To quote an important UN document from 1993, From Madness to Hope:…Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (S/25500, April 1, 1993—though released a couple weeks earlier):
On Monday, 24 March 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, was celebrating mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia when he was killed by a professional assassin who fired a single .22 or .223 calibre bullet from a red, four-door Volkswagen vehicle. The bullet hit its mark, causing the Archbishop’s death from severe bleeding.
To be more precise, the section of this document that I just quoted is IV (D) 1., “Illustrative Case: Archbishop Romero (1980)“—perhaps the single most notorious murder in the history of El Salvador, launching a whole decade of killing on a much graver scale that devoured maybe 75,000 people before it was finished in the early 1990s, in what the same UN Report (and many others like it—see, e.g., Michael McClintock’s masterful The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador (Zed Books, 1985)) shows to have been overwhelmingly the work of sectors of the Salvadoran State. Not to mention the various Salvadoran regimes’ $6-billion benefactor to the North.
One immediately sees this, incidentally, and quite apart from any prior knowledge, by comparing the UN Report’s details of the scale of the complaints of violence that its researchers were able to document (by no means complete, as they themselves admit), by the specific chronology of the violence, and by its patterns. Roughly 95 percent of complaints of violence pertained to one form or another of State-violence. (My guess is that the preponderance of actual State-violence was higher. Especially when one factors in relative scale, firepower, the “American connection”—imagine having three consecutive U.S. presidential administrations on your side—and the like.)
What is more, 95 percent of the complaints pertained to incidents in rural areas, especially during the early years (1980-1983), when “violence became systematic” and was “institutionalized,” as the UN Report puts it, and where it was “indiscriminate in the extreme.” The relatively small-scale (or “retail,” to steal Edward Herman’s phrase) violence attributed to the principal rebel grouping, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN)—and note that this group hadn’t even been organized yet, when Romero was assassinated—“occurred mainly in conflict zones,” the UN Report adds—zones which, until very late in the conflict, indeed, until years after its institutionalization and the gravest atrocities (see the section “Massacres of Peasants by the Armed Forces“), were chosen by the State in a fanatic campaign that “originated in a political mind-set that viewed political opponents as subversives and enemies,” such that anyone expressing “views that differed from the Government line ran the risk of being eliminated as if they were armed enemies on the field of battle.”—How’s this for an eliminationist mentality? (Actually-existing, of course.) (See the UN Report’s “Chronology of the Violence,” and “Cases and Patterns of Violence.”)
Which brings me to the point of the present ZNet blog.—
Tuesday through Friday of this week, August 24-27, an U.S. District Court in Fresno, California, will conduct what the plaintiffs in the case are describing as an “evidentiary hearing” into the background of the March, 1980 assassination of Archbishop Romero. This case began last September, when the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a civil lawsuit against a California resident named Alvaro Rafael Saravia, one of the individuals whose complicity in the Romero assassination has been widely known for years (i.e., since the first weeks following it, in fact, when segments of the then-Government of El Salvador tried to make arrests in the case—before the whole Government was cannibalized and turned into one big Death Squad), and whose complicity is named as such in the UN Report, along with at least five others—Major Roberto D’Aubuisson among them, one of the real Angels of Death in recent history. (“Illustrative Case: Archbishop Romero (1980).”)
According to the CJA’s Complaint for Extrajudicial Killing and Crimes Against Humanity (September 12, 2003):
2. This is a civil action by a non-citizen asserting violations of the law of nations, including the prohibition against extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity, and for violation of the prohibition against extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act (“TVPA”), Pub. L. No. 102-256, 106 Stat. 73 (1992), codified at 28 U.S.C. 1350 note). Accordingly, this Court has jurisdiction over this action based on the Alien Tort Claims Act (“ATCA”), 28 U.S.C. 1350, and 28 U.S.C. 1331.
Needless to say, the former Capt. Saravia has since disappeared—as in taken it on the lam. (As you’ll find by reading the reports assembled below.)
