Starting as a conservative priest, Oscar Romero turned into an active advocate of the human rights in Central America. This film reports his life and his suspicious murder in1980.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Romero: “I would like to make a special appeal to army men; and in particular to the bases of the National Guard, the police, and the garrisons. They are brothers from our own people. They are killing their own peasant brothers. And before an order to kill, given by a man, the law of God that says "You shall not kill" must prevail; No soldier is forced to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to follow an immoral law. (Applause)”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] People (chanting slogans):
“- Long live!
- Long live the Church of Central America!
- Long live!
- Long live the Church of the American Continent!
- Long live!
- Long live the Universal Church!
- Long live!
- This is a feeling within the Church. Long live Romero!
- Long live!
- Very well, thank you for being here. And the delegations keep on coming!
- I would like to introduce you. We have also seen...
- They come from Peru. Let’s give them a round of applause. Peru!
- You come from a land of martyrs; we salute you with rousing applause
-The same decree, in which the Pope authorized the beatification of Monsignor Romero on February 3rd, also included the three martyrs of my diocese. Three martyr missionaries. (APPLAUSE)”
VOX POP [Spanish] Local People, Protesters: “- We came from Honduras at five in the morning. We departed from our seminary, a convoy of three buses.
- We come from the city of Guatemala. We are part of this great celebration, which we could say is worldwide, because he (Romero) is a great martyr for all Catholics. So we are very happy.
- It's an ecclesial event. We are children of the Church. He is a martyr of our place, of our zone, Central America. And for us he has been a testimony of a prophetic voice in the midst of our society, so marginalized and so discriminated.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Bishop: “On May 23rd of this year, Archbishop Oscar Adolfo Romero will be beatified, as a martyr of the Universal Church.”
Narration: From Saturday May 23rd, Salvadorian Monsignor Oscar Romero is the first martyr Bishop of America.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Salvador Sanchez Ceren, President of El Salvador: “This beatification also becomes a miracle of the Savior. Why? Because this allows us, following his doctrine, his thinking, to try to unite our country, and face the new challenges we have.”
Narration: Five cardinals, two hundred and twenty bishops, twelve hundred priests and more than three hundred thousand followers gathered in El Mundo square in El Salvador to witness the long awaited beatification. This act seemed to put an end to a vigil that had begun no less than thirty-five years ago.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Priest: “May the venerable servant of God, Óscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez, Bishop and martyr, pastor according to the heart of Christ, evangelizer and father of the poor, be from now on be called Blessed.”
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
VOX POP [Spanish] Local Citizens: “-I did not live the time of the war, but it was a moment that really hit them, and it is a special moment for the Salvadorian people, especially for me.
- We are proud to be here. Thank God we are here for the beatification of Monsignor Romero, after thirty-five years, right? Although I did not ever meet him I do believe that he was a very good person, and therefore deserves this beatification.”
Narration: Monsignor Romero was appointed Bishop of El Salvador in 1977, dubbed a communist and victim of military persecution, the image of Romero continues to generate controversy and mixed opinions.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Cuellar, Lawyer: “Fortunately, today I feel the immense joy of reaching this point in life and really enjoying the moment of Archbishop Romero’s beatification, not because I am interested in the Institutional Church, but because this is a time of rectification, reparation and restoration of the figure and of the history of Archbishop Romero, who was considered a Saint by these people right after his death. But in his own Church there were tribulations, mistakes, recriminations, about what Romero did, after he died, during the process of beatification.”
Narration: Romero's canonization cause began in 1990, and in 1994 the formal request was presented to his successor, Arturo Rivera y Damas. However, the beatification of Monsignor Romero has taken thirty five years to arrive. What are the reasons for this delay? Why has a cause such as Monsignor Romero’s, who many considered as the martyr of the Americas while still alive, been so stagnant?
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Valencia, Journalist: “The rejection of Monsignor Romero was too visceral. Even when he was alive and in the Salvadorian Church, which is the one that knew him best. The majority of the Salvadorian Episcopal Conference was against Monsignor Romero. Against him, to the point that when he returned to Mexico, Latin American bishops gathered in 1979, and the representative from El Salvador was not Romero - a conservative Bishop was sent. And Romero arrived with a personal invitation - let's say, “slipped in” in practical terms. He was not the representative of the Salvadorian church, despite being the Archbishop of San Salvador.”
