On March 24, 1980, the assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero rocked that nation and the world. Despite the efforts of many in El Salvador and beyond, those responsible for Romero’s murder remained unpunished for their heinous crime. Assassination of a Saint is the thrilling story of an international team of lawyers, private investigators, and human-rights experts that fought to bring justice for the slain hero. Matt Eisenbrandt, a lawyer who was part of the investigative team, recounts in this gripping narrative how he and his colleagues interviewed eyewitnesses and former members of death squads while searching for evidence on those who financed them. As investigators worked toward the only court verdict ever reached for the murder of the martyred archbishop, they uncovered information with profound implications for El Salvador and the United States.
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Assassination of a Saint
The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring his Killers to Justice
By Matt Eisenbrandt
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
PRIOR INVESTIGATIONS OF THE ROMERO ASSASSINATION
FRESNO, CALIFORNIA, USA — AUGUST 2004
Outside the air-conditioned courthouse, the summer sun scorches the city streets several floors below. August is not a comfortable time to be in Fresno, and this year is no exception. The seats behind me are sprinkled with journalists, human rights activists, and survivors of El Salvador's civil war. The chairs in the jury box to my left are unoccupied but decorated with tall photos of Óscar Romero and posters displaying headlines about his death. From his elevated seat, Judge Oliver Wanger peers down like a gargoyle hawk. His white hair and black robe convey appropriate measures of seriousness and seniority. Although the case we have put before him is unorthodox, the judge, an ex-marine, has treated it with flexibility and fairness. He insisted that the trial proceed in the largest courtroom, its high ceilings now lending a regal, if modern, feel.
Wearing a charcoal suit and muted red tie my father bought me after college, I address the aging Salvadoran man on the witness stand. He was once a judge, but he is now as far removed from that role as from his home country. Even as Atilio Ramírez Amaya testifies about the most terrifying week of his life, twenty-four years ago, he maintains a judicial stoicism.
"Where were you on the evening of March 24, 1980?" I ask.
"I was [teaching] at the National University."
"How did you find out about the assassination of Monseñor Romero?" I use the archbishop's common title in Spanish.
"Around six thirty that evening ... as I was going to my car, I heard people screaming, 'Someone has wounded Monseñor! They're saying someone killed Monseñor!' It was on the radio."
In El Salvador, a civil law country, judges have a prominent role in the earliest stages of criminal investigations, and it was Judge Ramírez Amaya's job to work with the police to gather evidence. "I headed to the forensic clinic," he says, "[but] Monseñor wasn't there. He was at the Policlínica hospital, and there was a justice of the peace on his way there."
"Why did you go?"
"I was obligated by the law to go because Monseñor was a person of high standing. As a judge overseeing criminal cases, I had to go."
"Were you in charge or was the justice of the peace in charge?"
"I was. They hadn't begun the autopsy, so I took over the case and the investigation."
"When did you arrive at the Policlínica?"
"It would have been around 7:00 P.M."
I call for an exhibit to be displayed. The photograph shows a crowd arranged in a tight horseshoe around Romero's horizontal body. His torso fills the foreground but his face, with eyes closed, recedes from the camera. The stole he wore for the mass remains draped around his neck. Everyone gathered is likewise in identifiable uniforms — nurses, nuns, doctors, even a lawyer in a suit. Their grim expressions reveal the terrible fact that Romero is already dead.
"Can you please describe the scene at the Policlínica when you arrived?"
"When I entered the room — it was smaller than this room, maybe half the size — there were about a hundred people surrounding the gurney where Monseñor's body was."
"Were there any police at the Policlínica?"
"Should they have been there?"
"Yes. They should have been there for security reasons. That's why, when I arrived, I called my secretary and I asked him to call the police and ask for backup, because there were so many people that we weren't able to work. ... I had to make everybody leave the room." Ramírez Amaya describes the autopsy: "X-rays were taken but at first, they couldn't detect where the bullet was, so two or three more X-rays had to be taken. ... The blood was gushing, but it was in clots. It was coagulated. They couldn't find the bullet, so the doctors, using gloves of course, had to remove all these blood clots from the body. They pressed them until they dissolved the clots one by one, and there were no clots left in the thorax. That's when the three bullet fragments were found." All the bleeding was caused by three very thin cuts in the aorta and vena cava, he says. That's when he knew the bullet was a .22 caliber with a hollow tip. "After this, I once again asked my secretary about the police so they could help us secure the evidence in bags. I was told that the police had not arrived."
