Assassination of a Saint:
The Plot to Murder Oscar Romero and The Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice
By Matt Eisenbrandt
University of California Press (226 pp, $37.95)
For those old enough to remember it, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980 still resonates as one of the late twentieth century’s more tragic events, its historic significance extending well beyond the borders of El Salvador. For many, Romero’s killing remains a grim reminder of the corrosive impacts of U.S. foreign policy in Central America and of the Roman Catholic Church’s disappointing retreat from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II)—a clerical shift to the right signalled by its rejection of liberation theology, a movement that Romero, if not an ideological adherent, had empowered through his courageous advocacy on behalf of an impoverished flock.
A leading figure in the Salvadoran church, Romero was a theological conservative whose sense of religious purpose changed dramatically with the 1977 murder of his good friend, the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande. Bearing witness to the inequality and suffering that plagued his country, the archbishop began using the influence of his pulpit to condemn the greed of the oligarchs, the injustice of U.S. aid, and the moral bankruptcy of so-called patriots in the National Guard, police and right-wing death squads—the kind of people willing to murder fellow citizens whose only crime was to oppose an economic system that enslaved them and made their lives miserable. Because Romero’s mission was all about breaking the silence of oppression, his own permanent silencing by a sniper’s bullet sent shock waves around the world.
To this day, I can still recall the sadness—the impotent rage, helplessness and disillusionment—I felt when I learned of his death. For an earnest (and then still faithful), sixteen-year-old Catholic boy raised in the privileged bosom of the First World North, the fact that governments killed good people came as innocence-shattering news. Shortly after the assassination, the bishop of Victoria, Remi De Roo, co-celebrated Sunday mass at St. Peter’s parish in my hometown of Nanaimo. I don’t recall what he said during the service—there was a dedication prayer, a lament of some sort, for Romero’s ultimate sacrifice—but what struck me was his conversation with my parents in the church basement afterward. It might have been Easter Sunday.
De Roo had been part of a bishop’s delegation to El Salvador the previous month. After meeting with Romero, visiting the villages and witnessing his work with the campesinos—reassuring the poor that they needn’t accept their sorry lot in life as the “will of God” but had the power to educate themselves and resist their own oppression—De Roo was inspired to bring that message home and apply it to his own progressive diocese. But no sooner had he returned to Canada than he learned of Romero’s death. News of his brutal murder, coming so soon after meeting him, hit De Roo with great force—like a deathblow to the spirit of Vatican II itself. No suspects had been identified, the junta was washing its hands of the matter, and Jimmy Carter (who had turned down Romero’s written request, only weeks earlier, to stop funding the Salvadoran military) was looking more like a lame duck U.S. president with each passing day. Would justice be served?
The making of a saint
In the decade that followed, Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter by beefing up U.S. support for the junta and more than 60,000 Salvadorans lost their lives in a bloody civil war. As for Romero, his legacy was secured with his martyrdom. There were biographies, publications of his writings, and, inevitably, Hollywood movies. Raul Julia’s restrained performance in the predictable biopic Romero (1989) was preceded by Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), a gonzo journalistic melodrama that fictionalized the assassination event, milking it for maximum dramatic effect. (Rather than being shot by a sniper during prayers in a small hospital chapel at dusk, the day after his final Sunday mass at the cathedral—his killer, well out of sight, using a telescopic rifle from a parked car outside the chapel’s open front doors—Romero in Salvador is blown away at the Sunday morning mass, moments after famously imploring the nation’s soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians, when a kneeling parishioner, supposedly waiting to receive communion from him, instead spits on the host, stands up and shoots him in the chest at point blank range.)
Many have carried the torch for Romero since 1980. A lengthy campaign to have the slain archbishop declared a saint—resisted by the Vatican under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who preferred loathsome right wingers such as Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá to an anti-authoritarian rabble-rouser of conscience—finally bore fruit in May of 2015 when the Latin American Pope Francis announced Romero’s beatification, the final stage before sainthood. “Monseñor Romero, who built peace from the strength of love, gave testimony of the faith with his life, committed to the very end,” the pontiff said in a statement, calling the beatification “a cause for great joy” not only for Salvadorans but also “for those of us who rejoice at the example of the greatest children of the church.”
Despite the affirmation—even the rebranding of Romero’s legend by right-wing Salvadorans who violently opposed him in life—his killers were never identified, much less brought to justice. It is generally agreed that the man who gave the order was death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, a shadowy right-wing figure the CIA referred to as “Blowtorch Bob”, a rabid fascist caricature in Oliver Stone’s Salvador. But since D’Aubuisson was protected by U.S. government connections (he was a communications student at the School of the Americas, a U.S. Department of Defense institute that provided military training to government personnel in U.S.-allied Latin American nations), no investigation ever touched him. He ultimately avoided justice by dying of throat cancer in 1992. The following year, a truth commission established to seek restorative justice for grave wrongdoings during the civil war issued a report that included detailed findings on the Romero assassination—the most comprehensive version of the murder story to date. But over the next decade, no journalist, academic or lawyer followed up on it by managing to connect the dots on why Romero was targeted, how the assassination was carried out, or who the various players were.
Until, that is, Matt Eisenbrandt’s team showed up.