Narration: During three years’ homilies, newspapers and letters were analyzed and an investigation was opened for the cause of Monsignor Romero. In 2000, John Paul II introduced the name of Monsignor as a witness of faith. Everything seemed to follow its course, however, the process stalled. Hundreds of letters arrived in the Vatican accusing Romero of influencing politics, of being a communist. In San Salvador, the figure of Monsignor was being used as a political instrument.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Ricardo Urioste, General Vicar of Monsignor Romero: “He had detractors in the church, not just laymen, or right-wing people, or army people, but also bishops were against him. They did not agree with what he was doing.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Armando Bukele, Imam and entrepreneur from San Salvador: “Many people asking - Curia people, co-progressive people asking - for Romero’s beatification, and the right wing writing the media and sending letters to Rome saying that he was a communist.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Jesús Delgado, Former Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “Well, evidently many letters from social centers came to Rome in the process of beatification, opposed to Monsignor Romero. For many who, in the Vatican also did not want the cause to progress, they were like arguments that said better not to make progress on this matter. Let it be delayed or slowed down until all these worries disappear in this social sector that has always been very supportive to the church, which was used by these social forces to say that they were the owners of the Catholic Church, and to achieve just that.”
Narration: But in addition to this swarm of factors, a character stands out in the obstacle race for beatification. Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian cardinal who was in charge of all the Latin American affairs. According to sources, Trujillo was directly opposed to Romero's cause and prevented the process from continuing on.
TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Valencia, Journalist: “The reason why the beatification of Monsignor Romero has taken so long can be found within the Church and within the opposition that was inside the church. This means that the emblematic figure that has been used as the opponent is that of a Colombian Cardinal, Trujillo. And it was not until Cardinal Trujillo died that this began to be uncovered.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Jesus Delgado, Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “He was in charge of the Latin American Church in the Vatican. You know that in the Vatican there is a Pope, right? But the Pope is helped by a representative of each continent, for such and such, and Lopez Trujillo was for Latin America, so he was a very powerful man. And he had… he was like the one in charge, or the spokesman of all these wealthy social sectors of a traditional catholic notoriety. And since these social classes were opposed to Monsignor Romero, he was fiercely against the process being executed. And he opposed as much as he could, right? It was just that, of course, there are also very responsible and very intelligent people in the Vatican that brought the cause forward despite everything else. Although there were always obstacles, and obstacles, obstacles, obstacles, until our Pope Francisco arrived who knows our environment very well and unlocked this whole thing.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Armando Bukele, Imam and entrepreneur from San Salvador: “John Paul II was a good Pope but had lived in Poland and knew what the Soviet pressure on Poland was, not as a socialist friend, but as a hegemonic power over Poland, and he was afraid of all those who screamed Communism, and stopped (what is it called?) the sanctification of Romero. Today we have this Pope who is Franciscan, and Jesuit. He is clever, understands politics, and knows things. And he already beatified it. Today, everyone has to accept it - Blessed and martyr.”
Narration: Oscar Romero was born in Barrios City. Since he was young he showed a spiritual restlessness. Being only 13 years old he entered the minor seminary of San Miguel. And in 1937 he was sent to Rome, to be a pupil of Pope Paul VI. In 1943 he returned to El Salvador. Before being appointed Archbishop, Romero was pastor, secretary of the Episcopal Conference and Auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador. When Pope Paul VI appointed him Archbishop of San Salvador, a strange atmosphere arose since many priests of the archdiocese preferred Monsignor Arturo Rivera for the position. Several opinions agree that choosing Romero as Archbishop was due to the decision to choose a conservative candidate.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Miriam Estupinián, Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “Well he, that's really why they made him Archbishop, because they thought he was, excuse the expression, a "weak" bishop. that they could do whatever they wanted with him. Well, word is that the day he was appointed, it was here in San Jose, in the mountain, in 1977, and word is nobody applauded him or anything. And there was a priest who said, “Let's rather go get some hot coffee” and they all left. And there were only about 50 people. They did a private thing, not like how archbishops were appointed. But it was because of the situation in the country that Monsignor Chavez y Gonzalez was a little annoyed. So that's why it was done like that.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Ricardo Urioste, General Vicar of Monsignor Romero: “And I remember that Monsignor Rivera y Damas at some point trusted me with something that was kind of a secret - That he had been told in the Vatican that before electing the Archbishop here, they needed a bishop less critical of the government than he was. And that's why they chose Monsignor Romero.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Salvador Samayoa, Founding member of the FMLN: “Monsignor did not belong from any point of view to what could be considered at that time as progressive clergy or Catholicism. Monsignor was a rather conservative person. I believe that in fact they chose him in the Vatican, because they believed that after Monsignor Chávez y Gonzalez’s death, obviously, Monsignor Rivera had to be his successor. The Vatican didn’t trust him because they thought he could be a little prone to the left wing, so they only appointed him apostolic administrator. And when there was a need to appoint an Archbishop after a few years of Monsignor Rivera acting in that capacity, they appointed Romero because they believed that Romero was going to be a conservative bishop.”