I put the autopsy report on the screen. "What time did the autopsy finish?"
"The autopsy lasted over three hours, almost four hours."
"Where did you go next?"
"After that, I again spoke to my secretary to call the police so that the police could take us or accompany us to the crime scene — the Divina Providencia church where Monseñor was shot. Since the police didn't come, I, in my own car, took my secretary with me. It was just the secretary and me. We went to the church." The only people there were two of Romero's lawyers.
"What did you do at the church?"
"It is a small church, more or less the size of this room, and we went throughout the church looking for the bullet casings. We took measurements so we could know the range or distance from which the shot could have been fired. We went through the church thoroughly trying to find any type of evidence, but we found no evidence."
A little before midnight, Ramírez Amaya took his secretary to the court building. The secretary preferred to stay at the court rather than return to his house outside the capital. "Going all the way [home] was basically putting your life in danger," Ramírez Amaya says. "You could see on street corners these small tanks that were used by the army, as well as police with automatic weapons. You couldn't see a single [civilian] person out on the street, not a single vehicle." Because the police never came, Ramírez Amaya took the X-rays and bullet fragments from the autopsy to his home.
"The next day after the assassination, what did you do?" I ask.
"I arrived at my job at the Fourth Criminal Court, and I ordered the files," he says.
"Did you speak with anyone at the National Police?"
"Yes, I told my secretary to call the police so we could get together on how we were going to coordinate the investigation, but the secretary told me that the police wanted me to send [them] the evidence."
"Did you send the evidence?"
"No, I didn't send it. I spoke to the technician at the police laboratory, who was upset because I wasn't sending the evidence. He asked me if I didn't trust the police. And I told him that, indeed, I did not trust the police. I told them that if they wanted to conduct any examination as to what caliber the bullet was, they had to bring over [to my office] the microscopes and the scales and whatever else they needed to do their expert analysis."
I ask Ramírez Amaya if he had problems in the days after Romero's murder.
"On the 25th, Colonel Majano [the head of the ruling junta] appeared on television ... saying that the assassins of Monseñor Romero would be found immediately ... [and] they would then send those names to the Fourth Criminal Judge, which was me, for their immediate capture. Almost instantly, or moments after this press conference, which would have been around twelve noon, I received the first phone call at home. This was the first threat."
"How many phone calls did you receive?"
"Three to four phone calls were made to my home. The ones that I didn't answer were answered by my daughter. This would have been on Tuesday and Wednesday, the 25th and the 26th of March. In the phone call answered by my daughter, the voice asked her what her favorite color was, and she was told that was the color they would paint my coffin."
I ask Ramírez Amaya about the next day, March 27.
