to bring peace to his country,
whose murder remains unpunished after almost 25 years.
As the archbishop of San Salvador, Romero regularly spoke out against the growing
violence and violations of human rights perpetrated by the armed forces and
paramilitary death squads in his country.
On March 23, 1980, he directly addressed the country's soldiers in his weekly
homily, pleading, "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."
The next day, he was shot dead by a sniper while celebrating Mass.
Romero almost instantly became a martyr and icon for progressive Catholics
throughout Latin America, and was officially recommended by the Catholic Church
of El Salvador for canonization as a saint in 1994. Yet today, as the 25th anniversary
of his assassination draws near, those responsible continue to enjoy full impunity.
His followers and relatives have not ceased in their demands for justice to
be served. But the current Salvadoran government led by President Antonio Saca
refuses to investigate the case, which has been conveniently buried beneath
an amnesty law.
Saca is from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the party founded
in 1981 by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was previously the founder and leader of
El Salvador's notorious death squads, and is widely considered to have ordered
According to the report issued in 1993 by the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador,
"There is full evidence that former major Roberto D'Aubuisson gave the
order to assassinate the Archbishop and gave precise instructions to members
of his security service, acting as a death squad, to organize and supervise
The amnesty law was also passed by an ARENA-controlled legislative assembly,
the very same year the report was released.
Since March of this year, numerous religious and cultural activities have been
organized to commemorate the slain archbishop. The next major event will be
the lighting of the eternal flame outside the cathedral, to be followed by other
activities culminating in April 2005.
Despite the obstacles they face, religious and human rights groups have not
given up the pursuit of justice.
Their hopes were raised in September when a U.S. federal court judge in the
state of California ruled that former Salvadoran Air Force Captain Alvaro Saravia
was guilty of planning Romero's murder together with other former military officials.
Saravia was ordered to pay $10 million in damages.
Saravia had emigrated to the United States when an investigation into his role
in the assassination began.
In 1987 he was detained by U.S. authorities when Salvadoran prosecutors sought
his extradition. But the Salvadoran government and judicial system moved quickly
to have the request withdrawn, under the pretext that there was not enough evidence
to lay charges, and Saravia was set free in 1988.
Archbishop Romero's surviving family – his two brothers, now in their 70s
– eventually turned to the U.S. courts, filing a civil suit against Saravia
in the state of California under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim
Protection Act, which allow foreign nationals to be tried in the United States
for crimes committed abroad.
Saravia did not appear in court, and was tried and sentenced in absentia. Although
his exact whereabouts are unknown, it is assumed he is still in the United States.
"What happened in California is encouraging, but the people who planned
and carried out the murder of Archbishop Romero remain unpunished, and are protected
by [Salvadoran] state structures," Adelaida de Estrada, spokesperson for
the non-governmental Oscar Romero Foundation, told IPS over the phone from San
"And that is because the ruling party, ARENA, has blood on its hands from
this crime," she added.
D'Aubuisson, the army major who founded ARENA, is identified in numerous reports,
including the one issued by the UN, as the creator of the notorious death squads
that assassinated Romero and murdered countless Salvadorans during the civil
war that escalated throughout the 1980s and continued into the early 1990s.
Throughout the years of armed conflict against the leftist guerrilla forces
of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Salvadoran
security forces and paramilitary death squads were responsible for massacres,
killings, torture and "disappearances" on a massive scale.
The war left 75,000 dead and another 7,000 "disappeared," while an
estimated one million Salvadorans fled the violence by seeking refuge in other
countries. Among those murdered by the army and death squads were 18 Catholic
priests and five nuns, four of whom were from the United States.
"Political power is in the hands of the armed forces," Romero declared
in a homily just a month before his death. "They use their power unscrupulously.
They only know how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran
In his weekly homilies, Romero relentlessly spoke out against the violations
of human rights and repression exercised by the soldiers and death squads. He
harshly criticized the far right, and promoted pastoral work in rural communities
and slum neighborhoods.