Narration: Shortly after accepting the title, Monsignor Romero asked for accommodation in the Hospital of Divine Providence. Leaving aside the luxuries and giving his first lesson of humbleness.
TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Sister Carmelita, Guide to the Chapel of Divine Providence: “And when he was appointed Archbishop, he came with the sisters to ask for a place to live. He had already been offered a house in the wealthiest colonies of the city, in San Benito and in Escalon, but he did not accept, instead he came humbly with the sisters. He arrived with Mother Lucita, the Mother Superior of the community, and said “I come to ask for a place to live”. Then the sister said: “Why, being a Monsignor do you come to us to ask for a place to live?” “What I need is a room, a bathroom and a toilet.” That was what the sisters offered him. They prepared a room for him here behind the altar of the Chapel, but after seeing that many people visited him and he received them in the bench of the chapel, the sisters decided to build a special, private place for him.”
Narration: What used to be the house of Monsignor Romero is today a small museum visited by pilgrims from around the world every day. Some cassocks, his radio, the typewriter where his famous homilies were born, the house of Romero is full of personal objects that help us imagine the archbishop’s daily life.
Romero’s appointment did not happen at a random time. What was happening in El Salvador when Monsignor Romero accepted the title of Archbishop? Five years earlier, in 1972, the election won by the conservative party was denounced as electoral fraud, which unleashed a popular demonstration that was dissolved leaving dozens dead and missing.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Protesters: “Insurrection is the solution! Insurrection is the solution! Insurrection is the solution!”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: “Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Héctor Dada, Founder of Democratic Change, Former Minister of Economy of the Republic of El Salvador: “The United States backed the electoral fraud that prevented engineer Jose Napoleon Duarte from taking office in 1972. The history of this country would have been completely different had the Americans not acted the way they acted, and as an American diplomat told me at the end of 1972, to me as a Christian Democrat leader, “Congratulations Hector, I never thought you were going to win the elections, but as you are a very intelligent person, you will understand that we could not hand over the government.”
TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Juan Carlos Torres, Journalist: “Monsignor Romero comes to place a watershed in the relationship of the Church with the government, and with the people. The Churches - the Catholic Church, the leaders - had always had a good relationship with governments. Along came Monsignor Romero, also promoted by the wealthy class, and by the governments in turn that approved him as a new archbishop… but once he assumed the role, the role of leader of the Church, the government turned authoritarian, and this government began to attack some of its leaders - some of its priests, and the people. We saw how Monsignor Romero who supported the people, visited the communities and celebrated mass in the cantons in places that traditionally an archbishop would not visit, making direct and public claims to the government. Changing the traditional ways of the church and speaking to the ruling class.”
Narration: In the midst of this agitated climate, several priests were expelled from the country. They were not allowed to return. But there was also a key trigger; a fact that marked a ‘before and after’ in the character of Monsignor Romero; an incident that would forever mark Romero’s commitment with his people - the murder of priest Rutilio Grande.
TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Armando Bukele, Imam and entrepreneur from San Salvador: “He became more critical of what they were doing in the war when Rutilio Grande, a great friend of Romero’s, was killed without reason... because priests here were helping people… but also, everyone was like, "That one is a communist, that one is a communist". Anyone could get killed at that time.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Juan Jose Dalton, Journalist: “Repression was harsh in this country, and polarization, confrontation was very hard. And then, when the assassination of his priests began, his fury (it seems to me) started to show, his courage as a person and also as a priest started to grow.”
