Last Friday (Sept. 3), in an U.S. District Court in Fresno, California, Judge Oliver Wanger ruled that a retired captain in the Salvadoran Air Force, Alvaro Rafael Saravia, was “liable” (though by no means solely responsible) for the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, in March, 1980.
And so the case of J. Doe v. Alvaro Rafael Saravia reached a temporary respite.
The Judge ordered Saravia (who has been on the lam since the lawsuit was first filed against him one year ago this month) to pay damages totaling some $10 million. But since the purpose of the lawsuit was monumentally larger than the actions of this one self-disappeared individual, the Judge’s monetary estimate of the damages was quite irrelevant.
Understandably, the plaintiffs (the “J. Doe” represents relatives of the murdered Romero, whose identities remain sealed to protect them from reprisal) and their many supporters in El Salvador, the States, and beyond, were elated. As the San Francisco Chronicle described the scene in the courtroom after the verdict was announced: “[I]n a traditional Latin American remembrance of the dead, [one man] called out three times, ‘Monsignor Romero‘, and three times the crowd in the courtroom responded, ‘Presente‘!”
(“If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.” Archbishop Romero, in a sermon delivered the day before his assassination.)
The Chronicle also quoted Professor Felix Kury of San Francisco State University, who the Chronicle tells us is a Salvadoran national, and who “made reference to the estimated $6 billion in U.S. support for the Salvadoran government during the war.”
“The elephant in the room—that we could not talk about because we wanted to find this man responsible—is the role of the United States,” he said. “The war would not have happened without it.”
Well. You get what you pay for. And in Judge Wanger’s own words, “[T]he evidence shows that there was a consistent and unabating regime that was in control of El Salvador, and that this regime essentially functioned as a militarily controlled government.” In the end, the Court had no trouble seeing the Big Picture.
In El Salvador, another matter. “Even now the judicial system will not dare to open the case,” the truly brave Maria Julia Hernandez, a founder of the Archdiocese of San Salvador’s human rights office Tutela Legal, and a witness during the civil suit in California, told Associated Press. “There is complete fear.” (“Marcos Aleman, “Church official calls for investigation into archbishop’s death,” Sept. 4.)
Aftershocks of the $6 billion earthquake that wracked El Salvador in the 1980s, no doubt.
As Michael McClintock observed long ago (The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador, Zed Books, 1985, pp. 262-263):
It is hard to understand why the mass opposition groups took so long to realize the military had declared war upon them immediately after the October  coup….The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, more than any other single act of repression against unarmed opposition, was…necessary to force the people of El Salvador to understand that the terms of confrontation had changed, that civil war had been declared against them and they must indeed be prepared to “vanquish or die.”
We owe everybody involved in this one lawsuit an enormous debt.
But there are so many other cases still waiting to be heard.
Center for Justice and Accountability (San Francisco)
“El Salvador: Alvaro Rafael Saravia” (CJA’s webpage devoted to the lawsuit)
“Human Rights Accountability,” Sandra Coliver, a CJA associate, AlterNet, November 10, 2003
From Madness to Hope:…Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, S/25500, April 1, 1993
“All These Things Happened Among Us” I, ZNet Blogs, August 24, 2004
FYA (“For your archives”): Am depositing here a short selection of mainstream print media reports on the U.S. District Court’s September 3 ruling. As you may have guessed, the U.S.-based mainstream media have been overwhelmingly uninspired by the civil suit and its outcome. Thus they distinguish themselves once again. And this despite the effort of somebody at the New York Times to help raise the largely flat profile from which the lawsuit suffered in the States by publishing the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum’s op-ed, “Justice Comes for the Archbishop” (Aug. 31—also reproduced below) just three days prior to the Court’s ruling. Nevertheless. Menchu’s commentary did little to elevate the lawsuit or the larger events it concerns to a higher level of attention. Certainly not in the States.
The New York Times
August 31, 2004 Tuesday
Late Edition – Final
SECTION: Section A; Column 1; Editorial Desk; Pg. 19
HEADLINE: Justice Comes for the Archbishop
BYLINE: By Rigoberta Menchu Tum.
Rigoberta Menchu Tum was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.
DATELINE: GUATEMALA CITY
Nearly 25 years after Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in San Salvador, a chance for justice has finally appeared. A judge is expected to rule on Friday in a landmark lawsuit brought against a man accused of being an accomplice in the murder. The venue, however, is not a Salvadoran tribunal but a federal court in Fresno, Calif., where a longtime United States resident, Alvaro Saravia, faces civil charges for helping carry out orders to have Archbishop Romero killed.