In an homily that Romero is said to have authored the day before his assassination, we find him pleading with his fellow countrymen—but with the gathering killers in particular:
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 worldly consequences of the California lawsuit very well may prove to be negligible. (Who knows?)
But Romero’s words sure as hell are not.
Not in El Salvador in 1980.
Not in America today.
FYA (“For your archives”): Am depositing here three mainstream news media reports on the Center for Justice and Accountability’s lawsuit. (As of the present moment, this is about all that I’ve been able to find.) Beneath them, I’m also posting here a commentary by the British playwright Harold Pinter, published at the time of the release of the UN Report.
Associated Press Worldstream
August 23, 2004 Monday 8:57 PM Eastern Time
HEADLINE: California man sued over death of leading Latin American human rights figure
BYLINE: JULIANA BARBASSA; Associated Press Writer
DATELINE: FRESNO, California
A retired officer from El Salvador is being sued in Fresno federal court on allegations that he conspired in the 1980 assassination of a leading Latin American human rights figure – El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero – as he held mass in a crowded cathedral in the capital, San Salvador.
The civil lawsuit, which will start Tuesday, alleges that Alvaro Rafael Saravia conspired to commit crimes against humanity and to commit an extrajudicial killing – violations of international law and of federal statutes that some say allow the defendant to be tried in U.S. courts.
Saravia, a car dealer, has not hired any attorneys, or responded to the lawsuit filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf of one of Romero’s relatives. Saravia has disappeared from the last address listed under his name – a house in Modesto.
However, a Fresno federal judge ruled that the legal team had made adequate efforts to reach him, so evidence will be presented to a judge to establish Saravia’s liability, and then to determine the amount of damages he should be ordered to pay.
The fear of retaliation against the plaintiff is so strong – even 24 years after the killing – that the U.S. District Court judge in Fresno ordered the plaintiff’s identity to remain secret until the hearing starts Tuesday. The hearing will run until Aug. 27, with depositions from witnesses, legal experts, family members, and a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.
Romero was an outspoken critic of the right-wing Salvadoran military regime, which has been linked by United Nations investigations to death squads believed to be responsible for tens of thousands of murders. The Salvadoran government was backed by the U.S. government, which feared a Marxist uprising in the small Central American country.
Terry Lynn Karl, a professor of Latin American studies and political science at Stanford University, said the murder was politically the most significant killing in El Salvador.
“If you kill an archbishop, you can kill anybody,” Karl said. “It was a signal to hard-liners that all constraints were off. It launched El Salvador into the most intense repression in its history and into civil war.”
This suit seeks a monetary award to compensate for the archbishop’s death. There’s little chance that any money will be recovered, but that doesn’t matter, said Almudena Bernabeu, an international lawyer with the Center for Justice and Accountability.
The suit has been filed under federal statutes that allow U.S. courts to try foreigners charged with summary killings and torture, even if committed abroad, as long as the defendant has contact with the United States.
Romero’s death remains an open wound for many Salvadorans as they try to rebuild their country after a brutal 12-year civil war that killed 75,000.
On March 23, 1980, on a sermon broadcast around the country, he begged – then commanded – the military to stop killing civilians. The next day, as he conducted Mass, he was killed by a professional assassin’s single shot, independent investigations by human rights organizations found.
A U.N. Truth Commission investigation found that then-mayor Roberto D’Aubuisson allegedly gave his security service the order to assassinate the Archbishop, along with precise instructions to Saravia and three other men.
Saravia, in particular, was in charge of organizing the shooter’s transportation to the chapel, and of ensuring the killer’s payment, the commission’s report alleges.
Attempts by Salvadorans to investigate the killing were repeatedly stymied.
Ricardo Guzman, a spokesman for D’Aubisson’s political party, said the party’s representatives were not available for comment Monday.
