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, http://www.cja.org/cases/romero.shtmo; 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), http://www.cja.org/cases/RomeroTranscripts/9-3-04%20Trial%20Transcript.txt. 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, http://www.cja.org/cases/romero.shtml; Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Justice Comes to the Archbishop, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/31/opinion/31menchu.html.

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

[10] U.S. I.C.E., News: ICE Most Wanted Fugitive, http://www.icc.gov/pi/investigations/wanted/Rafael_saravia.htm.

[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),http://luterano.blogspot.com; Dada, How we killed Archbishop Romero, (Mar. 25, 2010), http://www.elfaro.net.

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

Oscar Romero’s Assassination

Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

On March 24, 1980, Monsignor Oscar Romero was delivering what turned out to be his last homily in the beautiful, intimate, modern chapel at a cancer hospital in San Salvador that was across the street from Romero’s small apartment.[1]

A red four-door Volkswagen drove up in front of the chapel. A man in the back seat of the car raised his rifle and fired a single shot through the open front door of the chapel. Romero fell and died behind the altar just after he had said, “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain–like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.”

The Truth Commission for El Salvador, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have made the following findings regarding the assassination of Romero:[2]

  • On March 24, 1980, Roberto D’Aubuisson had a meeting with three members of his security team: Alvaro Saravia, Eduardo Avila and Fernando Sagrera. Avila said that later that day Romero would be celebrating mass at the Capilla and that this would be a good opportunity to kill him. D’Aubuisson ordered that this be done and put Saravia in charge of the operation. When someone said a sniper would be needed, Avila said he would contact one through Mario Molina, who was another member of D’Aubuisson’s security team. Yet another member of the team, Amado Antonio Garay, was assigned to be the driver for the assassin.
  • Later that same day in the parking lot of the Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador, according to the Truth Commission, the assassin (a bearded man) with a rifle got into a red, four-door Volkswagen that was driven by Garay. A different account of this meeting was provided by Garay himself in testimony in the U.S. federal court case. Upon instructions from Saravia, Garay testified that he drove the car to a house in San Salvador, where Saravia entered and brought out a tall bearded man carrying a long rifle with a telescopic lens. Before the car left, Saravia told the bearded man, “It is better to shoot in the head because maybe he [might] have a bulletproof vest. You have to be sure he got killed.” Saravia told Garay that he would be provided protection by men in another car.
  • The bearded man told Garay where to go, and on the way, the bearded one said, “I can’t believe it, I’m going to shoot a priest.”
  • Garay drove to the Capilla, and the bearded man told him to stop at its main entrance. Garay saw people sitting in the pews of the chapel and a priest speaking at the altar.
  • The assassin then fired a single high-velocity .22 caliber bullet from the rear seat of the Volkswagen through the open entrance door of the Capilla. The bullet hit and killed Romero.
  • Afterwards, upon D’Aubuisson’s order, another member of his security team, Walter Antonio “Musa” Alvarez, received 1,000 colones, and he and Saravia paid the assassin.
  • In the proceedings before these three institutions, the assassin himself was not identified.[3]

[1] See Post: Archbishop Oscar Romero’s Last Homily (Oct. 6, 2011).

[2]  Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 127-31(March 15, 1993), http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html%5B“Truth Commission Report”];Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp.2d 1112, 1121-23(E.D. Cal. 2004)(Sararvia held liable to relative of Romero for $10 million of compensatory and punitive damages for crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killing for Saravia’s role in the assassination of Romero); Monsignor Romero v. El Salvador, Rep. No. 37/00 ¶¶ 53-54 (Inter-American Comm’n Human Rights, Case No. 11.481, April 13, 2000).

[3]  Truth Commission Report at 130. A Salvadoran newspaper recently reported that the Romero assassin was at the time a deputy sergeant of the Salvadoran National Guard and a member of the security team for former Salvadoran President Arturo Molina. (Valencia, Gabriela & David, The sniper who killed Romero was a former National Guard, Diario Co Latino (Sept. 9, 2011).

El Salvador’s General Amnesty Law in U.S. Federal Court Cases

We have examined El Salvador’s adoption of its General Amnesty Law, litigation in its courts regarding the validity of that Law under its own legal system and its impact on the defendants who had been convicted for involvement in the murders of the Jesuit priests.[1]

The General Amnesty Law also has been invoked by Salvadoran defendants as a defense to civil lawsuits for money damages in U.S. federal courts. But the U.S. courts have determined that the amnesty is limited to Salvadoran judicial proceedings and thus does not bar the U.S. lawsuits.[2]

In the U.S. lawsuit against Alvarao Saravia for complicity in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the U.S. court held him liable for $10 million compensatory and punitive damages for crimes against humanity. The court saw the General Amnesty Law and the dismissal of the Salvadoran criminal case against him as evidence of the plaintiff’s inability to obtain any judicial relief in that country. It thereby eliminated any U.S. 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 by the court.[3] 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.[4]

