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El Salvador: Waiting for a Reckoning

Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the year before his murder by right-wing paramilitaries, El Salvador, 1979
Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the year before his murder by right-wing paramilitaries, El Salvador, 1979

The murder of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero in El Salvador on March 24, 1980 was a momentous event. As the US Ambassador to El Salvador at the time, Robert White, testified many years later in a civil suit brought against one of Romero’s killers in an American federal court, the assassins “destroyed the one figure in El Salvador that could have served as a bridge, as a creative interpreter between all the different sides, and his removal by violence basically sent a signal that no dialogue was warranted.” The message to the leftist insurgents in the twelve-year war that followed was that they had no hope of achieving anything by peaceful means. The message to the country’s right-wing oligarchs, who organized and financed the death squads for which El Salvador became notorious, was that if they could get away with murdering an archbishop, they could get away with anything. It may not be a stretch to say that the misery of El Salvador today—a country that has the highest rate of homicide in the world—can be attributed, at least in part, to what happened in 1980.

Though the global struggle to secure accountability for gross human rights abuses has been arduous, and most of the perpetrators of such crimes still escape any reckoning, it has also had some remarkable successes. Nowhere is this more true than in Latin America where most military dictatorships gave way to democratic governments during the 1980s. Despite severe repression, a strong human rights movement had established itself in the region, protected in some countries by the Catholic Church. Its efforts played an important part in promoting accountability after transitions took place. Hundreds of former officials in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, including several former heads of state, have been imprisoned for crimes committed during the military dictatorships that seized power during the 1970s. Just before New Year’s, the last of Uruguay’s military dictators, General Gregorio Álvarez, died in prison at the age of ninety-one. The former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, is still serving a twenty-five-year prison sentence for human rights abuses and corruption. There have even been some notable prosecutions and convictions in Guatemala for crimes that were part of the genocide against some parts of that country’s indigenous population that reached its peak in the early 1980s. Among the Latin American countries that suffered the most severe abuses of human rights, however, El Salvador stands out. None of those responsible for the crimes committed during its civil war has faced criminal punishment. 

It is generally estimated that about 75,000 Salvadorans were killed during the civil war. The majority were civilians who were killed in massacres at places like El Mozote and the Río Sumpul; in aerial attacks by the Salvadoran Air Force on the masas, presumed peasant supporters of the guerrillas who depended on their crops for sustenance; and by targeted disappearances and death-squad killings. Priests and nuns were not exempt. Shortly before Archbishop Romero’s assassination, his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, an advocate of land reform, was murdered. Romero, who became archbishop just three years before he was gunned down while officiating at a mass, had been considered a centrist, and had not been identified with the leftist Liberation Theology that became an important force in the Latin American church after Vatican II. Father Grande’s murder seems to have hardened Romero’s resolve to speak out against repression in El Salvador. 

Archbishop Romero’s homilies in the aftermath of the murder of Father Grande may have sealed his own fate. The last of these homilies included a direct appeal to the members of the armed forces. “Brothers,” the Archbishop said,

you are part of our very own people. You kill your own campesino brothers. In the face of an order to kill given by a man, the law of God that says ‘thou shalt not kill’ must prevail…. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God…. In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more tumultuously every day, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.

Romero was shot the following evening. Later that year, four American churchwomen (three nuns and a lay missionary) working in El Salvador were raped and murdered by soldiers of the National Guard. Some years later, in November 1989, an armed forces contingent raided the Jesuit University of Central America and murdered the rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuría, and five other priests who formed the core of the university’s faculty, along with their housekeeper and her daughter.