The Independent (London)
August 24, 2004, Tuesday
SECTION: First Edition; FOREIGN NEWS
HEADLINE: THE ARCHBISHOP, THE DEATH SQUAD AND THE 24-YEAR WAIT FOR JUSTICEJUSTICE ASLKDHJFLAKSDJFL AKSJDFLK JASDFLKJ ASDLKFJ DLSK;
IT WAS THE CRIME THAT BROKE EL SALVADOR’S HEART. A GOOD MAN WAS
BYLINE: ANDREW BUNCOMBE
Alvaro Rafael Saravia will be tried in absentia for the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero; Thousands of young Catholics, left, march in San Salvador, carrying an image of Archbishop Romero to mark the 24th anniversary of his murder, top. In the rioting that followed, centre, 40 people were killed and 450 injured. Above, the American lawyer Nicolas Van Aelstyn confers with Maria Julia Hernandez, director of Salvador’s Tutela Legal’ AP/Hulton/AFP/Getty Images
It is a warm Monday evening in spring and in the Chapel of Divine Providence in El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador, a small, bespectacled priest is performing Mass. Having completed his sermon, the priest is standing close to the altar, blessing the wafer discs that represent the body of Christ.
From the rear of the church there is the sound of a single shot. The priest crumples to the floor of the chapel fatally wounded, blood seeping from a small hole in his chest and soaking his vestments. Outside the small chapel, a bearded man armed with a .223 high-velocity weapon, is seen in the back seat of a red, four-door Volkswagen which then drives away.
The priest was Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador and an outspoken champion of the poor, and he was assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries, on 24 March 1980. Though the identity of the assassin remains unknown, many of the alleged conspirators have long been identified and live on untouched, a sore that has continued to fester within Salvadoran society.
Now, more than 24 years later, a court in California will today hear evidence against one of those accused of orchestrating the murder of Archbishop Romero. That man, Alvaro Rafael Saravia, the right-hand man to the leader of El Salvador’s death squads of the 1980s, has lived in the US for the past 19 years but has not been seen in public since papers were filed against him last September. The hearing will be held in his absence.
The civil action is designed to establish Mr Saravia’s alleged complicity in the killings and seek damages against him. Archbishop Romero often spoke critically of the US, which supported the right-wing government of El Salvador and those of other Latin American countries in their so- called “dirty wars”, training and funding paramilitary forces.
Among those trained by the US was Mr Saravia’s boss, the late Major Roberto D’Aubuisson who is said to have ordered the archbishop’s assassination. He studied at the notorious School of the Americas, a US military college in Fort Benning, Georgia, which for decades taught counter-insurgency to more than 60,000 cadets from Latin American regimes, It was renamed in 2001 after a series of scandals, including the discovery there of stacks of torture manuals.
Esther Chavez worked with the archbishop in El Salvador and fled to New Jersey when she was threatened by death squads after his assassination. She said: ” This trial is very important not only at a personal level, but for Salvadorans. Even though it took 24 years, justice is prevailing.”
Ms Chavez is among witnesses who will give evidence to the hearing in Fresno, held after a lawsuit was brought by the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA). The group says it will introduce new evidence including testimony from an as-yet-unidentified witness who will attest to Mr Saravia’s involvement in the killing.
Matt Eisenbrant, the CJA’s litigation director, who is serving as co- counsel, said: “The US should not be a safe haven for those responsible for this heinous crime. This is the first trial in regard to the assassination. For a long time it was too dangerous to do anything in El Salvador, and since 1993 there has been an amnesty law which means you cannot do anything there. Then we found Saravia was living in California.”
The death of Archbishop Romero, 63, was a seminal event, not only for El Salvador but for international followers of his liberation theology, a radical interpretation of the Gospels which tried to reconcile Marxist philosophy and Christian social thinking. At his funeral, more than 40 people were shot dead by government soldiers firing on the huge crowds of poor people paying homage to their champion outside the city’s cathedral.
A quarter of a century on, even in death, Archbishop Romero remains a powerful and influential figure. Thousands of pilgrims travel to San Salvador to visit his tomb, and the small, three-room house in which he lived, next to the chapel on the grounds of a hospital. He has also been nominated for recognition by the Vatican as a saint.
