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Participant in 1980 assassination of Romero in El Salvador provides new details

By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A06

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was raising a chalice during Mass in a peaceful chapel in San Salvador 30 years ago when a shot rang out. The clergyman fell to the floor -- and his country ignited into civil war.

Now Salvadorans are finally hearing details of the incendiary assassination from a self-confessed participant, former military captain Alvaro Saravia, on an online news site, http://www.elfaro.net.

From a mountain hideout, Saravia named Roberto D'Aubuisson, the deceased founder of the conservative Arena political party, as the person who gave the order to kill Romero.

"I didn't kill him" is one of the first things Saravia is quoted as telling El Faro. "Of course I participated. That's why we're here talking."

The revelations have reopened this still-painful wound at a time of renewed calls for prosecutions of those accused of political violence, which were shelved by a 1993 amnesty law passed in El Salvador after the end of the war between the repressive U.S.-backed Salvadoran army and leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The FMLN is now the ruling party, and its first president, Mauricio Funes, apologized for the Romero assassination on its March 24 anniversary, "in the name of the state," saying the right-wing death squads "unfortunately acted with the protection, collaboration or participation of state agents."

D'Aubuisson, who died of cancer in 1992, was a notorious suspect, and El Faro has provided unique firsthand confirmation.

"This is an excellent story that leaves no doubts," said Marissa D'Aubuisson, a founder of the Romero Foundation. She is a sister of the late right-wing activist, but she ardently opposed his views.

"Many people have read this, and what they want is justice," she said. "This case has been sealed for years, and now it must be reopened, to strip away the impunity. There are others who were involved who are still alive."

Carlos Dada, the reporter of the story, said that while it confirms the long-held D'Aubuisson involvement, "I believe I have opened even more questions. For example, who was the intellectual author of this assassination?" he said. "I believe there were people above D'Aubuisson."

Saravia emerged after years on the run. El Faro said he delivered pizzas and laundered drug money for a Colombian trafficker. He was running a used-car dealership in Modesto, Calif., when lawyers for the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a civil action against him for involvement in the Romero assassination. In 2004, Saravia was ordered to pay $10 million to the plaintiff, a relative of Romero, and fled.

Saravia said in the El Faro interview that he was speaking out "for my children," whom he hasn't been in touch with in 10 years. "Even they see me like Hitler," El Faro quoted him as saying.

"Of course this is punishment," he said, gesturing to his "small mud house" in a village with rail-thin, sickly children, in an undisclosed country.

"Poverty! How would a man not become a guerrilla when he's watching his children die of hunger?" Saravia added. "I wouldn't hesitate three seconds."

On the day before Romero died, Saravia said his confederates were angered by the archbishop's Sunday homily. They thought only a communist would insult security forces with a Mass that said: "I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"

The next day, Saravia told El Faro, retired major D'Aubuisson was on the phone. "Take care of it," D'Aubuisson said, and Saravia answered, "Okay, that's fine, Major. We'll do it."

He said he and his cohorts drove the assassin to the chapel. "You better shoot in the head because maybe he has a bulletproof vest," Amado Antonio Garay, the driver, later testified he heard Saravia say.

Romero was saying Mass: "so that we may give our body and blood to suffering and to pain, like Christ, to teach justice and peace to our people."

Saravia said he heard a single shot.

A few days later D'Aubuisson borrowed 1,000 Salvadoran colons, and Saravia gave the money to the assassin, who is "still out there somewhere," he told El Faro. He did not name the killer.

Worshipers at Romero's funeral were attacked with machine-gun fire and a bomb, which killed as many as 40 people and wounded 200.

"The crime became a milestone," said a U.N. Truth Commission report, "presaging the all-out war."

More than 75,000 people died in the 12-year civil war.

The Arena Party held the presidency for 20 years, until Funes won the 2009 elections on the FMLN ticket. Today, the country has one of the world's highest homicide rates.

"Saravia is not worried that one of his old buddies will kill him. The thing that worries [Saravia] most these days is that his neighbor will murder him to steal two cents," said Dada, the journalist. "And that is very possible. We were left with a culture of impunity that has consequences even today."

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