Narration: Monsignor Romero gradually became a tireless fighter for the defense of human rights; he acquired a commitment of accusation, of social struggle. His homilies became the radio of the country. His work became an approach to the most unprotected.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: “As I always preach, this is the evidence of what I am saying. Social injustice.”
Narration: His relationship with Roberto Cuéllar goes back to the first year of Monsignor as Archbishop. They have started working together since then on the Project for Legal Aid, an office where allegations of human rights violations were received. The objective of the project was to offer support to all those who could not defend themselves against these violations, those who were abandoned or unprotected.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Cuellar, Lawyer: “Precisely, legal aid was created because neither Jesuit priests nor yours truly noticed that those who did not have resources were despised in the courts of justice: the poor were stripped of the few assets they possessed; fraud was committed against people of limited resources in the courts. And since Monsignor Romero established Legal Aid, he turned it into the office of legal assistance of the archbishopric, not only for poor people, but of those cases that no one paid attention to.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Miriam Estupinián, Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “I worked at FUNDASAL with a Jesuit priest, Antonio Fernández Ibáñez, and I had made a group of friends from Christendom courses. We always met every week, and one day they said, "We have been called from the Archbishopric to ask if we wanted to collaborate with Monsignor Romero in Caritas". And I said, "I'm going to go. I have a lot of work, but we will see." Then on the board, he was elected president, and I was Secretary of the Board. I said: “This is going to be very hard, maybe I'm going to retire soon”, but thank God I did not, because it is a joy for me to have been close to Monsignor, to have met him, and to have worked with him.”
Narration: In addition to developing clear social work, Monsignor became an almost omnipresent voice in El Salvador.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: “Meanwhile, the recalcitrant right wing is harassed with measures of fact, but it is not repressed like the left wing.”
Narration: His homilies, the healing broth of many Salvadorians, who lived in the difficult times of a dictatorship.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: “I have to say that a terrible repressive violence is still prevailing and growing in the country and it has already killed about 400 people in the first two months of this year.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Ricardo Urioste, General Vicar of Monsignor Romero: “Of course, he prepared them with great zeal, with great interest. He could be found asleep at his desk at two in the morning, sometimes preparing his homily. This means he was solid and effective in his speeches, and that's why the Cathedral was full of people all the time to listen to him. And on the radio, the homily that Monsignor Romero preached was heard throughout the streets of San Salvador and around the country.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Cuellar, Lawyer: “He summarized every week what he called "Facts of reality". He called them in his chapter, "Facts of the week". And it was my job as coordinator of the Legal Aid Office to present him with a couple of summary pages. He would interpret them, he would remake them, he would draft them or pronounce them without wording, but he took these facts into account.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Héctor Dada, Founder of Democratic Change, Former Minister of Economy of the Republic of El Salvador: “He became a voice that commanded the dignity of the people; and the people appreciated it a lot. I was struck by how those listening to Monsignor Romero became hopeful of regaining their dignity.”
TIME CODE: 25:00_30:00
Narration: Miriam Estupinián, Caritas volunteer, offered to work with Monsignor Romero, although that meant taking risks like hiding it from her family. During the years that she worked with Romero she became not only a companion, but also his friend and confidante.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Miriam Estupinián, Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “I always went to the masses in the cathedral; I almost never went to the sea with my family. And I told him once - I saw him, he did a homily of about three hours - but I felt like Monsignor was levitating, I felt him so powerfully, because I always sat on the first bench. He arrived at 7am at Mass. Not a fly could be heard. Children did not even cry. I do not understand how that happened. And let the people endure a two-hour homily while people won’t stay even half an hour now, will they? The homily was a beauty, and after, the proven accusation. Because he already had a team, where he, everything he said, was proven. Monsignor Romero spoke on the telephone, indeed, with the Commander General, and the Commander General told him: "Send me a letter and we will arrange this here militarily between us”. Of course, Monsignor Romero was not going to send the letter, who knows what would have happened to those poor soldiers, and since he did not get a reply, he said, "I'm going to speak as a pastor". Give the moral norm of the church on how to proceed in this case. Monsignor Romero spoke on the telephone, indeed, with the Commander General, and the Commander General told him: "Send me a letter and we will arrange this here militarily between us”. Of course, Monsignor Romero was not going to send the letter, who knows what would have happened to those poor soldiers, and since he did not get a reply, he said, "I'm going to speak as a pastor". Give the moral norm of the church on how to proceed in this case.”
