The saint who haunts an empire

Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice
Matt Eisenbrandt
2017, University of California Press
226 pages, plates, paperback

IN AD66, the Jews rebelled against Roman rule in Judaea after years of sporadic resistance to a brutal empire whose counter-insurgency tactics had grown increasingly severe. The First Jewish Revolt, as it is known, resulted from diverse guerrilla initiatives that coalesced amid growing repression, and succeeded in expelling the Romans from Jerusalem and overwhelming a punitive force under Gallus before setting up a revolutionary government. Piqued, the Roman emperor Nero dispatched Vespasian and Titus to crush the rebels and their forces swept like a firestorm across the country, eventually in AD70 taking Jerusalem where they slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews. Then they burned the temple to the ground.

In AD1980, various left-wing guerrilla groups rebelling against growing repression unleashed by the Salvadoran army on behalf of the US – that would set the scene for Ronald Reagan’s “second Cold War” in Central America – coalesced into the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) to become a much more serious adversary. In December of the following year, the army’s Atlacatl Battalion, a counter-insurgency unit trained and equipped by US military advisers, marched into the small town of El Mozote and over the course of two days tortured and slaughtered its entire population of 800 men, women and children. They smashed the skulls of babies, decapitated boys and girls, and dropped large rocks on to the stomachs of pregnant women. Then they burned the church to the ground.

Just as Rome and its client elites in Jerusalem crucified Jesus, the messiah in Christian tradition but to some historians a revolutionary Jewish nationalist who led a popular movement against imperial rule employing tactics of peaceful protest; so there have been uncanny parallels in client states closer to home within living memory. The parallel that continues to sit with particular discomfort is that of El Salvador – a country ironically named after Jesus himself – where, as the case of El Mozote reveals, violence committed by client elites as part of a bigger imperial calculation plumbed biblical depths.

How tragically appropriate, then, that the character who emerges as a globally recognisable victim of imperial violence from this tortured Central American country that found itself in remarkably similar circumstances to the Judaea of millennia beforehand was an acolyte of that earlier revolutionary’s peaceful dissent – Óscar Romero. The murder of the archbishop of San Salvador as he celebrated the life of Jesus during mass in March 1980 was one of the most notorious assassinations of the 20th century, and converted him into a messenger not unlike his messiah.

Romero is now a revered figure in the Catholic Church, which is eventually likely to canonise him, thereby declaring him a saint. However, as Matt Eisenbrandt’s book implies, he is also an historical loose end who continues to haunt his oppressors long after his martyrdom.

That is because of the impunity that continues to be enjoyed by those implicated in the plot to murder the archbishop, who are exposed in this important book – from wealthy business owners, politicians and military death squad commanders, and the network of supporters who bankrolled the massacre of civilians in the proxy war fought against communism on behalf of Reagan. Eisenbrandt’s book includes, for example, information about a Miami-based Salvadoran businessmen who sent money to the death squads operated by Roberto D’Aubission, considered the mastermind of the Romero assassination.

Such was the degree to which the US was implicated in El Salvador’s “dirty war” – more than 75,000 people died between 1980–92 and, according to the United Nations Truth Commission, government forces including paramilitaries, death squads and US-trained army units were responsible for more than 85 per cent of the killings, kidnappings and cases of torture – that there continue to be calls for justice and for Washington to atone for what it did.

This is unlikely – during the 1980s, the State Department and White House actively and frequently tried to cover up the brutality of the forces acting out Reagan’s ideological bigotry and to protect the perpetrators of heinous crimes.

This poses awkward questions about how the former air force captain Álvaro Saravia – the only person to ever be held responsible for Romero’s murder in a court of law, as a result of a civil case brought by Eisenbrandt and others at the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) – was able to pop up in the US in the late 1980s, and to evade justice in his homeland ever since.

Romero himself was a vocal critic of US policy, reading out in public just a month before his murder a letter he had written to the then president, Jimmy Carter, chastising him for sending generous aid to the Salvadoran regime. The archbishop was killed for his trenchant criticism of the military, which was torturing and killing innocent civilians on a huge scale with impunity while systematically repressing the priests that dared to speak out.

The journalist Raymond Bonner, who covered Central America from 1980–82, has written in detail about Washington’s complicity with the murderous regime in El Salvador at that time, sounding a clear warning about the perils of US engagement in secret wars. The imperial hubris revealed by such work – and the circumstances from which emerge martyrs whose sacrifice can influence the world – could apply as much to Rome’s Jerusalem in AD70 as to Washington’s El Mozote in AD1981. The spectre of those martyrs, from Jesus to Romero, will vex empires of all stripes until such hubris is humbled.

Bonner has written: “No US official, not even a mid-level one, has ever visited the monument at El Mozote or apologised or expressed regrets about that massacre or, more broadly, for Washington’s active role in funding and encouraging El Salvador’s dirty war.”