Digging up the evidence
A human rights attorney who now works for the Canadian Centre for International Justice, Eisenbrandt was born in Kansas City in 1975 and educated at the University of Virginia and University of Illinois. He first came to the Romero story as a twenty-six-year-old staff attorney working for the U.S. Center for Justice and Accountability. In 2001, a chance encounter in a San Francisco lawyer’s office—a Salvadoran man working for the CJA recognized a countryman said to have been involved in the assassination—had prompted an investigation that was picking up steam by the time Eisenbrandt joined the human rights organization a year later. What followed were two more years of sleuthing, interviews and legal work that led to a civil trial and a US $10 million judgement against the man spotted in that law office: D’Aubuisson’s main henchman, and Romero assassination planner, Álvaro Saravia.
To get to that final moment in 2004, Eisenbrandt takes his readers on an epic journey of truth seeking that spans two centuries and continents while following the assassins’ trail from San Salvador to Tegucigalpa, from Managua to Miami, from Washington to San Francisco. Framing his story within the incendiary political climate that paralyzed El Salvador from 1977 through Romero’s death and the civil war that followed, he begins by examining the history of land ownership, coffee exports and military dictatorship in the country since 1880—deep background for the culture of intimidation and raw power that would embolden Romero’s killers. In between, he tracks the plotters’ activities from the period leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath through the years and decades until the trial itself. Despite his own central part in the action, Eisenbrandt deftly balances the objectivity of his role as reporter/historian and legal expert relying on cold, hard facts with the more subjective purpose of righting history’s wrongs.
It’s an amazing story—a political thriller, a cloak-and-dagger whodunit—worthy of the Hollywood treatment. The main difference from Oliver Stone’s work is the author’s dedication to the facts, respect for sources, knowledge of El Salvador, and refusal to engage in either Romero-worship or demonization of the plotters (whose personal failings, revealed through interviews and cited works, are all too human). One revelation here is the glacial progress of truth seeking in a country where the culture of silence becomes a matter of life and death. When Romero is killed, a judge alerted to his shooting begins an investigation that soon makes him a target. In the book’s chilling opening chapter, Justice Atilio Ramírez Amaya describes his ordeal in court as Eisenbrandt’s witness, tearfully recalling how, after surviving a home invasion and assassination attempt that killed his housekeeper, he fled El Salvador and didn’t return for ten years.
Breaking the silence
What ultimately ensnares the chief assassination plotter is not extradition to El Salvador for criminal proceedings but a civil action in U.S. courts through the Alien Tort Statute, an eighteenth century law that allows citizens of other countries to pursue “any civil action…committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States”. In his bid to get testimony from Saravia, who is subpoenaed in absentia, Eisenbrandt pursues his quarry with the dogged determination of a gumshoe detective—not that he has much choice: as with so many others involved in the assassination, Saravia’s trail tends to run cold as he keeps moving from one location to the next.
Despite the successful verdict against Saravia, and similar prosecutions of military figures from the same period, notes Eisenbrandt, many of the guilty are still protected by their links to the oligarchy or the military. Meanwhile, there’s unlikely to be any accountability for the “Miami Six,” a mafia-like cabal of Salvadoran millionaire émigrés in Florida believed to have directed and financed right-wing death squads—and, if a CIA cable and a former U.S. ambassador’s testimony to Congress are to be believed, enabled Romero’s killers.
Another revelation is how people’s stories about certain events can change over time, depending on history’s verdict—especially how Romero’s killers try to justify their actions in retrospect. One of the more intriguing figures in the book is Amado Garay, the getaway car driver. Eisenbrandt’s team spends a lot of time searching for Garay, not realizing he’s in the United States under the witness protection program. Like Saravia, who protests to his interrogators that people are always confusing him with the shooter—as if that makes him any less guilty—Garay seems overly eager to downplay his role in the assassination, in this case as an accessory to murder, clearly wary of the added exposure. (The actual shooter, never confirmed, is believed to have been one Walter “Musa” Álvarez, a D’Aubuisson henchman and arms smuggler who was himself murdered six months after Romero’s death.)
Ten years in the making, Assassination of a Saint is a remarkable book. In 170 pages of fast-paced, well-written prose, Eisenbrandt has produced a rare document that combines history, politics and economics with the progressive jurisprudence of human rights prosecution. There’s something heartening, almost inspirational, in the fact that accountability for such crimes can still be achieved after several decades, however limited the punishment. Although he never paid a cent of the $10 million suit against him, Saravia was left penniless after losing his fortune, his social status, and his marriage. The entire world now knows who he is and what he did. There is nowhere left to hide.
On the other hand, some things never change. Crime and violence continue to threaten social development and economic growth in El Salvador, making life difficult for its citizens. The old class divisions still exist, with more than 25 percent of children below the age of five living in extreme poverty, 36 percent of the rural population living in poverty, and a tiny minority living in luxury. In El Salvador, the rich—as always—get away with everything. So if Romero were still alive, he would surely lament today’s injustices. At the 2015 mass to beatify him, Eisenbrandt notes at the end, few campesinos were permitted in the areas near the stage. But there was one politician in attendance whose very presence raised eyebrows for its chutzpah: Roberto D’Aubuisson Junior, son of the man who decided Romero’s fate.