Another U.S. civil lawsuit for money damages was brought against Colonel Nicolas Carranza, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Tennessee, who was Vice-Minister of Defense of El Salvador from late 1979 to early 1981. In late 2005, a civil jury after a three-week trial found Mr. Carranza liable to four of the five Salvadoran plaintiffs for $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages for crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing and torture. The federal appeals court in early 2009 upheld that verdict.[5]

In the Carranza case, the trial court twice rejected the defendant’s argument that the Salvadoran amnesty law barred the U.S. lawsuit after the court concluded that the law did not purport to bar claims outside El Salvador.[6]  The appellate court affirmed this ruling.[7]

On October 5, 2009, Carranza’s petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.[8] Carranza, therefore, unsuccessfully argued that the lower court’s refusal to bar the suit constituted “an unwarranted intrusion into the sovereign affairs” of El Salvador and undermined “the very vehicle of [its] transformation from a war torn charnel house to a robust democracy.” In addition, Carranza pointed out that the Truth Commission Report also provided findings on crimes perpetrated by the FMLN, including the assassination of four unarmed U.S. Marines. This was the predicate for Carranza’s unsuccessful argument that the U.S. Supreme Court should consider “the implications of adjudicating monetary claims on behalf of members of groups committed to killing American soldiers.”[9]

Carranza’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was supported by the Government of El Salvador (then under the control of the right-wing ARENA political party). It argued that the ruling of the lower courts “impugns El Salvador’s sovereignty, contradicts international authority, and undermines El Salvador’s democracy.” Ignoring  its own January 1992 Law of National Reconciliation that had banned amnesty for those found responsible by the Truth Commission until at least six months after its Report was released, the Government asserted that the amnesty law “was a principal, if not the pivotal, requirement of the [Peace Accords].”[10]

In addition, the Government of El Salvador asserted to the U.S. Supreme Court that plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their remedies in the Salvadoran courts as the Salvadoran Supreme Court had held in 2000, [11]that the country’s courts had discretion to waive the immunity of the amnesty law in particular cases involving “fundamental human rights.”[12]  In the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the Government of El Salvador, again as amicus curiae, did not mention the possible discretionary waiver of the amnesty law by Salvadoran courts and instead asserted that the amnesty law “specifically precludes the [plaintiffs’] claims . . . by granting absolute civil and criminal immunity to . . . Carranza.”[13]


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

[2]   Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112 (E.D. Cal. 2004); Chavez v. Carranza, 2005 WL 2659186, at 3-5 (W.D. Tenn. 2005); Chavez v. Carranza, 2006 WL 2434934, at 5 (W.D. Tenn. 2006), aff’d, 559 F.3d 486 (6th cir. 2009), cert. denied, 2009 WL 1513107 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Oct. 5, 2009); Ford v. Garcia, 289 F.3d 1283 (11th Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1147 (2003)(jury verdict for two Salvadoran generals by relatives of the four American church women who were raped an murdered in El Salvador in 1980; appellate court affirmed); Arce v. Garcia, 434 F.3d 1254 (11th Cir. 2005)(jury verdict of $54.6 million for three Salvadoran plaintiffs against two Salvadoran generals; appellate court affirmed).

[3]  Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d at 1133-34, 1151-53.

[4]  Trial Transcript at 772-73, Doe v. Saravia (E.D. Cal. Sept. 3, 2004), http://www.cja.org/cases/RomeroTranscripts/9-3-04%20Trial%20Transcript.txt.

[5]  Chavez v. Carranza, 559 F.3d 486 (6th Cir. 2009); CJA, El Salvador: Col. Nicolas Carranza, http://www.cja.org/cases/carranza.shtml.

[6]  Chavez v. Carranza, 2005 WL 2659186, at 3-5 (W.D. Tenn. 2005); Chavez v. Carranza, 2006 WL 2434934, at 5 (W.D. Tenn. 2006).

[7]  Chavez v. Carranza, 559 F.3d at 494-96. The plaintiffs’ argument against the amnesty law was supported in the Sixth Circuit by a group of law professors.  (Brief Amici Curiae [26 international human rights law professors] in Support of Appellees and Affirmance at 14-15, Chavez v. Carranza (6th Cir. May 14, 2008).)

[8] Carranza v. Chavez, 2009 WL 1513107 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Oct. 5, 2009).

[9]  Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Carranza v. Chavez, 2009 WL 1511732 (U.S. Sup. Ct. No. 08-1467 May 28, 2009).

[10]  Brief of Amicus Curiae Republic of El Salvador in Support of Petitioner [Carranza], Carranza v. Chavez, 2009 WL 1511733, at 2 (U.S. Sup. Ct. No. 08-1467 May 28, 2009).

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

[12]  Brief of Amicus Curiae Republic of El Salvador in Support of Petitioner [Carranza], Carranza v. Chavez, 2009 WL 1511733, at 2 (U.S. Sup. Ct. No. 08-1467 May 28, 2009).

[13]  Brief of Amicus Curiae The Republic of El Salvador in Support of Appellant [Carranza] at 1, 3, Chavez v. Carranza (6h Cir. Apr. 22, 2008) (emphasis added).