"That evening, it was about 10:15 P.M.," he says, "someone knocked at the door, asking for me, saying that a friend was looking for me. And they gave the name of this friend. I got up and I told my housekeeper to be careful, to open the door with caution. I was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun with me, out of fear since I had been threatened. In San Salvador, it was a time of incredible tension. All the people that I was somehow involved with, or coworkers, they were all fearful. Every day, as soon as the sun went down, I would get this fever." Returning to that night, Ramírez Amaya says:
My housekeeper opened the door and two young men walked in. I had the shotgun in my hands, and I opened the door of my bedroom and I peeked to see if I recognized them. I didn't recognize them, so I told them to sit down. They didn't see the shotgun I had but when I saw them, one had a briefcase and he pulled out a machine gun. When I saw their weapon, I pulled out the shotgun, and I was about to fire at them but my housekeeper ran toward me. ... At that moment, one of the men fired the weapon. He was trying to fire at me but since my housekeeper had run toward me, instead of the bullets hitting me, they hit her in the back and in the buttocks and she fell toward me. She fell to the ground. I wasn't able to break her fall. And then the men took off. They just hit the door hard and they left, and then they sprayed the house with bullets. ... All this happened within five seconds, perhaps. Then I felt as though they were walking on the roof of the house, so I started firing the gun out the windows because I thought they were trying to get into the house. About fifteen days earlier, they had killed the attorney general [Mario Zamora]. ... That's how the men had gotten into his house. And I was just yelling at my wife, 'Josefina, they're going to kill us, just like they did with Mario Zamora!' I gave her a pistol and asked her to start firing out the windows. We had our daughter, who was between twelve and fourteen at the time, and I threw a mattress over her. I was just crawling through my house, listening for the noises so I could fire in the direction of the noises. Then the footsteps stopped. There was this deathly silence for ten minutes when the phone rang. The voice said to me, 'Doctor, this is Eliseo Soto from the National Police.' ... I knew him from [his] childhood when my mother took him in because he didn't have parents. My mother took him in and helped him. She also helped him get the job with the police.
Ramírez Amaya pauses, and I interject, "What did Eliseo Soto say?"
"He said to me, 'Doctor, you are alive,' but he was surprised to know that I was alive. And I answered him, 'Yes, I am happy to be alive.' And he said, 'Don't worry. Perhaps they were just trying to scare you.'" Ramírez Amaya is implying that Soto knew about the murder attempt ahead of time. After half an hour, family and friends came to the house, as did the night watchman. "He said to me that the police were deaf because the entrance to my neighborhood — I live in an enclosed neighborhood and you can only come in through one street — he said there were two police vehicles just outside on the street while all this was happening, while they were trying to kill me. Those police officers were just outside on the street."
"Were those officers in marked cars?"
"Yes, I was told by the night watchman that they were marked patrol units and they hadn't even moved when they heard all the firing going on." Another neighbor came over. "He said to me that what he was about to tell me, he would never repeat and he would never be a witness in any case. And he told me that during the attempt on my life, there were three people — two that entered my house and one that stayed as the driver in the getaway car. He said the man at the wheel of the car was from the National Police. And he said, 'You know that I work with the police and I know the other police officers.'"
"Did you personally know that man to work for the police?"
"Yes. Then I said to my wife, 'We have to leave the country. Otherwise, we are going to get killed. It's the police.'"
"Did anyone from the police ever arrive to investigate the attempt?"
"No, the attempt against me was never investigated by any judge or any police."
"So what happened to the housekeeper?"
"[The next day], I went to visit her at the hospital. They hadn't admitted her into the hospital. She was just somewhere on the floor in the hallway, just as we had left her."
Ramírez Amaya turns to his own situation. "I already had a ticket purchased for Saturday to go to Venezuela, to Caracas, for a criminology conference, but I couldn't go to the airport because the police had all the airports and other exits to the city secured. I was afraid to go to the airport because I figured at immigration they could detain me and take me and kill me." He left instead by boat.
"And how many years passed until you returned to El Salvador?" I ask, knowing this is the hardest question for him.
"Almost ten years," he says, tears coming to his eyes. "Almost ten years."
SAN SALVADOR — MAY 1980
Over a month after Romero died, the archbishop's murder remained unsolved. Despite the refusal of the National Police to assist Judge Ramírez Amaya's aborted investigation and their likely involvement in his attempted murder, a few police detectives did go through the motions of following leads in Romero's case, but they achieved few results. Evidence was not readily available, and there were many people in El Salvador with the motive and capability of carrying out such a crime. The U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, initially said anti-Castro Cubans might have killed the archbishop, while the CIA speculated about the "psychotic right" or "extreme leftists."