Narration: Monsignor Romero denounced the abuses against the rights of peasants, workers and priests in his homilies in a context of violence and military repression.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Jesús Delgado, Former Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “Monsignor Romero received a letter from 220 recruits and sergeants of the armed forces begging him to intercede with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces not to force them to kill their own brothers on the side of the guerrillas. The command was that if your blood brother is there, kill him and kill him first! So, they begged Monsignor Romero to please intercede so that they would not be forced to kill.
Monsignor Romero spoke on the telephone, indeed, with the Commander General, and the Commander General told him: "Send me a letter and we will arrange this here militarily between us”. Of course, Monsignor Romero was not going to send the letter, who knows what would have happened to those poor soldiers, and since he did not get a reply, he said, "I'm going to speak as a pastor". Give the moral norm of the church on how to proceed in this case.
And then in the last homily, wanting to respond to this letter, he said, “When you receive an order from your boss that goes against a higher command of God, first obey God's command, which says ‘Do not kill’ and disobey your boss's order.
It is a Christian doctrine, right? That the Law of God prevails over the law of men. But of course, this was like the trigger for those who wanted to kill him, saying here we have the reason to do it.”
Narration: On March 23rd, 1980, the homily of Monsignor Romero was an emotional appeal to the government to stop its repression against the farmers.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: “I would like to make a special appeal to army men - and in particular to the bases of the National Guard, the police, and the garrisons. They are brothers from our own people. They are killing their own peasant brothers. And before an order to kill given by a man, the law of God that says ‘Do not kill’ must prevail.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Jesús Delgado, Former Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “I said to him, "Monsignor, your homily was very strong yesterday. Surely many journalists will want to approach you about it. Go have some rest. I'm going to assume all your responsibilities". He took his diary and told me: “This you cannot do for me, I have to go to my confessor, I am the sinner; I have to go to my dentist, I'm the one with the bad teeth; I have to go to my psychologist, I'm the one that needs reassurance and not you.”
I sometimes spend 2 hours, 3 hours, or 4 hours with the psychologist. And I go at four in the afternoon, if I do not arrive in time for mass. If I am not in time, you can begin to celebrate mass and I'll join you later". "Oh, gladly, if I can help you with that, I’ll do it with great pleasure”. And then in the last homily, wanting to respond to this letter, he said, “When you receive an order from your boss that goes against a higher command of God, first obey God's command, which says ‘Do not kill’ and disobey your boss's order.
Then he put his diary back in his pocket and left. He had walked fifteen steps, something like that, when he came back and said, "No, you’d better not. I do not want to compromise anyone on this”. And those were the last four words he said to me. I mean, he already knew that something was coming.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Monsignor Ricardo Urioste, General Vicar of Monsignor Romero: “His was the only existing voice that criticized the government. No one else dared to do it.”
TIME CODE: 30:00_35:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Cuellar, Lawyer: “At approximately 8.30 or 9:00 in the morning he called me and said, "How are you Beto? Did you read the paper?" There was breaking news in the newspaper that morning about the armed forces. The Armed Forces Press Committee made the accusation that Archbishop Romero had committed a crime on Sunday. He has urged army bases and army officers to disobey orders of their superiors. A civilian cannot interfere in the orders of the army, in the ordinances of the army. And the entire armed forces owe respect to authority, to the orders of its superiors.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Salvador Samayoa, Founding member of the FMLN: “Since I was listening to the words of the last homily - because one could learn about everything - when he told the soldiers not to obey an order to kill, because it was against the law of God, I was really sure that from that moment on they were going to try to kill Monsignor. And the message was a terrorist message for all practical purposes, because that is the technical essence of terrorism, to frighten the entire population. That is to say, if we could do this to Monsignor, you all should be certain that of course we will also do it to you.”