Romero also denounced the involvement of the U.S. government, which sent billions
of dollars in military aid to the Salvadoran government during the civil war,
as well as providing training for the country's armed forces. The late D'Aubuisson
himself was a graduate of the School of the Americas, a U.S. military college
specializing in counter-insurgency.
Just weeks before his death, the archbishop sent a letter to then U.S. President
Jimmy Carter, in which he wrote, "You say that you are Christian. If you
are really Christian, please stop sending military aid to the military here,
because they use it only to kill my people." The letter was never answered.
Born in 1917 in the Salvadoran city of Ciudad Barrios, Romero studied theology
at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained as a Catholic priest in
1942. He returned to El Salvador where he served as a parish priest and later
the rector of a seminary in the capital. He was ordained a bishop by the Vatican
in 1967, and then designated archbishop of San Salvador on Feb. 22, 1977.
Romero was specifically chosen because he was viewed as a "conservative."
He had publicly criticized the progressive stances adopted by followers of Liberation
Theology, or option for the poor, which was becoming a growing force in the
Catholic Church in Latin America.
Much to the dismay of the church and government establishments, however, he
was soon to become an outspoken champion of the poor and oppressed, and a critic
of the very sectors that had originally applauded his designation.
In recognition of his tireless efforts to defend human rights and promote a
negotiated settlement to the violence in El Salvador, Britain nominated him
for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.
But Romero's denunciations of the human rights abuses committed by the army
and death squads and his defense of the poor and marginalized sectors of society
earned him the enmity of the wealthy elites and the U.S.-backed military forces,
who viewed him as a "communist."
The hatred toward him continued even beyond his death: during the archbishop's
funeral services, a bomb exploded outside the cathedral in San Salvador, and
government troops then opened fire on the crowd of 50,000 who had gathered there
to pay their last respects. An estimated 40 people died and another 200 were
wounded as a result.
The armed conflict in El Salvador finally ended in 1992 when the government
and the FMLN signed a peace accord in Mexico City.
But according to Romero Foundation spokeswoman de Estrada, "We Salvadorans
continue to state loudly and clearly that there can be no real peace while murders
like Archbishop Romero's remain unpunished."
The Saca administration refuses to even consider reopening the Romero case,
despite continuing demands that it do so and the findings of a 2000 report from
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
As part of the efforts to seek justice for the Archbishop's assassination,
a case was brought before the Commission, which ruled that "a state cannot
rely on the existence of provisions of internal law to elude carrying out its
obligation to investigate human rights violations, place on trial the persons
responsible, and prevent impunity."
The Commission's report noted that with regard to the Romero case, the Salvadoran
government had violated numerous international agreements on due justice.
The report further recommended "that the State carry out a complete, impartial,
and effective judicial investigation, expeditiously, so as to identify, try,
and punish all the perpetrators, both the direct perpetrators and the planners
of the violations established, notwithstanding the amnesty decreed."
Nevertheless, when the legal department of the San Salvador Archbishop's Office
requested that certain articles of the amnesty law be repealed in order to resolve
the question of Romero's murder, Saca said that "Reopening old wounds from
the past would not be in the best interests of a country looking towards the
"The Salvadoran people elected me to manage the future, and for that reason,
reopening old wounds is something I do not agree with," he added.
But while the ARENA-led government continues to hide behind the amnesty law
to avoid reopening the case, the Romero Foundation and other humanitarian groups
will not cease in their fight for justice.
"The murder of Archbishop Romero was a crime against humanity, and it
cannot be sheltered by any law," said de Estrada.
"There are people who were behind D'Aubuisson in Romero's assassination,
and they are still walking around with impunity. They have to pay," she
Both the archbishop's office and the Romero Foundation are working with lawyers
to determine the best course to follow in order to pursue further legal action,
either in El Salvador or in foreign courts.
(Inter Press Service)