Litigation Against Conspirators in the Assassination of Oscar Romero


Alvaro Saravia

As previously mentioned, the Truth Commission for El Salvador named Alvaro Saravia, an aide to Roberto d’Aubuisson, as one of the participants in the plot to assassinate Archbishop Oscar Romero.[1]

When the Truth Commission report was released in March 1993, criminal charges against Saravia were being considered by the Salvadoran courts. Soon thereafter, however, those criminal charges were dismissed pursuant to the country’s hastily enacted General Amnesty Law.[2]

In September 2003, a U.S. human rights organization, the Center for Justice and Accountability, filed a civil lawsuit by a relative of Oscar Romero alleging that Saravia, then a California resident, as an aide to Roberto d’Aubuisson played a key role in organizing this assassination. The case sought money damages under two U.S. statutes, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA).[3]

A year later, the court held that it had personal jurisdiction over Saravia as he was a resident of the California district and legally had been served with process to commence the case. The court also held that the case (initiated 13 years after the murder) was not barred by the U.S. 10-year statute of limitations under the U.S. equitable tolling doctrine because the plaintiff could not have obtained justice in Salvadoran or U.S. courts due to his legitimate fear of being killing for making such a claim and the Salvadoran government’s erection of roadblocks to Salvadoran judicial remedies. Similarly the lack of any effective Salvadoran judicial remedy meant that the plaintiff did not have to satisfy the TVPA requirement to have exhausted remedies in the foreign country.[4]

In this context, the U.S. court discussed the March 1993 El Salvador amnesty law and the invocation of that law to end the Salvadoran criminal case against Saravia. These actions were seen by the U.S. court as evidence of the plaintiff’s inability to obtain any judicial relief in that country, thereby eliminating any requirement for the plaintiff to have exhausted his Salvadoran remedies. The U.S. court apparently assumed that the Salvadoran amnesty law had no application to the U.S. case as that issue was not discussed.[5] However, the court did receive testimony that the Law was “directed to what the Salvadoran courts should do. It tells the Salvadoran courts how to deal with these cases” and that courts in other countries need not, and should not, take that Law into account.[6]

Saravia never responded to the civil complaint and did not participate in any way in this lawsuit. Even though this default constituted, by operation of law, an admission of all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint and a conclusive establishment of his liability, the court conducted a five-day default hearing, and the plaintiff provided independent evidence in support of the claims, including the live testimony of the driver of the assassin’s car.[7]

The court then entered extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law holding Saravia liable and ordering him to pay $10 million of compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiff. The court determined that the murder constituted a crime against humanity, because it was part of a widespread and systematic attack intended to terrorize a civilian population. As the court stated, “Here the evidence shows that there was a consistent and unabating regime that was in control of El Salvador, and that this regime essentially functioned as a militarily-controlled government.” The government perpetrated “systematic violations of human rights for the purpose of perpetuating the oligarchy and the military government.” The court also concluded that what happened in El Salvador was the “antithesis of due process” and that there could not be a better example of extrajudicial killing than the killing of Archbishop Romero.[8]

The court received into evidence the Truth Commission Report and relied extensively on it in reaching its findings.[9]

Because Saravia had not participated in this case in any way, there was no appeal, and the district court’s decision became the final judgment. Now Saravia is one of the “most wanted fugitives” for “human rights violations” by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.[10]

In 2006 and again in 2010, Saravia was reported to be in an unidentified Latin American country for his personal security when he was interviewed by Salvadoran journalists and admitted to his involvement in the assassination plot. He appeared to be a tormented person barely getting by.[11] He has not paid any part of the $10 million judgment and undoubtedly never will.

Roberto d’Aubuisson, who was named as the “intellectual author” of the assassination by the Truth Commission, died of cancer in February 1992, just after the signing of the Peace Accords that created the Truth Commission.[12]  He never was subjected to any criminal or civil charges for this horrific crime. Nor was anyone else other than Saravia.

[1] See Post: Oscar Romero’s Assassination (Oct. 8, 2011). Information about the Truth Commission’s creation and operations has been provided. (See Post: International Criminal Justice: The Jesuits Case in the Truth Commission for El Salvador (June 9, 2011).)

[2]  See Post: International Criminal Justice: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law and Its Impact on the Jesuits Case (June 11, 2011).

[3] CJA, Key Conspirator in Assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Romero Faces Lawsuit in U.S. Court, Sept. 16, 2003,; Chang, Modesto man accused in ’80 slaying of bishop, San. Fran. Chronicle, Sept. 17, 2003; Branigan, Suit Filed in ’80 Death of Salvadoran Bishop, Washington Post, Sept. 17, 2003.

