Assassination of a Saint by Matt Eisenbrandt, University of California, £18.99
He was born on the feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1917 – so this year marks the centenary of Blessed Oscar Romero’s birth. There is a widespread and realistic expectation that it will also be the year of his canonisation. In consequence, there is sure to be renewed interest in the circumstances of the shocking assassination of the metropolitan archbishop of San Salvador in 1980, as he celebrated Mass. In 37 years, not a single person in El Salvador has been brought to justice for the crime.
It has taken Matt Eisenbrandt a decade to write this beautifully crafted volume, but it was worth waiting for. It is a timely addition to the literature on Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom. But it is not a theological or spiritual tract. It is a book for the general secular reader as much as for those who hold up Oscar Romero as an icon and inspiration on their faith journey. Eisenbrandt tells the story of Romero’s killing, the conspiracy behind it, the cover-up afterwards and the prosecution in a California court of one of the principal perpetrators of this crime against humanity.
Eisenbrandt belonged to the small group of lawyers who patiently pursued the Romero case knowing that it was possible, in this assassination context, and by using US legislation known as the “Alien Tort Statute”, to seek justice in an American court for those criminal conspirators resident in the United States – even when the Salvadoran authorities refused to investigate and charge those responsible. He has produced a gripping detective story alternating between San Salvador and a courtroom in Fresno, California, in 2004.
In hearing of the story of Archbishop Romero’s martyrdom for the first time, many Catholics find it difficult to believe that his murder at the altar was planned, financed and carried out not by atheists or communists but by people from the elite Christian families of El Salvador.
We have known, and Archbishop Romero was well aware, that the senior military officers who gave the orders for the massacre of protesters, the disappearance of rural community organisers, the murder of outspoken priests and catechists, themselves came from those Catholic and Evangelical families.
The death squads that carried out these despicable acts were financed by prominent landholders, coffee barons and businessmen from the same oligarchy which ran and owned the country. In his preaching, Romero pleaded insistently for a change of heart from these wealthy and powerful Catholics, and an end to the repression and violations of human rights by the security forces and their militias.
It was not, therefore, a rhetorical flourish when, at the end of a tragic week of bloodshed, Romero wrote to President Molina: “I do not understand, Mr President, how you can declare yourself before the nation, Catholic by upbringing and by conviction; and yet allow these unspeakable outrages on the part of the security forces in a country we call civilised and Christian.”
The truth commission, set up at the end of the 12-year civil war that came in the wake of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, reported in 1993 that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson gave the orders for the execution of Romero, with precise instructions to his personal security service to organise it. It confirmed that captains Alvaro Saravia and Eduardo Avila were his co-conspirators. It named Amado Garay as the driver of the getaway vehicle and Walter Alvarez as the one who paid the “fees” of the professional assassin. It seems that 30 pieces of silver were translated into $200 in 1980. However, the one who pulled the trigger, “the shooter”, has never been conclusively identified and Eisenbrandt himself does not provide definitive clarity on this.
The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, with Eisenstadt as its legal director, doggedly pursued Alvaro Saravia when he was discovered living in the United States. They put together a case which threw new light on the Salvadoran financiers of the death squads and the Romero assassination, many of them based in Miami. The impunity which the Salvadoran supreme court provided to the perpetrators of Romero’s assassination and other human rights crimes was in the end overlooked in Washington to protect the US military aid programme.
In 2010, on the 30th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom, the then President Mauricio Funes formally and tearfully apologised “in the name of the Salvadoran state” for Romero’s assassination, finally recognising the complicity of government agents in the killing and cover-up of the crime.
Back in 1980, forces had sought to silence the voice of their “turbulent priest” once and for all. In that they failed miserably. The stone that the oligarchy rejected has become the cornerstone. Hailed today as “Spiritual Guide of the Nation”, Blessed Oscar Romero is surely, to adapt the words of Shakespeare on Caesar, “the noblest Salvadoran of them all”.
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