On March 23, 1980, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero delivered this homily over national radio demanding the military to end its campaign of terror against the Salvadoran people: “In the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.”
The next day, the archbishop was assassinated while celebrating mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence. Over the next decade, more than 75,000 Salvadorans died in a brutal civil war.
On May 23, 2015, Romero will be beatified.
Echoes of that civil war in El Salvador still reverberate. El Salvador faces its worst violence since the 1980s. More than 1,800 people have been killed in the country this year alone. Gang violence has escalated since a 2012 truce between rivals fell apart.
Opinions differ on whether police violence in cracking down on crime has escalated the problem. Those who are caught in the middle are the people of El Salvador. Their story is the story of millions across the globe who face terror, repression and forced displacement.
What would Romero do?
Romero would urge the gangs to lay down their arms and the government to broker peace. He would speak to common bonds of the people, name their suffering, denounce injustice and speak to the hopes of all Salvadorans. He preached: “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. … Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.” In a world running with blood from Boko Haram in Nigeria to North Korea, we would all be well advised to heed Romero’s words.
Archbishop Romero once said, “¡No se mata la justicia!” — “Justice cannot be killed!” In honor of Romero’s beatification, El Salvador should commit to this commandment.
Officers of the Salvadoran military and leaders of right-wing paramilitaries conceived and coordinated Romero’s assassination. To date, they have evaded justice, protected by a broad amnesty law.
A world without accountability encourages crime to be committed without fear, which is the face of El Salvador today. The Salvadoran Supreme Court is reviewing the amnesty law. It should repeal the law as unconstitutional and in violation of international law. Those responsible for crimes against humanity should answer in court. The government can heal the deep wounds of conflict with the rule of law.
The Center for Justice and Accountability achieved a measure of accountability in a civil suit against Capt. Alvaro Saravia, one of the architects of Archbishop Romero’s assassination.
He fled El Salvador and found safe haven in Modesto, Calif., where he worked at a used-car dealership. Saravia had procured weapons and other material used in the assassination and paid the killer.
A U.S. federal court found Saravia liable for the extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity. Until this ruling, no one had been held responsible for the assassination of Romero. Although Saravia went into hiding, he remains on the Department of Homeland Security’s wanted list.
The Department of Homeland Security currently is investigating 1,800 people from 50 countries who are in the United States and suspected of having committed torture and other severe human-rights abuses. The United States must apply its laws to extradite human-rights abusers to face criminal prosecution before their national courts or, if that is not possible, prosecute them in the United States.
This is the mandate of human rights and humanitarian law standards. The United States also can use the tools of denaturalization and removal for human-rights abusers within our borders.
On a trip to Latin America, President Obama visited El Salvador and paid respects at Romero’s crypt. In another stop, President Obama said, “We know that different nations take different paths to realize its promise, and that no one nation should impose its will on another. … But we also know that there are certain aspirations shared by all human beings: We seek to be free and to be heard. We yearn to live without fear.”
What would Archbishop Romero do?
The archbishop once said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Perhaps that is the prism leaders should use in addressing current conflicts, because it is the prism that speaks to the hopes and fears of those whose loved ones paid the ultimate price for the repression or who themselves were survivors of atrocities. Archbishop Romero’s beatification is a day to reflect, to celebrate and to commit to justice.
C. Dixon Osburn is executive director of the Center for Justice & Accountability.