Decades Later, New Details In Oscar Romero Death

Thirty years after the death of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, new details are coming to light about his assassination and the men behind the plot to kill him. Melissa Block talks to Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America. He led a delegation to El Salvador last month to mark the anniversary of Romero's death.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In 1980, in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero was outspoken in the pulpit, agitating for an end to repression and imploring the Salvadorian military to stop killing civilians. On March 23, 1980, Romero issued this appeal.

(Soundbite of archival recording)

Archbishop OSCAR ROMERO (El Salvador): (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Before another killing order is given, he said, the law of God must prevail: Thou shalt not kill.

Abp. ROMERO: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: The next day while celebrating mass, Archbishop Romero was shot dead.

(Soundbite of a gunshot)

BLOCK: That assassination carried out by a right-wing death squad. Now, one of the men involved with the plot has offered new details in an interview with the online news site El Faro.

Those revelations were published as Geoff Thale was in El Salvador marking the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Romero's death.

Thale is program director with the Washington Office on Latin America. He says a former military captain, Alvaro Saravia, confirmed that the order to kill came from the right-wing leader Major Roberto D'Aubuisson.

But Captain Saravia denied that he pulled the trigger.

Mr. GEOFF THALE (Program Director, Washington Office on Latin America): It's generally widely thought that he was the shooter. He says here he was not the shooter, that someone else was the shooter, that he paid the shooter and provided the car. But he was not the guy who did the shooting.

BLOCK: This man who's interviewed in the articles in El Salvador, Captain Saravia, his involvement has been well-known for years. He was living in the United States as a used car salesman.

Mr. THALE: Yeah.

BLOCK: He faced a civil lawsuit in federal court here and was ordered to pay $10 million to the surviving family members of Archbishop Romero.

Mr. THALE: Right.

BLOCK: Vanished before that judgment, I guess. Has he been heard from since then?

Mr. THALE: The civil suit was filed, the Center For Justice and Accountability in San Francisco filed the suit against him. He didn't show up at the trial, has not been seen publicly since.

And Carlos Dada, the reporter who did the El Faro story, tracked him down to the country where he's living and hiding today.

BLOCK: What else did he say in that article that shed any new light, do you think, for what was going on at the time?

Mr. THALE: What the story makes clear is that D'Aubuisson and a loose network of former military officers, former National Guard and security forces people, with support and connections to political actors and financing from Salvadorians abroad as well as people in the country carried out a wide set of politically targeted killings.

And the story keeps talking over and over again about, oh, you could complain about your dentist and you might find your dentist dead the next day. And so it's clear there's a network of these people, that they're organized, that they're active and that they conducted a lot of targeted assassinations.

BLOCK: What questions, for you, are the key ones that are still unanswered now, 30 years after this assassination?

Mr. THALE: The big questions really have to do with who was the power structure, who were the decision makers behind those who carried out these killings? There were a set of actors, primarily people from the military and wealthy families, who were the decision makers in that process.

BLOCK: Well, the FMLN, the former leftist guerillas, are now the party in power in El Salvador. How did the government mark this 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Romero when you were there during your trip last month?

Mr. THALE: Yeah, two really important ways. And I should say, for me and for everyone who went on this delegation, it was a very moving trip. And it was moving because on Saturday, the 20th of March, the archdiocese of San Salvador organized memorial mass. There is a procession to that memorial mass in which thousands of people participated.

The president spoke to the procession, to the crowd before they left, and then marched with the demonstrators.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THALE: So that's the first. The second is on the 24th, President Funes first went to the crypt where Monsignor Romero was buried and prayed, and then made a speech in which he said I recognize that the Salvadoran state was complicit in the killing of Monsignor Romero. And in the name of the Salvadoran state, I beg forgiveness.

BLOCK: But at the same time, there's been an amnesty law in effect in El Salvador for some time. Any thought given to rethinking that, to actually bringing to justice or trying to prosecute (unintelligible)?

Mr. THALE: Yeah, there's clearly a lot of discussion about that going on. Funes, when he ran, as part of his campaign, said he would not reopen it. But clearly, the Romero case, the Jesuit case, some of the key human rights abuses have raised the question of whether the amnesty could be overturned or part of it reopened, or something. And I think there's movement in that direction.

BLOCK: Geoff Thale with the Washington Office on Latin America, thanks so much.

Mr. THALE: Sure, thank you.

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