On May 7, a singular event should have cracked the case wide open. A junta composed of military and civilian officials was ruling the country but barely hanging on in the face of numerous challenges. The leading centrist officer in the junta, Colonel Adolfo Majano, learned that a group of current and former military officers, all right-wing extremists, were planning a coup d'état. They would be meeting that day at a rural estate known as Finca San Luis. Majano saw the opportunity for a decisive blow against those who sought to overthrow the government, and he ordered an army unit loyal to him to arrest the group. In the short term, the raid was a success. Not only did they detain the coup plotters but they also seized weapons and numerous documents, some with damning titles like "How to Carry Out a Political Coup d'État in El Salvador." As if to emphasize their incriminating nature, Colonel Majano later said that one of the key suspects tried to eat the documents as the arresting soldiers rushed in.
Among the papers were several that might have solved Archbishop Romero's murder. The most damning of all the records was a daily planner, its brown cover opening to a page with the preprinted English words, "This Book is the Property of" followed by the handwritten name "Saravia Alvaro Rafael." An ex–air force captain, Álvaro Saravia was among those arrested in the raid and his datebook came to be known as the Saravia Diary. The pages contained the names of suspected extremists and murderers alongside lists of weapons, expenses, and appointments but often without further details.
Several loose pieces of stationery were captured along with the Saravia Diary. When Colonel Majano's men photocopied the documents, they copied three of the loose sheets together onto one page. For years, researchers reviewing the photocopy believed the three pages went together, an assumption that seemed to implicate people in crimes they might not have committed. One sheet contains a list of some of the most prominent and wealthy people in El Salvador. At the bottom of the sheet is a logo that was later reported to belong to a seafood company created by two people arrested in the San Luis raid. The second piece of stationery photocopied sideways at the top of the page has different handwriting and lists a series of payments. Some names, including Saravia's, are written in the ledger among other items like "housing," "clothing," "beds," "gas," "hotel," and "petty cash." The third piece of stationery, with the same handwriting as the first, carries the title "Equipo — Operación Piña" (Equipment — Operation Pineapple). It bears the same logo and catalogs the following items:
1 .257 Roberts
Colonel Majano gave a copy of these notes to every member of the ruling junta and they all reached the same conclusion: Operation Piña is the assassination of Archbishop Romero. It describes a plan unlike most of the killings that were then happening in El Salvador, especially those attributed to death squads. Usually, there was no need for a sharpshooter. Most murders involved machine guns and numerous bullets, not a single shot from a rifle like a .257 Roberts. U.S. ambassador Robert White, who saw the Saravia Diary, reached the same conclusion. "I had knowledgeable people," White later said, "for whose political analysis and accuracy I have the profoundest respect. I gave them this document without any preparatory comments. And each one of them looked at this and said, well, this is the outline of the operation to kill Archbishop Romero."
Excerpted from Assassination of a Saint by Matt Eisenbrandt. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Key Figures xxiv
1 "Informational Goulash": Prior Investigations of the Romero Assassination 1
2 "In Violation of the Law of Nations": The Romero Assassination Comes to the United States 16
3 "The Enemy Comes from Our People": Coffee, Anti-Communism, and the Death Squads 24
4 "The Door of History": Archbishop Romero and the Catholic Church in El Salvador 38
5 "A Bed to Drop Dead In": The Search for Álvaro Saravia and the Death Squad Financiers 59
6 "ARENA's Achilles' Heel": Our First Trip to El Salvador 69
7 Baby Robbers, Mad Bombers, and Other Assorted Criminals Saravia's Escape to Miami Brings U.S. Foreign Policy Full Circle 75
8 "You're Making a Lot of Noise": Looking for Evidence on the Death Squad Financiers 85
9 "You Know Better Than to Ask That": The Search for the Getaway Driver 97
10 "A Rabid Anti-Communist": Meeting Witnesses from the ARENA Party 104
11 "We Don't Have a Clue What the Hell Is Going On": The Continuing Hunt for Saravia and Insider Witnesses 112
12 "God Forgive Me for What I'm Going to Do": An Insider Goes on the Record 119
13 "There Must Have Been a Thousand Romeros": Final Interviews and Trial Preparation 130
14 "Of a Magnitude That Is Hardly Describable": The Romero Assassination Case Goes to Trial 135
15 "The Fleas Always Stick to the Skinniest Dog": The Verdict's Impact on Saravia 151
Afterword Benjamín Cuéllar 169
Selected Bibliography 209