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Central America Grave Encounters

10 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

The day death came for the Archbishop cuts deep into the soul of El Salvador. At 6 p.m. on March 24, 1980, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador and an outspoken critic of the military terrorism that was ravaging the country, was celebrating Mass in the small, humid chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence. As he delivered his sermon, a gunshot shattered the calm of the ceremony. The Archbishop toppled to the floor, his heart pierced by a single bullet. Blood stained the white altar cloth. Bending down to give the gray-haired prelate a final kiss, a nun received his last words: “May God have mercy on the assassins.”

Forgiveness comes hard in a country that has seen 70,000 lives taken over the past eight years, by both the assaults of a Marxist-led rebellion and the terror of a right-wing military and its shadowy death-squad allies. But unforgiving El Salvador had appeared in recent years to forget the pursuit of its beloved Archbishop’s assassins — until last week. Speaking to reporters at the Ilopango military air base, President Jose Napoleon Duarte announced that an informant had linked Romero’s murder to Roberto d’Aubuisson, Duarte’s rightist political foe and a former army major long suspected of masterminding the killing. Said the President: “At this moment, I am telling the people and the world that I have completed my promise to uncover this abominable crime.”

By connecting D’Aubuisson with Romero’s death, Duarte broke the unofficial code of silence that has long protected rightist army officers and politicians from prosecution for their alleged ties to the death squads. At the same time, prominent leaders of the leftist Salvadoran rebels returned home, testing Duarte’s compliance with the Central American peace accord that he and five other regional leaders signed in August. A miscalculation in balancing right against left could not only plunge El Salvador into a new round of death-squad killings but also jeopardize the entire peace process.

The new testimony comes from Amado Antonio Garay, 37, a chauffeur for retired Army Captain Alvaro Saravia Merino, an associate of D’Aubuisson. In late March 1980, said Garay, acting under Saravia’s instructions, he drove a dark-skinned, bearded man to the Hospital of Divine Providence. Outside the chapel, the man got out and ordered Garay to pretend he was tinkering with the car. A moment later, Garay heard a gunshot. Immediately the bearded man emerged from the chapel and got back into the car. It was only then that Garay realized the man had a rifle in his hands. Returning to Saravia, the assassin simply said, “Mission accomplished.” His identity and whereabouts remain unknown.

Three days later, Garay drove Saravia to a residence he said “looked like a castle.” In front of the house stood D’Aubuisson, whom Garay had chauffeured on several occasions. According to Garay, who was three yards away, Saravia told D’Aubuisson, “We’ve done what was planned, killing Monsignor Arnulfo Romero.”

“You shouldn’t have done it already,” said D’Aubuisson.

“We did what you ordered.”

A few days later, Garay fled El Salvador, finding refuge in an unnamed foreign country for seven years. Then, two weeks ago, he returned, apparently under a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. Saravia had also fled abroad. One night last week in Miami, Metro-Dade County police knocked on the door of his rented Kendall town house and lured him outside by claiming that his van had been involved in a hit-and-run accident. They were suddenly joined by U.S. marshals and immigration agents, who arrested him on a charge of overstaying his tourist visa. Since Garay had implicated him just hours before, the marshals felt they had to act before the suspect caught wind of the news and fled. “It was a scam, but it worked,” said Mell Hess of the U.S. Marshals Service.

As a member of the country’s legislature, D’Aubuisson cannot be prosecuted. A report by Salvadoran Attorney General Roberto Giron Flores has concluded, however, that Garay’s testimony is sufficient to label the politician the “intellectual author” of the crime. Last week El Salvador’s Justice Ministry began taking formal steps to convince the National Assembly that it should strip D’Aubuisson of his immunity so that he can be charged. Duarte’s Christian Democratic Party has a clear majority in the legislature, 33 seats, compared with the 13 of D’Aubuisson’s Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Duarte, who defeated D’Aubuisson in the bitterly contested 1984 presidential election, did not directly accuse his rival of the murder, merely saying that the “investigation commission and the government have done their jobs; it is now up to the judges.”

Within hours of the release of Garay’s testimony, D’Aubuisson mounted a counteroffensive. The thin, chain-smoking soldier turned politician rejected all suggestions that he was involved in the killing. Claiming to have been out of the country when Romero was slain, D’Aubuisson said, “Duarte is accusing me to maintain a smoke screen to detract attention from the crisis in El Salvador.”

Last week ARENA took out a two-page ad in the daily El Diario de Hoy charging Duarte with “fabricating false and contradictory testimony to defame D’Aubuisson.” It added that a more likely suspect was Colonel Reinaldo Lopez Nuila, former commander of the National Police and a friend of Duarte’s. Interviewed on a local television station, D’Aubuisson accused Nuila of responsibility for death-squad killings. The charge against Nuila may be D’Aubuisson’s warning to other members of the military to get behind the right or else face damning evidence he might leak to the public. Said retired Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa, a prominent member of ARENA: “Duarte is talking peace but provoking more war. If we have to fight, we will fight — it doesn’t matter what the consequences are.”