Narration: Was that homily the drop that filled the glass? Was it the definitive trigger? Despite the threats Monsignor Romero was not afraid to order, to demand that the government, in the name of God, stop the repression. That would be Monsignor Romero’s last homily. Although his closest friends advised him not to give a mass the next day, Monsignor clung to his duty and obligation, and decided to officiate the ceremony.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Sister Carmelite, Guide to the Chapel of Divine Providence: “The sisters also in the morning received phone calls warning Monsignor Romero not to officiate the Eucharist today. But he committed himself to a journalist to celebrate the Eucharist, the private mass, for the anniversary of Mrs. Sara Meardi de Pinto.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Miriam Estupinián, Personal Secretary of Monsignor Romero: “And I just approached him and said, "How do you feel Monsignor?" And he said to me: "Miriam, the threats are serious. And as a man I am afraid". But let us interpret that Monsignor’s fear was not of dying. He was afraid that they would get him out of the car somewhere and make his body disappear, that he would be tortured like he had known of so many of his priests.”
Narration: Those who spent time with him day to day remember well the day of March 24th, 1980 - the day that Monsignor would officiate his last mass.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Sister Carmelite, Guide to the Chapel of Divine Providence: “That day, Monday 24th, was very busy for Monsignor Romero. The sisters, indeed all of them, said that he shared breakfast with them; celebrated the Eucharist to the community. Then he went with some priests to the beach. According to attorney Roberto Cuéllar that day they agreed to meet here for lunch.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Cuellar, Lawyer: “But the reconstruction of the events of that day takes place mostly on the beach, facing the Pacific, he went to rest with several priests. After a moment of rest he said that he was coming back to lunch and would wait for us in divine providence. He did not return for lunch. He was late. And he went to the Church of the Jesuits in Santa Tecla to confess himself to the priest Segundo Azcue. He confessed to Father Azcue at 3:30 in the afternoon and returned to the little hospital, to his house.
From there he called me and said to me: "Excuse me for not coming to lunch”. I was waiting for him since we were going to have lunch in the divine providence with the nuns. The nuns were very fearful that he could be killed - not that day, but the threats had increased that weekend, and with greater intensity on Sunday, after the call - "Let's kill that miserable priest. We're going to blow up the hospital. We're going to kidnap you (referring to the nuns). We are going to take you. Threats were systematic and unrelenting.”
Narration: Despite these threats, Monsignor Romero wanted to continue with the ceremony. Just before the end of the homily, a shot was heard in the chapel.
TIME CODE: 35:00_40:00
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Caros Dada, Journalist and Founder of El Faro: “At 6:00am, Captain Eduardo Ávila showed up at the house of entrepreneur Álex Cáceres, where D'Aubuisson's security team was sleeping and came with a copy of the newspaper showing the invitation to a mass for the anniversary of Mrs. Sara Meardi de Pinto’s death, which was going to be officiated that afternoon by Monsignor Romero.
Captain Ávila arrived with the invitation to the mass that Monday at 6 pm, and said: "Today we are going to kill him. This is the perfect place. It's in a chapel, in the little hospital, a place where a sniper is easy to place. At that moment Saravia said: "But why are we going to kill him today? Who said so? I cannot do this alone!” And Captain Eduardo Ávila said: “We have already spoken with Roberto. You are all going to participate.” And Saravia said, "Well, I cannot do that until I speak to Roberto D'Aubuisson”. He called him and Roberto D'Aubuisson said: "Indeed. If he said today it’s today because that’s what we already planned, since we are going to be part of that operation.
Captain Saravia was with two other people: Fernando Sagrera, who was another member of the security team, though he was only a civilian; and the chauffeur, Amado Garay. The three of them discussed the matter: "Perfect, how are we going to do it?" And Saravia said: "Well, we'll see, if the mass is at six, we'll meet at five in the afternoon in the parking lot of the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador”.
At five in the afternoon they left to the hotel. As they were leaving, Gabriel Montenegro was arriving in his car to buy drugs. They said to him: "Come with us. Let the chauffeur go alone in the car, and we will go in your truck and meet in the parking lot”. They went to the parking lot of the Camino Real. Captain Ávila arrived, and Mario Molina’s security team, in charge of providing the shooter, also arrived. They organized everything there.
The shooter got on the famous red Volkswagen driven by Amado Garay, the chauffeur, and they left at 6:00 in the afternoon, taking the road to the hospital. Capitan Saravia, Fernando Sagrera, and Gabriel Montenegro followed behind. They arrived at the Church door, Monsignor was finishing his homily. The shooter instructed the driver to get out and act like he was fixing the car. The car was parked right at the door of the little hospital's chapel. Then the shooter produced a rifle and fired a single clean and clear shot that crossed the central aisle of the Church, from outside, and penetrated Romero’s chest. The Monsignor was on the altar closing his homily. What happened next was chaos.