Mr. Saravia, a former Salvadoran air force captain and close associate of Roberto d’Aubuisson, the founder of El Salvador’s ruling right-wing party, is accused of obtaining the assassin’s gun, arranging for his transportation to the chapel, and paying him afterwards. The suit, filed on behalf of a relative of the archbishop by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights group, seeks damages for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity. Evidence was presented last week, and although Mr. Saravia has gone into hiding and is being tried in absentia, if the judge finds him liable he will face monetary damages.
This case is being watched closely throughout Central America, where fragile new democracies suffer the lingering effects of unpunished wartime crimes. The failure to bring human rights violators to justice encourages more violence, as the killing of Archbishop Romero and the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala sadly illustrated. The lack of arrests in the Romero murder was a signal that Salvadoran armed forces and paramilitary groups enjoyed impunity for their crimes, quickening the country’s descent into a brutal 12-year civil war that left more than 75,000 civilians dead.
Countries emerging from civil conflict must reconcile the dual needs of consolidating stability and pursuing justice, a difficulty easily exploited by those intent on protecting their own interests. In El Salvador, a sweeping amnesty law rendered the 1993 findings of a United Nations truth commission legally irrelevant. That commission found Mr. d’Aubuisson (who died in 1992) and Mr. Saravia responsible for Archbishop Romero’s murder, but neither man could be prosecuted in his homeland.
Thus the best chance for justice stems from the coincidence of Mr. Saravia’s residency — he has been in America since at least 1987. Through the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, the United States allows foreign citizens to sue people living within American borders. Fortunately, this summer in a case involving the kidnapping of a Mexican doctor, the Supreme Court decided against the Bush administration and affirmed the applicability of the act in human rights cases.
The Saravia trial, while an inspiring exercise in American law, does raise disturbing questions about United States policy. How did Mr. Saravia come to live in California in the first place? Declassified State Department and Central Intelligence Agency documents reveal that the government was aware of Mr. Saravia’s alleged involvement in the Romero assassination as early as May 1980. The trial also represents an opportunity to examine, albeit obliquely, the responsibility of the Salvadoran government and its closest ally, the United States, in the events that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Salvadoran civilians.
It is a sort of redemption, then, that the first trial in this murder is taking place in an American court. Let us hope that justice will be served at last in the case of Oscar Romero, and that it will inspire the governments of the United States, El Salvador and other nations to prosecute the many human rights abusers who live openly among us.
The Associated Press State & Local Wire
September 3, 2004, Friday, BC cycle
SECTION: State and Regional
HEADLINE: Judge finds Modesto man liable for death of Salvadoran archbishop
BYLINE: By JULIANA BARBASSA, Associated Press Writer
DATELINE: FRESNO, Calif.
A federal judge on Friday found a retired Salvadoran Air Force captain liable in the 1980 slaying of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero – a killing that helped push a country to civil war, but for which no one was ever held responsible in a court of law until today.
“The sole remedy the law can provide in money,” Judge Oliver Wanger said before ordering Alvaro Rafael Saravia to pay $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages for the killings.
Saravia, whose last known residence was in Modesto, disappeared after learning the suit had been filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf of a relative of Romero’s. He was not present in court and had no representation during the hearings.
To the dozens of Salvadorans who were present – and to many who lost family and friends in the escalating violence that tore the country apart after the Archbishop’s death – the judge’s words provided solace they’d sought for decades.
Many wept openly when the judge told the courtroom that the defendant’s conduct was “the cause in law for the death of the Archbishop.”
The conclusion of the unusual civil case, filed under a little known 18th century law and a supporting 1991 statute, reflected the six days of emotional testimony in which witnesses relived the day of Romero’s assassination, his opposition to state-sponsored violence, and the chaos and pain of the civil war that followed.
Romero was shot in the heart by a sniper as he performed Mass, in front of dozens of witnesses. At his funeral in San Salvador’s main square, which was attended by some 100,000 people, at least 40 mourners died and 200 were injured after shots were fired into the crowd.
It was the beginning of a 12-year civil war that would claim 75,000 lives, displace 600,000 Salvadorans, and send more than one million into exile.
Investigations by independent human rights organizations and the United Nations have shown that Saravia, as the chief of security to Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson – a key figure in steering El Salvador’s government toward the extreme right in the late 1970s and early 1980s – conspired to kill the archbishop.
The party founded by D’Aubuisson, now known as ARENA, has been in power since 1989. The current president, Tony Saca, said he served as an altar boy for Romero.
In 1993, the Salvadoran government adopted a broad amnesty that exempted participants in political crimes from criminal or civil prosecution.
In this case, plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that Saravia conspired to commit the killing when he provided the sniper with a gun, his payment, and transportation in the form of Saravia’s personal chauffeur, Amado Garay.
Garay’s deposition was essential to determining Saravia’s liability. He described driving the sniper to the door of the church. Sitting in the car, he said he heard the Archbishop’s last words. Then he heard a single shot coming from his back seat, and was told to drive.