Already there is fear that the death squads may increase their activity to stall any moves against D’Aubuisson. No one doubts the squads still roam the countryside and prowl city streets. In late October, Herbert Anaya, president of the nongovernmental Commission for Human Rights, was gunned down in San Salvador. His death led to cancellation of cease-fire talks between the government and the guerrillas of the Marxist-led Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.).

In any case, D’Aubuisson is unlikely to be convicted — even if the legislature strips him of his immunity. Under Salvadoran law, the same witness cannot testify against two people charged with the same crime. Garay’s evidence can therefore be used only against Saravia. If D’Aubuisson goes to trial, he will face judges on the country’s appeals court, which includes many ardent ARENA supporters.

With the judicial odds favoring D’Aubuisson, why did Duarte choose this time to evoke the ghost of Arnulfo Romero? The U.S. had long ago supplied all the essential details to El Salvador, including the gist of Garay’s testimony, the whereabouts of Saravia, and D’Aubuisson’s alleged complicity. “We’ve known that almost from Day 1,” said a Reagan Administration source. Duarte, he added, “is playing politics. He’s had this in his back pocket for a long time.”

For one thing, Duarte needed a counterbalance to the Anaya murder, which has badly damaged his reputation for curbing the senseless violence. Second, in the event of violent clashes between left and right, the President would have scapegoats to blame for El Salvador’s failure to live up to the strictures of the Central American peace accord. “Everyone wants to jockey for p.r. advantage,” says a U.S. State Department official. “They seem to have figured out that when the January deadline ((for the peace plan)) rolls around, no one will be in complete compliance. So the thing to do is appear to have done more than anyone else.”

The announcement was certainly a quick way for the President to steal the spotlight from the expatriate rebel leaders who returned to El Salvador. Three days before Duarte’s announcement, Ruben Zamora Rivas, vice president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, returned from exile in Nicaragua to be greeted by a small but fervent group of supporters. Mocking Duarte’s embrace of the American flag during his last trip to Washington, Zamora kissed the flag of El Salvador when he arrived. “This is all the amnesty I will need,” he declared.

( The remark was a challenge to Duarte, who has insisted that the returning exiles, who are allies of the Marxist F.M.L.N. guerrillas, must “define themselves” if they want to take part in Salvadoran politics again. If they refuse to accept the government’s amnesty offers and to thereby renounce the F.M.L.N. and violence, they can be charged with complicity in future guerrilla activities. Said another returning exile, Guillermo Manuel Ungo of the National Revolutionary Movement: “I don’t think most people realize the change that the F.M.L.N. has undergone. It has learned that this war is going to be won through political, not military, processes.” The right, as expected, began brandishing its swords at Zamora and Ungo. An anonymous threat appeared in El Diario: “Do not lament when people, acting out of desperation, take justice into their own hands, and we find ourselves in the middle of a civil war for which you and Duarte’s Christian Democrats will be to blame.”

In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas provided no reception for opponents who had flown to the region from the U.S. In fact, they never allowed them into Nicaraguan territory at all. Contra Leaders Alfonso Robelo and Maria Azucena Ferrey tried to reach Managua last week to present counterproposals to the cease-fire conditions that the Sandinistas had drawn up to fulfill the terms of the peace plan. The contras had planned to hand their proposals directly to Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, who is expected to mediate between the guerrillas and the government. Forbidden to enter Nicaraguan territory unless they accept amnesty from the Sandinistas, Robelo and Ferrey settled for handing their plan to Monsignor Etokudoh Camillus, the Vatican’s emissary in Costa Rica. Etokudoh flew to Managua and presented the contra document to the Cardinal. Obando plans to meet with contra leaders before divulging their proposals to the government.

In the meantime, compliance with other facets of the peace accord goes forward in fits and starts. Last week the Sandinistas released 985 political prisoners from the Tipitapa limited-security prison, 13 miles north of Managua. El Salvador has already set free 474 political prisoners as part of the mandated amnesty, and may release more soon. Unfortunately, the amnesty erases, perhaps forever, the possibility of prosecuting those who may be responsible for some of El Salvador’s most shameful moments. Apart from the perpetrators of thousands of unsolved Salvadoran slayings, those who may be freed include the three men suspected of killing four U.S. Marines in San Salvador in 1985 and the suspected murderers of four American churchwomen in 1980. Seeking peace for all of Central America, the region’s leaders will inevitably leave many of their people feeling betrayed and dissatisfied.

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