The present Archbishop of El Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle, a member of the right-wing Catholic sect Opus Dei and politically very different from Archbishop Romero, has said this trial could help justify the move. In a letter obtained by The Independent, he wrote: “I consider it a positive development that the murder of my illustrious predecessor is being investigated. More information about the author or authors of this sacrilegious murder and about the circumstances under which it was carried out will provide valuable information to the movement for his beatification.”
An investigation by a UN Truth Commission in 1992 concluded that the murder had been ordered by Mr D’Aubuisson, who led a network of death squads. It also concluded that Mr Saravia and others were “actively involved in planning and carrying out the assassination”. The UN investigators found Mr Saravia had ordered his driver, Amado Garay, to drive the gunman to the chapel.
Mr Garay, who fled El Salvador shortly after the killing, saw the shooting. He said that three days later, he had driven Mr Saravia to a house, and his chief had told Mr D’Aubuisson there: “We’ve already done what we planned about killing Monsignor Arnulfo Romero.” An investigation into the killing – based partly on a diary found on Mr Saravia that contained notes about the conspiracy to kill Archbishop Romero – was launched by Judge Ramirez Amaya until he too was forced to flee the country after death threats. He will also appear as a witness this week.
Records show Mr Saravia has been living in the US since 1985, first in Florida, then in Modesto, California. He was detained in 1987 by the US authorities after Salvadoran prosecutors sought his extradition. That extradition was later withdrawn by the Supreme Court of El Salvador in a decision that the truth commission said was “dubious and politically motivated”. He was released from US custody in 1988.
Mr Saravia has never been charged over the murder of the archbishop. Mr D’Aubuisson, who went on to form the National Republican Alliance, considered to be the political arm of the death squads, was later accused of Archbishop Romero’s killing but was not charged. He died in 1992, still denying guilt.
Lawyers are bringing the action under the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act which allows suits to be brought against foreign nationals accused of summary killings and torture. They said they delivered legal papers to Mr Saravia’s address but he had “gone to ground”.
Mr Eisenbrant said he hoped the civil action could lead to either the US Justice or Immigration departments bringing charges. It is understood Mr Saravia entered the US on a six-month tourist visa. “This lawsuit has unquestionably disrupted Saravia’s life,” he said. “And it ensures he cannot live openly in the US for fear his victims could seize his assets and he could be arrested and prosecuted for alleged immigration violations.” Nico van Aelstyn, a partner with the law firm Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe, who is helping to bring the case, said: “The assassination of Archbishop Romero was one of the most outrageous single crimes of the last quarter of the 20th century. Given that one of the suspects has lived in the US for at least 17 years, we Americans have an obligation to bring him to justice. We hope this lawsuit will encourage additional witnesses to come forward with evidence that will enable the courts to bring to justice all those responsible for the crime.”
Archbishop Romero had been leading the struggle for human rights in El Salvador when the recently imposed junta, headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes, of the Partido Democrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party, PDC) was mounting a bloody counter-insurgency campaign, nominally against the revolutionary forces of the FMLN, but essentially against all political dissidents. From that time to 1992, more than 75,000 civilians were killed by the military and paramilitary death squads closely linked to the troops.
Archbishop Romero had been outspoken against such terror. A month before his death he wrote to then US President Jimmy Carter, asking him to suspend financial aid for the country. Mr Carter, who sent millions in aid and riot equipment to the Salvadoran military and dispatched US trainers to help them, suspended support months later, but only after paramilitaries murdered four nuns.
Robert White, the former US ambassador to El Salvador, had heard Archbishop Romero preach the day before his death. Then the priest appealed directly to the soldiers involved in the killings. “Brothers, you came from your own people,” he told them. “You are killing your own brothers. The Church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. In the name of God, I implore you, I beg you, I command you, Stop the killing’.”
Mr White said last week: “I really worried about him and his forthrightness. There were limits to how far you could go. I would have preferred that he would have been more prudent.”
