The bearded assassin hunched down in the back of a dust-streaked red Volkswagen waiting for a clear shot. Inside San Salvador’s Hospital de la Divina Providencia, Oscar Romero, the diminutive Archbishop of El Salvador, was celebrating mass in the hospital’s chapel when the crack of a gunshot split the silence, knocking the cleric to the ground. Within minutes he was dead. It was Monday 24 March 1980.
News of the murder echoed around the world, sparking a full-scale civil war in the tiny Central American country. Before the conflict was halted by the 1992 Peace Accords, the carnage in El Salvador lasted 12 years and took a further 80,000 lives.
Central America was then the front-line in a Cold War campaign by the US to stop the ‘scourge of communism’ spreading up the spine of the Americas. In El Salvador, a leftist insurgency led by the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation) was contesting the landed oligarchy’s centuries-old hold on power. A small clique of wealthy families with strong links to US business interests ran the country. The US, first under Jimmy Carter and later Ronald Reagan, funnelled millions in military aid to El Salvador to defeat what it saw as a communist-led insurrection.
Salvador’s wealthy élites controlled the armed forces and the notorious ‘death squads’ – hired thugs who tortured, raped and murdered anyone who showed the slightest opposition to the system. Trade unionists, innocent peasants, community activists, their friends and families were killed by the thousands. Corpses were buried in shallow graves, dumped onto street corners and tossed into garbage dumps. By 1980 more than 3,000 people a month were being murdered. In March 1993 the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador concluded that the responsibility for the killings of thousands of Salvadorean civilians lay with senior military officers in an army which was strongly backed by Washington.
Archbishop Romero spoke out loudly against these injustices. He pleaded with US to stop military aid which he said was financing the military and the death squads. In his weekly radio sermons he told the oligarchy to halt the killing, using his position to challenge the ‘unjust economic structures’ which he saw as the root causes of the conflict.
And in a country where the peasants were seen as subhuman, he preached that the poor themselves must take power: ‘The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of handouts from governments or from churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.’
This effrontery did not sit well with the oligarchy. Repeated death threats were issued against the Archbishop – to no avail. Shortly before his murder he said: ‘I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador... if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and a sign that hope will soon become a reality.’
On the Sunday before his murder, in the old cathedral in the heart of the capital, Romero again denounced the military violence. In a rising voice, breaking with emotion, he called on ordinary soldiers to side with the people, to ignore the orders of their superiors.
‘ Brothers, you are from the same people, you kill your fellow peasant... No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God... In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.’
The 1993 UN Commission concluded that ARENA party founder and US favourite 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 assassination’.1
A quarter-century after the murder of Oscar Romero, El Salvador is still emerging from the devastation. The FMLN holds the largest number of seats in the National Assembly. But the right-wing ARENA party under Tony Saca holds the presidency and the oligarchy remains firmly in control. The usual IMF/World Bank package has cut agricultural subsidies and slashed education and health spending, leading to further hardship for the campesino majority. The country’s foreign debt is nearly half its gross national product. A new Central American Free Trade Agreement, which will further unleash market forces, looms.
And what has the US Government learned from all of this? Not much, it appears. Recent news reports in The New Yorker and Newsweek claim that the Pentagon has proposed the ‘Salvador Option’ for Iraq – ‘training paramilitary forces loyal to the US to carry out intimidation and assassination campaigns against insurgents’.