FBI documents obtained by AlterNet via a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that the U.S. government investigated the Salvadoran security forces it had armed and trained in connection with the 1980 assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero.
The records contain memoranda sent to the director of the FBI from numerous of the Bureau’s domestic field offices as well as its international legal attachés.
The first document in the file, most of which are heavily redacted, states the FBI’s decision “to open a Foreign Police Cooperation matter” on the subject of Romero’s assassination. The document is dated Dec. 1, 1987, suggesting the investigation was commenced under the Reagan administration.
AlterNet contacted Terry Karl, a professor of Latin American Studies at Stanford University, for comment on why the U.S. would investigate a regime it was actively arming at the time of Romero’s murder. Karl has served as an expert witness in major human rights and war crimes trials pertaining to El Salvador, as well as to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. Karl continues to serve as an expert witness in ongoing trials regarding the Salvadoran military’s brutal rape and murder of four American churchwomen.
Karl confirmed the existence of an FBI investigation into Romero’s murder, saying, “It is absolutely true that the FBI investigated this. It is true that it was investigated several times, not just at one time.”
Asked why the FBI would conduct an investigation that could implicate the U.S. government, Karl attributes it to politics. During the investigations, a man widely believed to have played a prominent role in Romero’s assassination, Roberto D’Aubuisson, was campaigning for president of El Salvador against the U.S. government’s preferred candidate, José Napoleón Duarte (who was later found to be a CIA asset).
As Karl put it, “one of the reasons you see so many FBI investigations is because the FBI, the United States would have loved to pin the murder of Archbishop Romero on him [D’Aubisson] not necessarily making it public, by the way, but having it over him. They wanted to use it.” To put it simply, for blackmail.
Washington preferred Duarte because, as Karl explained, “The United States government felt that if D’Aubisson was elected president that the [American] Congress, which had had a very big opposition to [military] aid to El Salvador, would probably cut off aid… [D’Aubisson] was the death squad leader and everybody knew it and therefore it wasn’t going to fly, in the Congress. It might’ve been fine elsewhere but it wasn’t going to be good in the Congress.”
Salvadoran security forces adopted death squad tactics to slaughter thousands of civilians during the period of Romero’s murder; however, his death was unique. As Karl explained, “Archbishop Romero was the single most popular person in El Salvador. Period. He still is. He’s the symbol of a person who just constantly asked for peace and constantly provided a voice for people who didn’t have one.”
Romero was famous for publicly criticizing the military regime that ran the country and practicing a form of Christianity that focused on the plight of the poor, known as liberation theology. His sermons frequently cited the crimes of the Salvadoran military, including torture and murder.
Romero famously beseeched the U.S. government to stop sending military aid to the Salvadoran regime. Shortly thereafter, Romero was assassinated while giving Mass. Among Salvadorans, he is widely regarded as a martyr.
One FBI document, dated December 1993, comments on Romero’s popularity, stating, “the assassination of Monsenor Romero is still a volatile/explosive topic in El Salvador. In view of the fact that this information is sensitive and singular in nature, appropriate security measures should be taken….”
Karl believes Romero’s murder was the catalyst for the full-blown civil war that followed and which claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Asked what hope there is for accountability, Karl cites an unprecedented development in El Salvador: the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the country’s General Amnesty Law, which prevented investigations into the human rights violations committed during the civil war.
AlterNet contacted Laura Jean Embree-Lowry, the director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), to get her opinion on the significance of the Supreme Court decision.
Though Embree-Lowry called it “an historic moment for the struggle against impunity against El Salvador,” she warned of the possibility that “investigations and possibly prosecutions will be manipulated to continue destabilizing the current government and obfuscate the fact that the right-wing state forces and death squads committed 95% of war-era human rights abuses.”
Embree-Lowry’s concerns over destabilization are not unfounded: the current president of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, was himself a guerrilla leader fighting in the civil war against the very government forces that assassinated Romero.
In fact, one of El Salvador’s two major parties, the FMLN, was a rebel faction during the war. Though the rebels indeed committed far fewer crimes than the government forces, as Embree-Lowry notes, there is no guarantee that prosecutions will be apportioned fairly.
Embree-Lowry suggests, “The international community should accompany the Salvadoran popular social movement in its calls for a nationwide process to ensure that the Amnesty law being overturned actually serves as a tool in the ongoing struggle for truth, justice, and reconciliation in El Salvador.”