The lawsuit in California has been filed on behalf of Archbishop Romero’s surviving family; two brothers, Tiberio, 77, and Santos, 74, the last of the archbishop’s six brothers and sisters. Both have travelled to California from El Salvador. “We try to give testimony to our brother’s life and live our lives the best we can, with humility and honesty,” Tiberio told The Tidings, the weekly paper of the archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Marie Dennis, one of the authors of Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings, said she believed the hearing in California would remind people of his role as a champion of the poor. “I think he represented just the best there is,” she said. “He actually started out conservative. It took a while to see the way in which the political powers and economic powers were creating a situation that was exploiting the people. As soon as he saw how that power was perpetuated he became very clear.”
Archbishop Romero often talked of sacrifice. In his final sermon on that Monday evening, moments before the gunman’s bullet struck, he had reminded the two dozen or so gathered to celebrate Mass, of Christ’s parable of wheat.
“Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grains of wheat that dies,” he said. “It only apparently dies. If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain. The harvest comes because of the grain that dies … We know that every effort to improve society, above all, when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”
Los Angeles Times
August 24, 2004 Tuesday
SECTION: CALIFORNIA; Metro; Metro Desk; Part B; Pg. 1
HEADLINE: El Salvador Slaying Case to Open in Fresno;
Relative of Archbishop Oscar Romero sues over his 1980 death. But the suspect is missing.
BYLINE: Mark Arax, Times Staff Writer
The short man with the big belly who came from El Salvador by way of Miami was hiding a terrible secret. He arrived here one day in the early 1990s and began living a quiet suburban life amid the fruit and nut farms.
Nothing stood out about him, not unless you counted his devotion to beans. He loved all kinds — black, red, pinto. There was certainly no hint he was looking over his shoulder. Not even Ines Olsson, the old family friend from El Salvador who let him stay at her Modesto house, was sure of his past.
But Alvaro Rafael Saravia was a man on the run, trying to put as many miles as he could between him and one of the most infamous assassinations in Latin American history — the murder of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero 24 years ago.
Today, one of the last twists of that past will play out in an unlikely setting: a federal courtroom in Fresno where Saravia faces a civil lawsuit brought by a relative of Romero alleging “crimes against humanity.” It marks the first time that the assassination of the beloved archbishop, a crime that still resonates in Latin America, will be heard by a court of law in any country.
Saravia, who has been named by witnesses as the chief planner of the assassination, isn’t expected to show up for four days of testimony that will replay the dread of paramilitary death squads and the sniper’s bullet that struck down Romero in the Chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. In a federal courthouse in downtown Fresno, attorneys representing Romero’s relative will call 14 witnesses, four of whom have come from El Salvador.
Friends say Saravia, a former Salvadoran air force officer who made his living in Modesto by selling cars, vanished more than a year ago. He left behind a trail of debt and lawsuits from dissatisfied customers.
Some believe he remains in this vast farm belt between Bakersfield and Stockton. Others think he went back to Miami. All agree that the man in his early 60s nicknamed “Chele” — slang for someone with light skin, blond hair and green eyes — is mercurial, above all.
“I let him stay here, but he moved from address to address so many times I couldn’t keep track,” Olsson said. “He was no businessman, I will tell you that. Then one day he took off, and we never knew what happened to him. I would like to know myself.”
A lawyer for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability, which has brought the lawsuit on behalf of the unnamed relative of Romero, says Saravia’s failure to defend himself will result in a default judgment against him. But that won’t stop the witnesses from testifying.
“There was no reckoning for the people who carried out Archbishop Romero’s assassination,” said Matt Eisenbrandt, a lawyer with the center. “This can’t replace a criminal prosecution in the courts of El Salvador. But this will be the first public airing of the facts in a judicial context, and that’s incredibly important.”
In the early 1990s, as Saravia moved from Miami to the northeast side of this fast-growing farm town, the murder became the subject of two inquiries: one by the United Nations Truth Commission and the other by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Witnesses testified that Saravia was “actively involved in planning and carrying out the assassination.”