[4]  Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp.2d 1112, 1118-19, 1142-43, 1147-48 (E.D. Cal. 2004). The roadblocks included the Salvadoran government’s thwarting Saravia’s extradition from the U.S. to El Salvador and the adoption and application of the amnesty law to the Salvadoran criminal case against Saravia. (Id. at 1148.)

[5]  Id. at 1133-34, 1151-53.

[6]  Trial Transcript at 772-73, Doe v. Saravia (E.D. Cal. Sept. 3, 2004), See also Post: El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law in U.S. Federal Court Cases (June 14, 2011).

[7]  348 F. Supp.2d at 1143-44.

[8]  Doe v. Saravia, supra; CJA, El Salvador: Alvaro Rafael Savaria,; Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Justice Comes to the Archbishop,

[9]  Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d at 1131-32.

[10] U.S. I.C.E., News: ICE Most Wanted Fugitive,

[11] Reyesei, Conspirator in Romero assassination speaks out, Nuevo Herald  (Mar. 24, 2006); Tim’s El Salvador Blog, Conspirator in Romero assassination speaks out (Mar. 24, 2006),; Dada, How we killed Archbishop Romero, (Mar. 25, 2010),

[12] Severo, Roberto d’Aubuisson, 48, Far-Rightist in Salvador, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 1992).

Alien Tort Statute: Important Cases Heading to U.S. Supreme Court

On July 8, 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided an important case under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) that is headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp., the D.C. Circuit held, 2 to 1, that corporations may be held liable for aiding and abetting human rights violations under the ATS. The plaintiffs were Indonesian villagers who accused Exxon Mobil of aiding and abetting murder, torture and rape by Indonesian soldiers acting under the corporation’s direction to protect its natural-gas operations in that country.[1]

Late last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City reached the opposite conclusion, 2 to 1, in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., another ATS case, this one by Nigerians against Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. for alleged complicity in crimes against humanity.[2]

In Kiobel, the plaintiffs already have asked the U.S. Supreme Court for review of that case,[3] and it is likely that Exxon Mobil will do as well in the other case. Since an important factor in the Supreme Court’s decision to grant such review (granting the writ of certiorari) is a split in decisions by the courts of appeal on important issues of federal law,[4] the Court, in my opinion, is highly likely to grant such review in both cases and to consider them on the merits next Term (October 2011-September 2012).

The ATS provides that the U.S. district courts have “original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien [non-U.S. citizen] for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”[5]

In future posts, I will review (a) the adoption of the ATS in 1789 and its use through 1979; (b) the interpretation of the ATS by the Supreme Court in 2004; (c) the use of the ATS by the lower federal courts since 1980; (d) the issue of aiding and abetting in ATS cases; and (e) the issue of corporate liability in ATS cases.

[1] Doe v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 09-7125 (D.C. Cir. July 8, 2011),; Reuters, Exxon to Face Lawsuit Over Rights Violations in Indonesia, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2011); Kendall, Exxon Hit by Reversal in Human-Rights Case, W.S.J. (July 9, 2011).

[2]  Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Pet. Co., 621 F.3d 111 (2d Cir. 2010), pet. for reh’g denied, 642 F.3d 268 (2d Cir. 2011), pet. for reh’g en banc denied, 642 F.3d 379 (2d Cir. 2011), pet. for cert. filed (No. 10-1491 June 6, 2011).

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. Sup. Ct. Rule 10 (a): “A petition for a writ of certiorari will be granted only for compelling  reasons.  The  following,  although  neither controlling  nor fully measuring  the Court’s discretion,  indicate  the  character of the  reasons  the  Court  considers: (a) a United States court of appeals has entered a decision  in  conflict  with  the  decision  of  another  United States  court  of  appeals  on  the  same  important matter. . . .”

[5] 28 U.S.C. § 1350.

Getting Started

In my 70-plus years I have developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics, economics and history.

This is due to an excellent education at Grinnell College and the Universities of Oxford and Chicago, 35 years of practicing law in New York City and Minneapolis, being a pro bono lawyer for asylum seekers, teaching international human rights law, international travel and wide reading. These activities by themselves provide additional subjects for commentaries.

These interests also have been furthered by a renewed Christian faith and an active membership in Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. This faith and learning about other religious traditions are other major interests of mine.

As will become apparent in subsequent postings, I have particular interests in certain legal topics–refugee and asylum law; litigation in U.S. federal courts under the Alien Tort Statute that covers lawsuits by foreigners for human rights abuses; U.S. constitutional law; and alternative dispute resolution– and in certain countries–Great Britain, El Salvador, Ecuador, Cuba, Brazil and Cameroon.

I already have written a lot on these subjects and have decided to share these writings on this blog. I also will comment on other issues as they arise. Many of these writings will be longer than a typical blog. In subsequent postings I will describe my political philosophy and Christian faith that I hope is evident in my writings.