Whether or not he knew it, just before being assassinated while delivering mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia in El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero uttered the words that would act as a rallying cry for his supporters: “If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility. … A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish” (Sandoval 2018).
A week later, tens of thousands of people who went to the capital’s plaza to mourn the archbishop at his funeral would be mercilessly slaughtered when army snipers and death-squad gunmen opened fire on the crowd from above, killing 42 and wounding hundreds (Anderson, 2018). The next 12 years would spell a bloody civil war across El Salvador, but the image of Oscar Romero would offer direction for countless Salvadorans in their fight for human rights.
While many point to the death of Romero and the following events at the plaza as the catalysts for the start of the war, the history of discontent between rival parties and international intervention in El Salvador was long-standing and was pushed to extremes following the failed coup of October 15, 1979, a year before the outbreak of the official civil war (Allison 2012).
A decade before the coup, leftist guerrilla groups began to appear throughout the country in response to mounting abuses of power by the national government. Nearing the start of the war, a number of grassroots movements including the Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL) and the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN) combined to form the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The band would ultimately name its primary rival as the government of El Salvador (Allison 2012).
Despite its internal roots, the conflict would prove to be an international affair, as well, with the United States providing $1 million USD of support for the Salvadoran government each day, and the FMLN receiving aid from Nicaragua, Cuba, Costa Rica and Mexico, although it is not yet known how much the FMLN benefitted from its international backers (Allison 2012).
However, before international interests could begin shaping the civil war, moderate elements within the military staged the 1979 coup in a final attempt to evade what was seen as an inevitable confrontation between the two radical groups. French sociologist Guilles Bataillon considered the coup as a distinctly Salvadoran effort to prevent conflict (Allison 2012).
Romero would place a colossal target on his back with his support of the coup, but he would unintentionally transform himself into a national enemy with his sermons preaching the defense of the poor and indigenous and questioning the government’s history of human rights abuses. Many believe one of his final messages, in which Romero asked the Army to defy the generals killing their brothers and sisters, was the speech that led military officials to order his death. In addition to the content of his orations, the government found the ample reach of Romero’s masses to be threatening to their authority. Owing to the radio broadcasting of his church services, Romero’s message arrived all over the country, affecting thousands of people anxious to have their demands heard (Leanos 2018). In his final live broadcast would also record the sound of the gunshot that ended his life (Anderson 2018).
The order to kill Oscar Romero came from Army Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (Sandoval 2018). Despite widespread knowledge of his involvement, the Reagan Administration, which was effectively leading the Salvadoran counterinsurgency campaign, turned a blind eye to the situation, and D’Aubuisson was never tried (Anderson 2018).
Similarly, the Catholic Church decided to turn its back on its members in El Salvador. Within a year of Romero’s murder, members of the country’s National Guard raped and killed three American nuns and a Catholic parishioner, and in the next decade more than a dozen priests were killed. Pope John Paul II, who was opposed to leftist liberation theology, chose not to seek justice for Romero and his counterparts in El Salvador, and the subject of the archbishop became a taboo topic for the remainder of the war both in the church and amongst Salvadorans (Anderson 2018).
The current leader of the Catholic Church, Argentine Pope Francis, who was well acquainted with right-wing death squads that killed and disappeared thousands of people in his own country during its military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, made one of his first actions in the Vatican the initiation of Romero’s canonization (Anderson 2018). Such recognition of Romero’s sacrifice for his community perhaps triggered the country’s move for legal recourse, as well.
Last month, a court in San Salvador issued an arrest warrant for Álvaro Rafael Saravia, who is suspected of shooting Oscar Romero. He was previously protected under a 1993 amnesty law, but after the law was rescinded in 2017, Judge Rigoberto Chicas reopened the case. The National Police and Interpol have not been able to locate Saravia, 78, since the warrant was issued, but if found he will face trial for aggravated homicide (CNA 2018).
Although the canonization of Saint Oscar Romero comes many years after the end of the brutal civil war that took the lives of 75,000 people, many see the recognition as a necessary act of unity for El Salvador. The justice awarded to Romero signals an acceptance of the division and violence of the country’s past, and a determined step towards a future of peaceful problem solving that Romero so often advocated.
Sandoval, Ralph. 2018. “Oscar Romero was a saint to the Salvadoran people long before the Vatican canonized him.” 17 October. Los Angeles Times. Available to read here: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/readersreact/la-ol-le-oscar-romero-canonized-20181017-story.html [Accessed 29 October 2018].
Leanos, Reynaldo, Jr. 2018. “Salvadorans witness Archbishop Oscar Romero’s canonization as Catholic saint.” 13 October. NBC News. Available to read here: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/salvadorans-journey-rome-archbishop-oscar-romero-s-canonization-catholic-saint-n919481 [Accessed 29 October 2018].
CNA. 2018. “Arrest warrant issued for alleged killer of Saint Oscar Romero.” 24 October. Catholic News Agency. Available to read here: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/arrest-warrant-issued-for-alleged-killer-of-saint-oscar-romero-21712 [Accessed 29 October 2018].
Anderson, Jon Lee. 2018. “Archbishop Óscar Romero Becomes a Saint, But His Death Still Haunts El Salvador.” 22 October. The New Yorker. Available to read here: https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/archbishop-oscar-romero-becomes-a-saint-but-his-death-still-haunts-el-salvador [Accessed 3 November 2018].