Families of those killed at the El Mozote massacre, with the unearthed remains of the victims, El Mozote, El Salvador, December 10, 2016
Jose Cabezas/Reuters
Families of those killed at the El Mozote massacre, with the unearthed remains of the victims, El Mozote, El Salvador, December 10, 2016

Matt Eisenbrandt’s new book, Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice, shows how difficult it has been to bring those who did these killings to justice. Eisenbrandt is a lawyer who took part in a court case in the United States to bring to justice one of Archbishop Romero’s murderers. The current situation in El Salvador has not made this easy. As in many places where civil wars have taken place, the country is awash in military weapons. And thanks to the political influence of the backers of the death squads and to repeated amnesty laws, impunity for murder has become the norm. In July 2016, however, the Salvadoran Supreme Court opened the door to prosecutions for crimes committed in the conflict that ended a quarter of a century ago by invalidating an amnesty law. That law was adopted five days after publication of a report by a United Nations-sponsored “truth commission” that investigated a number of the major crimes committed by all parties to the conflict, including the murder of Archbishop Romero. Where possible, the report identified those principally responsible for those crimes. Whether any prosecutions will be brought in El Salvador against the authors of those crimes who are still alive is not known at this writing. 

For the most part, American law does not provide a means for bringing criminal prosecutions in this country for crimes committed by foreigners against foreigners in another country. Though the concept of “universal jurisdiction” is recognized by the United States, to put it into practice here would require legislation authorizing prosecutions. An exception is the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA) adopted by Congress in 1994 after the United Sates ratified the Convention Against Torture, an international treaty that explicitly provides for universal jurisdiction. The TVPA authorizes prosecutions here for torture in another country only when that crime was committed after adoption of the law. It is, therefore, inapplicable to the widespread use of torture in El Salvador while the civil war was underway, because the war ended before the law was adopted. To date, only a single prosecution has been brought under the TVPA. It led to the conviction of “Chuckie” Taylor, son of the former Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor. The father is now serving a fifty-year prison sentence after an international criminal tribunal found him guilty of war crimes in Sierra Leone; while his son, who was born in the United States and is a US citizen, is serving a ninety-seven-year sentence in the United States for torture—often leading to death—in Liberia.

Even in the absence of criminal prosecutions in El Salvador, there have been efforts to bring some measure of accountability to those who committed particularly flagrant abuses of human rights. In particular, a small San Francisco-based human rights organization, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) has been at the forefront of using various legal remedies to bring to justice leading perpetrators of such crimes in Guatemala and El Salvador. One method has been to challenge the immigration status of those who have chosen to resettle in the United States. In the case of El Salvador, a number of the oligarchs who financed the death squads had homes in Miami; and some of the military leaders who led the forces that committed those crimes have also chosen a comfortable retirement there. The latter included General José Guillermo García, El Salvador’s Minister of Defense when Archbishop Romero and the four US churchwomen were murdered, and General Vides Casanova, who headed the Salvadoran National Guard during that period, and whose forces murdered the churchwomen. From the time that the churchwomen were killed in 1980, Scott Greathead, a New York lawyer acting for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First) has pursued the case on behalf of the family of one of the women, Sister Ita Ford. As far back as 1998, the CJA joined forces with Greathead. In 2016, their efforts persuaded the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to order the detention of García and Vides Casanova and their deportation back to El Salvador.

Former Salvadoran Defense Minister José Guillermo García following his extradition from the US for human rights violations during El Salvador's civil war, El Salvador, January 8, 2016
Marvin Reckons/AFP/Getty Images
Former Salvadoran Defense Minister José Guillermo García following his extradition from the US for human rights violations during El Salvador’s civil war, El Salvador, January 8, 2016

Another Salvadoran who chose to migrate to the United States was Álvaro Saravia, who had been identified by the UN truth commission as one of the murderers of Archbishop Romero. His presence in the US was discovered accidentally by CJA in 2001 and was reported later that year by The Miami Herald. He had been associated with a paramilitary group headed by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a leading figure in the death squads and the founder of the right-wing ARENA political party, which governed the country when the amnesty law was adopted. D’Aubuisson himself, who was described by Ambassador White as “a pathological killer,” died of cancer at the age of forty-eight, the same year the war in El Salvador ended.