“Slowly,” the judge remarked, “with no sense of urgency, no fear of apprehension,” to a house where Saravia was waiting.
“Saravia said to the shooter, ‘I think you killed him. The news said he died instantly,”‘ Garay testified.
After Wanger left the courtroom Friday, the crowd made three calls of “Monsignor Romero – presente,” a traditional Latin American affirmation that those who have passed are still among the living.
The Catholic Church has taken the first step toward the canonization of Romero, who was an outspoken critic of state-sponsored violence, and who nearly a quarter century after his death is still revered for his support of the poor, and of those who were working for social change.
The San Francisco Chronicle
SEPTEMBER 4, 2004, SATURDAY, FINAL EDITION
SECTION: BAY AREA; Pg. B1
Ex-Salvadoran officer ruled liable in killing of archbishop in 1980;
First trial ever in case, but ex-airman has disappeared
SOURCE: Chronicle Staff Writer
BYLINE: Tyche Hendricks
A federal judge in Fresno ruled Friday that a former Salvadoran air force captain is liable for $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages for his involvement in the assassination almost a quarter century ago of El Salvador’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
The hearing marked the first time that anyone has been brought to trial for the March 24, 1980, murder of Romero, an internationally renowned advocate for peace and human rights, who was gunned down in broad daylight while saying Mass at a San Salvador hospital chapel.
The civil court decision, by Judge Oliver W. Wanger, who was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, was met with jubilation and tears by about two dozen Salvadorans who sat through much of the five days of dramatic testimony.
“It’s an incredible feeling of relief,” said Juan Ramon Cardona, executive director of the Central American Resource Center in San Francisco and a native of El Salvador. “In all our families we have lost relatives, and no one has ever been prosecuted, so this judge’s decision is a victory for us. It is justice being written.”
The assassination of the archbishop helped plunge El Salvador into a 12-year civil war that claimed more than 75,000 civilian lives and displaced almost one-third of the country’s population. In 1993, the Salvadoran legislature passed a sweeping amnesty law that has prevented prosecution in that country of this or any other crime committed during the war.
Human rights advocates hailed the judgment against Capt. Alvaro Rafael Saravia, who has been living in Modesto, as a historic step in holding human rights violators around the world responsible for crimes against humanity.
“This decision now ranks with other decisions by national and international courts in sending the message … that reconciliation and the rule of law cannot flourish until there is an accounting for the heinous crimes of the past,” said Sandra Coliver, executive director of the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco, which brought the case on behalf of a sibling of Romero, whose identity is being kept under seal for fear of retaliation.
Saravia, who came to the United States in the mid-1980s, did not appear in court and was not represented by an attorney. He could not be reached at his last known address in Modesto and is believed to have gone into hiding.
U.S. authorities would not comment on Saravia’s immigration status or whether they would seek to deport him, as Coliver hopes. But Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said, “We are observing the proceedings closely and continue to have an interest in this case.”
Officials at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return calls seeking comment Friday.
In testimony Friday, Stanford Professor Terry Karl, an expert on Latin America, presented the court with declassified U.S. government documents and other evidence linking former Salvadoran Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson and Saravia to Romero’s murder, including handwritten notes by both men listing weapons, personnel and sources of funds for the assassination effort.
Her testimony was backed up by a 1993 U.N. truth commission report found that D’Aubuisson ordered the killing of the archbishop and that Saravia helped plan and carry it out, including paying the hit man and hiring the driver to take him to the chapel. D’Aubuisson, who later organized El Salvador’s ruling ARENA party, died of cancer in 1992.
Wanger took pains to ensure that he had jurisdiction in the case and that the statute of limitations had not expired. Then, he issued a strongly worded statement, finding that Saravia was responsible for the murder under the terms of two U.S. laws — the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act and the 1991 Torture Victim Protection Act — which allow civil suits against defendants in the United States, even when the crime was committed outside this country.
“The damage is of a magnitude that is hardly describable,” said Wanger from the bench at the conclusion of the trial. “The only thing we can in a civil court is require the defendant to pay money.”
Wanger set compensatory damages at $2.5 million and added an additional $7.5 million in punitive damages. Saying Romero’s life was “beyond measure,” plaintiff’s attorney Nicholas van Aelstyn, of the firm Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, had pointedly declined to ask for a specific monetary amount.
After the case concluded, San Francisco State University Professor Felix Kury, who is Salvadoran, made reference to the estimated $6 billion in U.S. support for the Salvadoran government during the war.
“The elephant in the room — that we could not talk about because we wanted to find this man responsible — is the role of the United States,” he said. “The war would not have happened without it.”
Then, in a traditional Latin American remembrance of the dead, Kury called out three times, “Monsignor Romero,” and three times the crowd in the courtroom responded, “Presente!”