Saravia was a longtime officer in the air force when a reform movement in 1979 forced him and other right-wing officers to leave the military. This old guard was headed by Saravia’s close associate, former Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, who once headed the country’s national intelligence agency.
A struggle for power between the reformists and the old guard ensued. D’Aubuisson organized a network of paramilitary groups, or “death squads,” that began carrying out a systematic campaign of terror against so-called “communists.”
Romero, the Metropolitan Archbishop of San Salvador, became an outspoken voice on behalf of the oppressed. From the pulpit and in weekly homilies broadcast on national radio, the slight but willful cleric exposed the human rights violations committed by the paramilitary groups.
Romero began receiving death threats. On March 10, 1980, a briefcase containing a bomb was found behind the pulpit of the church at which he had said Mass — for a murdered official — the day before.
Two weeks later, Romero directed his sermon at the current and former soldiers tied to the murders. “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression.”
The next day, according to the lawsuit, which cites testimony from both international commissions, Saravia and D’Aubuisson met at the home of a supporter in San Salvador.
Saravia ordered his personal driver to transport the assassin to the church where Romero was giving a Mass that day, testimony shows. After a bullet fired from inside the car struck Romero 80 to 100 feet away, Saravia’s driver returned the assassin back to the same house. Saravia confirmed that the mission had been accomplished and then delivered a sum of cash as payment.
“The Romero assassination is one of the most important political murders in the history of Latin America,” said Terry Karl, a Stanford University professor of political science who will testify at the trial. “It is a signal that no one is safe, not even the archbishop, one of the most important figures in a country that is nearly 95% Catholic. Romero’s murder led to the civil war.”
In the mid-1980s, Saravia distanced himself from D’Aubuisson and went to work as the head of security for a seafood company. A few years later, he made his way to Miami on a visitor’s visa and stayed.
At one point in 1987, the government of El Salvador seemed interested in prosecuting Saravia and called for his extradition from the United States. Saravia was detained in Miami on immigration charges and held for 14 months. But the Salvadoran Supreme Court, packed with his supporters, withdrew the extradition request.
Olsson, a Modesto accountant who was born in El Salvador, renewed her friendship with him during a visit to Miami. She said he didn’t talk much about the past, but he wanted to leave Miami and move to a more quiet place. She suggested he visit her in Modesto.
“I talked about it being a nice place. So one day, he came and he visited,” she recalled. “He watched a lot of TV when he was with me. I don’t miss beans — I was raised with them — but he sure did. Beans, beans. He couldn’t get enough. After a while, he made friends and moved out.”
He went to work selling cars at the Three Amigos dealership just down the road from her house. He then joined up with another man and opened his own car lot, the Modesto Auto Mart. They had 50 to 60 cars, trucks and SUVs; the prices were competitive. One customer, John Isola, walked out last summer with a 1993 Ford Ranger.
“The big-bellied guy sold it to me,” Isola recalled. “I paid $3,500 plus a trade-in, and it was a lemon. The clutch went out, the brakes went out, the signal lights went out. I later learned that they had turned back the mileage 90,000 miles.”
Isola sued Saravia in small-claims court. But he never showed up to answer the charges.
If Saravia doesn’t appear in the Fresno courtroom, the judge probably will award the plaintiff some economic damage. The fact that Saravia may be broke is beside the point.
“This isn’t just about money,” Eisenbrandt said. “After 24 years, it’s about accountability and justice.”
March 28 1993
SECTION: Pg. 24
HEADLINE: Archbishop Romero’s ghost can be avenged: A demand that the United States be brought to justice for its covert role in El Salvador’s civil strife
BYLINE: HAROLD PINTER
SEVENTY-FIVE thousand dead in El Salvador over the last 15 years. Who killed them and who cares?
Hugh O’Shaughnessy, in last Sunday’s Observer, reported the findings of the UN Truth Commission set up to investigate the slaughter. (No other British newspaper thought these findings worth more than the most cursory mention.)