The CJA also filed a civil suit for damages against Saravia under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), sometimes known as the Alien Tort Claims Act. The ATS was enacted by Congress in the latter part of the eighteenth century for reasons that are now obscure. It gives federal courts the power to deal with civil suits by aliens for a “tort,” or wrongdoing, that has been committed in violation of the “law of nations” or a treaty of the United Sates. Starting in 1980, it has been used many times on behalf of those who have been the victims of gross human rights abuses in other countries to bring lawsuits in American federal courts against perpetrators over whom the courts can establish jurisdiction. Gross abuses, such as forced labor, torture and extrajudicial killings of noncombatants, are violations of “the law of nations” established by treaty law and by customary international law.

Much of Eisenbrandt’s Assassination of a Saint is a detailed account of the complex process of tracking down Álvaro Saravia and the various witnesses needed to prove the findings by the UN truth commission that he took part with Roberto D’Aubuisson in the murder of Archbishop Romero. It is a tale told well that provides valuable insights into the motives and modus operandi of the death squads in El Salvador, and of the financiers who commissioned and facilitated such crimes. It also highlights the difficulties that face those who pursue such cases many years after the crimes have taken place. At the same time, Eisenbrandt conveys a sense of the satisfaction that goes with securing a verdict in a federal court that holds one of the murderers of Archbishop Romero responsible for the crime. The only remedy available to the judge was to order Saravia to pay civil damages, which have not been collected and probably never will be collected. It is not known whether the proceedings against Saravia in an American court will play a part in reopening the Romero case in the Salvadoran courts, where a criminal prosecution is now possible thanks to the decision by that country’s Supreme Court to invalidate the country’s amnesty law. If Salvadoran prosecutors want to proceed, the work that was done in pursuing Saravia could be helpful to them.

It is generally the case that when human rights advocates succeed in holding accountable those responsible for great crimes, it is long after those crimes are committed. On the one hand, this is a weakness of efforts to secure accountability. Where ordinary crime is concerned, it is widely believed that punishment works best as a deterrent when it is swift and sure. There is no prospect that these criteria will be met by most efforts to do justice in cases of gross abuses of human rights. On the other hand, the persistence of human rights advocates in pursuing justice for as long as it takes could be seen as a strength.

A recent example of such persistence was the criminal conviction in 2016 of Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad. His rule from 1982 to 1990 was marked by extraordinary cruelty. Habré was tried and convicted by a tribunal jointly sponsored by the African Union and Senegal and sentenced to life in prison for the thousands of murders for which he was responsible while he held power. That result was achieved because an attorney for Human Rights Watch, Reed Brody, collaborating with surviving victims of Habré’s misrule, pursued the case for more than fifteen years.

Many around the world are frustrated by the lack of accountability for those who have committed horrendous crimes in Syria since the uprising of 2011. Yet several nongovernmental human rights organizations, as well as a UN Commission of Inquiry, have been gathering detailed information on these atrocities, including identification of those responsible. An effort is now underway in the UN General Assembly to establish a mechanism to bring these perpetrators to justice. Since Syria has not ratified the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, it is not subject to its jurisdiction in the absence of a special resolution by the UN Security Council. It is hoped that a new mechanism authorized by the General Assembly can get around the power of Russia to veto any such resolution. Whether by this means or another, there may come a time when there will be accountability for crimes in Syria too. As should be clear by now, there are many in the international human rights movement who will continue to look for opportunities to make this happen, however long it takes.  

Thanks to the support of Pope Francis, Archbishop Romero was beatified in May 2015, the last step before his canonization as a Saint. Though Matt Eisenbrandt’s book is mainly concerned with legal proceedings aimed at holding Romero’s killers accountable, along the way it also makes a strong case that the archbishop’s canonization was richly deserved. Acknowledgment of his sainthood is one of the few good things that has happened in recent times to a country where the conditions of life are so desperate that tens of thousands of parents send their children unaccompanied on the dangerous journey to the Mexican border, often to face extraordinary new risks as undocumented aliens in the United States, or to be simply sent back to El Salvador, even more vulnerable than before.


Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice by Matt Eisenbrandt has just been published by University of California Press.

This is the second of two articles on El Salvador. Last week, Madeleine Schwartz reported on the country’s continuing legacy of violence and one town’s efforts to end it.