The assassins fled. And inside the Chapel many of the sisters in charge of the hospital of Divine Providence approached Monsignor trying to save him. There is something that I have always found very curious: The bullet is of a tiny caliber - a .22 caliber. Everyone I interviewed who was at that Mass claims to have heard an explosion. I suppose it could have been the traumatic memory of a day when they saw a bullet enter the archbishop's chest, and the first thing they all did was throw themselves on the ground, or run away. It was chaos.
The assassins had already fled and Monsignor was taken out, carried by some of the people who were at the Mass and others who since arrived, and they took him to the national poly-clinic to try to revive him, but that night he was declared dead.
Those are basically the day's actions from the killers' view. Monsignor was murdered at about 6:30 or 6:35 in the afternoon. At half past seven, all San Salvador knew what happened. Celebrations began in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods. Fireworks were thrown, shots fired into the air. There were parties. That’s how that night ended in San Salvador, with the majority of the population crying over the death of the archbishop, and some celebrating that the so-called communist priest had finally been eliminated.”
Narration: If the death of Monsignor Romero was a blow to the country, the Archbishop’s funeral became proof that a breach had opened up in El Salvador. And there seemed to be no turning back. The funeral of Monsignor Romero took place seven days after his death. Near 150,000 people gathered. However, the blood-letting had not stopped, not even at this ceremony. A detonation of a bomb had people scramble for cover.
TIME CODE: 40:00_45:00
Narration: Gun shots flew in different directions. In the aftermath, about forty people were killed, and more than two hundred, wounded.
In 1993 the Commission of the Truth, created by the Chapultepec peace agreement to investigate the crimes of the Salvadorian Civil War, concluded that Monsignor Romero’s assassination had been executed by a sniper. In 2009, the investigation was reopened following a mandate from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 31 years after the assassination, the name of the murderer, Marino Samayor Acosta, a sub-sergeant of section 2, of the extinct National Guard was put on the table. According to Acosta, he received the order from Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, creator of the death squads, and founder of Arena; and Colonel Arturo Armando Molina. However, today there are still different opinions about those responsible.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Rodrigo Ávila, Former Director of NCP: “The issue of the Commission of the Truth in the end was just a statement, but not an investigation with supporting evidence. And I’m telling you, there are all kinds of versions. There are versions that have obviously been very contrived, and the leftists adopted those versions; and other versions saying that he was murdered by the left wing itself looking for a martyr.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Alfredo Pereira, Deputy of NRA Political Party: “It was a plan orchestrated by the same groups that later formed the FMLN. They were responsible, to create the figure of a martyr at the time. And to actually create that, leading to what triggered the Civil War. I do not really believe that the right wing had the vision to do it - to eliminate him in order to create a martyr; but in my opinion, to my understanding it came from the other side - the left-wing side - that really were the ones who instigated this in order to start a bigger conflict.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Rodrigo Ávila, Former Director of NCP: “I participated, I was Director of the police just after the peace agreements, and there were many warnings. I mean that within the left wing there were very strong warnings from a more moderate sector of the left wing, pardon, of a more ‘radical’ sector of the left wing towards a sector of the belligerent, more moderate left wing; and a series of terrible events were hidden that later emerged and came to light. Precisely at that particular time, the interests of those who wanted to make Monsignor Romero into a martyr were in action.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Héctor Dada, Former Minister: “In addition, it must be said that Major Roberto D'Aubuisson was an intelligence officer closely linked to the US intelligence corps. And it should be said, that Mario Zamora was killed exactly a month earlier, by a man, after Roberto D'Aubuisson mentioned him in a program four days before his assassination. And in the same program he made the same accusations against Monsignor Romero. They eliminated the Secretary General of the Party and killed the other pole of legitimization - legitimization from the religious point of view.”
Narration: Years later, Carlos Dada had the opportunity to conduct a series of interviews with Captain Álvaro Saravia, who was in charge of the logistics of the assassination. Both the Commission of the Truth and Dada's investigations blame members of the right-wing political party for the assassination. Dada's investigations brought to light not only Romero's murderer, but also links between the team that planned the assassination and the military elite.