The UN Commission declared that the vast majority of human rights abuses were committed by the Salvadorean armed forces rather than the FMLN guerrillas. The Commission not only named army officers but ministers in government as guilty parties and recommended that they be banned from public and military service forthwith. It also called for the mass resignation of the Supreme Court. President Alfredo Cristiani’s response to this was to force through the legislative Assembly an amnesty for all the accused. They will face no criminal charges. They are absolved. They are free men.
The people killed included social workers, students, priests, trade union officials, doctors, nurses, journalists, human rights activists, school teachers and, of course, thousands upon thousands of peasants. But the armed forces, if they did well, were sometimes offered some especially juicy prizes. Ripping a few thousand illiterate peasants to death can become a mundane pastime, but shooting Archbishop Romero while he’s saying mass and killing six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world in one fell swoop mean that among your colleagues you become a star overnight. That blood is glamorous blood.
But who did the offering? Who guided and advised the soldiers in their endeavours? Who nurtured them?
Jose Maria Tojeira, the present Rector of the Central American University (where the Jesuits were killed) said that William Walker, the US ambassador in San Salvador at the time of the massacres, ‘in some way knew what was going on and hindered the investigation’. A human rights worker added: ‘The US is the missing protagonist in this case.’
It sure is.
The United States subsidised the Salvadorean government to the tune of dollars 6 billion throughout the Eighties. But it did far more than subsidise one of the most brutal military dictatorships of the twentieth century. It was a very active involvement indeed.
It has now been established that half an hour before the Jesuits were murdered, President Cristiani attended a Salvadorean army briefing at which two or three US officers were also present. This is no great surprise. There were plenty of US officers present throughout the whole enterprise. They were known as ‘advisers’, experts in the field.
Their ‘field’ ranged from a strategic concept which applied to the whole of Central America down to more specific and precise recommendations. These included the most efficient methods of skinning alive, castration and disembowelment. These techniques, one is led to understand, were employed in order to defend Christianity and Democracy against the Devil.
Under President Cristiani’s amnesty, not only the named army officers and government ministers will walk free, but also two soldiers now in prison for the murder of the Jesuits and five imprisoned for the rape and murder of four American churchwomen in 1980. But there is another and quite substantial body of people which also walks free, indeed has not been charged. This body includes the American ‘military advisers’, the CIA, Elliot Abrams, former head of the US Latin American Desk, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, former Secretary of State Al Haig, and ex- Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Members of the US Congress and correspondents in the American press are evidently dismayed at the disclosure of the extent of American involvement in the nefarious operations of the Salvadorean government. It seems to have taken them quite by surprise. They apparently knew nothing about it until the UN Commission report was published. Information of this sort is, of course, notoriously hard to come by.
However, if a congressional investigation actually takes place, what might it bring about? The answer is nothing. There is one good reason for this. The US has long assumed a position as the world’s moral centre, the world’s ‘Dad’. This is so deeply embedded in official American thinking that to tear this assumption apart would be to perform an operation without anaesthetic. The US Congress and media would, I believe, find this insupportable.
Anyway, in this ‘post- Communist world’ where ‘real values’ are prevailing and free-market forces are operating so happily, it is perfectly reasonable to consign the mistakes of our past to the past and bury them.
Why did these people in El Salvador die? They died because in one way or another or to one degree or another they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression which is their birthright. On behalf of the dead, we must regard the breathtaking discrepancy between US government language and US government action with the absolute contempt it merits.
Is there any international forum which can demand that the United States take responsibility for its actions? The International Court of Justice at The Hague tried it in 1986. It found the US guilty of violating international law in respect of Nicaragua. It was told by the US to mind its own business. What about the United Nations? Not much chance, I would think.
The US has done really well since the end of the Second World War. It has exercised a sustained, systematic, remorseless and quite clinical manipulation of power world-wide, while masquerading as ‘a force for universal good’. It’s a brilliant, even witty, certainly highly successful con-job. But it’s really about time the gaff was blown and the real tale told. Perhaps the new President of the United States will do it.