El Salvador publicly marks Archbishop Romero’s killing for first time


Thirty years after Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated as he celebrated Mass, a divided Salvadoran society still struggles over his legacy and the failure of authorities to punish the killers.

For the first time, the Salvadoran state is publicly commemorating Romero. Through most of this month, marches, concerts and debates have honored the priest whose slaying pushed El Salvador into a bloody civil war that pitted a U.S.-backed right-wing government against Soviet-backed leftist guerrillas. Tens of thousands of people were killed.

The political party that represented the guerrillas now governs El Salvador, after the nation’s first leftist president, Mauricio Funes, was elected a year ago. Funes’ election ended nearly two decades of rule by the rightist Arena party.

Marking the anniversary of Romero’s death, Funes on Wednesday asked forgiveness on behalf of the state for the assassination and “for the thousands and thousands of innocent victims” in the war that ended in 1992.

“This is something that should have been done a long time ago,” he said at a ceremony unveiling a colorful mural of Romero in San Salvador’s international airport. “It is my greatest wish that this act in the name of Msgr. Romero can serve to bring consolation and that we no longer live with resentments.”

Funes promised that in contrast to previous governments that “ignored” Romero’s life and teachings, his would “correct that historic error” and put an end to decades of “silence” that have enshrouded the killing.

In reality, it seems unlikely that Funes will be able to repeal a 1993 amnesty law that shields from prosecution Salvadorans who committed war crimes and human rights atrocities during the 12-year conflict.

Efforts to have Romero formally declared a saint, meanwhile, have stalled at the Vatican, where some senior clerics argue that the archbishop of San Salvador was killed for his politics, not his religion.

About 1,000 people marched Wednesday from the hospital chapel where Romero was killed to this city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, chanting a phrase that Romero made famous: “They can kill me, but they will never kill justice.”

“I remember the monsignor as someone who always defended justice,” said one of the participants, Sandra Delmy Platero, a dentist. “He used to say that he would be reborn in the people, and today he has been.”

Romero is revered in much of El Salvador, and the wider Latin America and Catholic world. But he was despised by the wealthy, hard-line right, which felt threatened by his advocacy on behalf of the poor and painted him a Marxist.

His assassination has long been blamed on Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, master of El Salvador’s notorious death squads that killed dissidents, union activists, priests and rebels with virtual impunity.

D’Aubuisson died of cancer in 1992.

Many in El Salvador suspect that D’Aubuisson, in planning the killing, was responding to orders higher up in the country’s moneyed elite, suggesting a broader conspiracy, and slowly, details to that effect have emerged.

A former member of D’Aubuisson’s security detail said in an interview this month that the military leader and Arena founder received instructions to kill Romero from “the most powerful economic sectors in the country.”

“These are the grand capitalists who today live from their riches as though they did not have hands stained in blood,” said the person, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

“The major was clear that murdering Romero was going to have a serious political cost,” the person said. “He received, almost daily, from the financial elite, a list of people they wanted eliminated. . . . The major always analyzed the list carefully before giving the order to act.”

Alvaro Saravia, a cashiered air force captain long tied to the plot to kill Romero, implicated, in addition to D’Aubuisson, the son of a former president in the planning of the killing.

The gunman, a sniper who killed Romero with a single shot to the heart, was paid the equivalent of $400 for his efforts, Saravia said in a long interview with the Salvadoran weekly El Faro published this week. The gunman worked for Mario Molina, son of former Salvadoran President Arturo Armando Molina, Saravia said.

Saravia was found liable for Romero’s death in a California court in 2004 and ordered to pay $10 million, a judgment he has evaded. El Faro found him living in hiding “in a Spanish-speaking country.”

Funes has said Romero was his “spiritual guide” and he has emphasized the importance of justice and human rights in his administration. But he has also warned against revenge and suggested that repealing the amnesty law would dangerously open up old wounds.

“I don’t think any party in power is going to have the political will to investigate . . . because there can be some very high-level people involved,” Catholic historian Father Jesus Delgado, a biographer of Romero, said in an interview. “You need three generations for the emotions to calm. This continues to be an armed country, greatly polarized, a country without a culture of dialogue or history.”

Renderos is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.