TIME CODE: 45:00_52:05
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Carlos Dada, Journalist: “Shortly after the assassination of Monsignor Romero, Roberto D'Aubuisson and his people met on a farm, on a ranch near San Salvador with several military men. They were conspiring to commit a coup d’état. A Colonel, a member of the government board who was, let’s say, outside the circle of the other military men, Colonel Majano, found out about this and sent the army to capture those who were participating in the conspiracy. And they all were captured.
Captain Saravia’s agenda was confiscated in that capture, which contained lists of all parties that financed them; how they financed them, telephone numbers, contacts, inside and outside of the army; plus a small piece of paper that read Operation Pineapple containing the weaponry and necessary logistics required to carry out the assassination of Monsignor Romero.
That agenda - I have a copy - ended up being seized by the army. Roberto D'Aubuisson’s prosecution was ordered. Afterwards, the rest of the military leadership ordered the release of Roberto D'Aubuisson; and basically to erase the sordid story they expelled Colonel Majano, whose captured had been ordered. This, for me, is one of many irrefutable pieces of evidence of the complicity and protection of paramilitary structures by the Salvadorian military elite. This means that the paramilitary structures were not just five crazy shooters, who went crazy, who were following a crazy man; they were part of a well-designed and army-controlled structure.”
Narration: It was not an easy task to make a trial against those responsible for the murder. Only Captain Alvaro Saravia was brought to trial in the United States.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Carlos Dada, Journalist: “There were two trial attempts here, both were hindered by power and therefore they were never carried out. The other attempt that did conclude was in the United States - A civil trial against Captain Saravia, because D'Aubuisson was dead. A civil trial that took place in a court in Fresno California where he was found guilty of crimes against humanity for the murder of Monsignor Romero. That was the only trial.
Due to some legal complications, it was impossible to undertake a criminal trial in the United States against someone who had committed a crime in another country, and was not prosecuted in the country where he or she committed that crime. Then, by dusting off an old law, the Center for Justice and Accountability conducted a criminal trial – in the least to prove his responsibility in the murder. He was found guilty, but he was tried by default. Captain Saravia had already fled and disappeared until I found him in Central America.”
Narration: The death of Monsignor Romero continues generating mixed opinions to this day. His image, in addition to remaining a focus of opinions, keeps the debate on impunity and Amnesty law open.
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Ladies chanting slogans: “Long live Monsignor Romero! Long live!”
Narration: However, this law continues to prevent the punishment of perpetrators of serious human rights violations. The case of Monsignor Romero is one of those cases.
VOX POP [Spanish] Local Citizens: “- Let the truth be known through the administration of justice, because that is the truth that counts. We can claim many things about how the event occurred, but they will always say that it is not true because justice was never received.
- Here in our country there has been no justice against the assassins nor for Monsignor Romero’s assassins. We know who they are because names were published, but justice has not been done in any case.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Denis Muñoz, Lawyer: “This Commission of the Truth ran out of teeth to establish responsibility in the context of the Amnesty law, which emerged from the same right-wing party that granted amnesty to the same people who had committed war crimes as the one against the Jesuit priests, for example, and that gave way to impunity in El Salvador so that they would no longer continue to prosecute, much less investigate cases and to be able to then regenerate criminal responsibility against direct and indirect perpetrators under this pretext.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Carmen Rodriguez, Journalist: “I think that many of us would like to see a trial, but I doubt that unless it is done outside of the Amnesty law, or unless that law is revoked, it is unlikely there would be a trial so we can recognize that a process for Monsignor Romero’s death has started.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Roberto Cuéllar, Lawyer: “All countries in the Americas that have suffered human rights violations due to armed conflict, dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, have eliminated the Amnesty law. Only the monstrosity of El Salvador’s Amnesty law remains and it renders the truth unattainable, which is in opposition to Monsignor Oscar Romero’s legacy to the world of the right to the truth for the victims of severe human rights violation.”
SOUNDBITE [Spanish] Héctor Dada, Former Minister: “I believe Monsignor’s case can lead to breakthrough in reconciliation as long as we do not turn him into a wooden saint to light candles to and to pray for a miracle to ‘fix’ the country. Monsignor Romero’s wish, as homage, is that we get to know his ideals and apply them. The miracle is that we have the ability to change the country if we unite around his thinking. But if we kneel to pray and light candles and do nothing, or hypocritically say that we have just discovered that he was pious and never broke a dish… Monsignor Romero broke many dishes by telling the truth.”