“He has been resurrected,” said Kury, with tears streaming down his cheeks. “This is the beginning. It will give courage to people to continue fighting against death.”
Independent on Sunday (London)
September 5, 2004, Sunday
SECTION: First Edition; FOREIGN NEWS; Pg. 21
HEADLINE: US COURT ORDERS MAN BEHIND DEATH-SQUAD KILLING OF EL SALVADOR’S ARCHBISHOP TO PAY $ 10M IN DAMAGES
BYLINE: ANDREW BUNCOMBE Archbishop Romero: murdered while saying Mass
Almost 25 years after El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot with a single bullet in the heart as he said Mass, a court in the United States has found someone responsible for his murder.
A federal judge in California found that a retired Salvadoran air force captain, Alvaro Saravia, who has lived in the US for almost 20 years, was liable for the killing and ordered him to pay $ 10m (pounds 5.7m) in damages.
Mr Saravia, who has not been seen since the charges were filed against him last September, was not in court. “To be liable for the killing of a human being, you don’t have to pull the trigger,” Judge Oliver Wanger told about 100 spectators at the courtroom in Fresno, California, many of them Salvadoran. The visitors erupted in applause, and many in attendance began weeping.
The Catholic Church has taken the first step toward the canonisation of Archbishop Romero, who was an outspoken critic of US military and financial support for right-wing governments in central America and of state-sponsored violence.
A quarter of a century after his death, he remains revered for his support of the poor and of those working for social change.
The hearing was brought on behalf of one of Archbishop Romero’s relatives under a law that allows foreign nationals with US connections to be sued for crimes such as torture or genocide. The court heard how Mr Saravia had helped conspire to kill the priest along with his boss, Roberto D’Aubusson, an army major who died in 1992 and had led a network of death squads. The court heard how Mr Saravia had ordered his driver to take the gunman to the chapel in San Salvador, the capital of the small central American country, where he was saying Mass on the evening of 24 March 1980.
The judge said: “Here the evidence shows that there was a consistent and unabating regime that was in control of El Salvador, and that this regime essentially functioned as a militarily controlled government.” The government perpetrated “systematic violations of human rights for the purpose of perpetuating the oligarchy and the military government”.
Judge Wanger also concluded that what happened in El Salvador was the “antithesis of due process” and that there could not be a better example of extrajudicial killing than the murder of Archbishop Romero.
The case was brought by the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability. The CJA’s litigation director, Matt Eisenbrandt, said: “This decision ensures that the United States will no longer be a safe haven for those responsible for this heinous crime. This verdict provides sufficient grounds for the immigration service to place Saravia in deportation proceedings.”
The Washington Post
September 5, 2004 Sunday
SECTION: A Section; A22
HEADLINE: Salvadoran Liable in ’80 Slaying of Archbishop
BYLINE: From News Services
DATELINE: SAN FRANCISCO Sept. 4
A federal judge ruled that a former El Salvadoran military captain is liable for $10 million in damages for his role in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whose killing symbolized death squad terrorism during El Salvador’s civil war.
The hearing marked the first time anyone was tried for the killing of the popular archbishop. He broke church silence on the war by denouncing right-wing death squads for killing suspected supporters of Marxist rebels, human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu said Saturday.
Bernabeu, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Justice and Accountability, said the decision against former captain Alvaro Rafael Saravia sends an important message, even if no money is collected.
Saravia, believed to have moved to the United States in the mid-1980s, did not answer the charges in court or hire an attorney. His last known address was in the central California town of Modesto, she said.
“This is important, because Romero was a huge person in El Salvador,” Bernabeu said.
Rights groups and church officials in El Salvador said others should be tried in that crime and in others committed during a 12-year civil war that cost at least 75,000 lives.
“This is a sign that justice will come in El Salvador — it’s a ray of hope,” said Maria Julia Hernandez, a legal officer for the archbishop of El Salvador.
The San Francisco-based human rights group sued Saravia in September 2003, using two laws that allow civil lawsuits against defendants in the United States when the crime was committed outside the country.
The lawsuit charged that Saravia provided the sniper with a gun, payment and transportation.
“To be liable for the killing of a human being, you don’t have to pull the trigger,” Judge Oliver Wanger said.
During the five-day hearing in Fresno, the group presented declassified U.S. documents and other evidence linking former major Roberto d’Aubuisson and Saravia to the slaying, Bernabeu said.
D’Aubuisson, who founded El Salvador’s ruling Arena party and died of cancer in 1992, was widely believed to have been one of the organizers of the death squads.
A U.N. truth commission linked Saravia and others to Romero’s death, but a 1993 amnesty law passed immediately afterward protected them from prosecution.
The Roman Catholic Church has taken the first step toward the canonization of Romero, who was an outspoken critic of state-sponsored violence and who is revered for his support of the poor and of those working for social change.