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).

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),“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).

Oscar Romero’s Opposition

Oscar Romero

In 1979-1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was a passionate, persistent, public, brave critic of the human rights violations by the government and the paramilitary groups in El Salvador.[1]

Such conduct did not go unchallenged.

Many local newspapers criticized Romero in hostile terms. They called him “a demagogic and violent Archbishop . . . who preached terrorism from his cathedral.” Sometimes the newspapers even made veiled threats like “the armed forces should begin to oil their weapons [to kill Romero].”[2]

The right-wing civilian and military personnel were angry about Romero’s pronouncements and viewed him as a subversive. In a February 1980 television address in El Salvador, Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former military officer, founder of the ARENA political party and organizer of death squads, included Romero and Attorney General Zamora on a list of “subversives.” Before the month was over, Zamora had been assassinated, and the church’s radio transmitter that was used to carry Romero’s homilies throughout the country had been destroyed with a bomb.[3]

Romero also received anonymous letters threatening his life. On March 10th a brief case with an unexploded bomb was found behind the pulpit at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart where Romero had preached the prior day.[4]

Another major player in the Salvadoran drama of this period was the Carter Administration and the United States Government. U.S. officials, believing that left-wing repression inevitably would be worse than that of the right-wing, were worried about the July 1979 Sandinista victory in Nicaragua and about a possible left-wing FMLN takeover in El Salvador.  As a result, the U.S. was providing financial and military support to the Salvadoran Junta. In addition, in February 1980, the U.S. helped to thwart a right-wing coup that was seeking backing from the U.S. The U.S. Embassy told “all conceivable participants in a rightist coup, particularly the military” that the U.S. supported the Junta and would terminate U.S. aid  if there were a coup.[5]

Romero in February 1980 publicly asked President Carter for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador and for a pledge of non-intervention.[6]

The very next day, February 18th, a bomb destroyed the church’s radio transmitter that carried Romero’s homilies throughout the country. The same day Romero received news that this homily had caused a “furor” at the Vatican.[7] Later that same week a U.S. diplomat visited Romero and explained what the U.S. deemed to be the legitimate reasons for U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Romero, however, responded that any kind of military aid would cause greater repression of the people because it was controlled by the Minister of Defense. In addition, Romero suggested that any military aid be conditioned on the Salvadoran government’s beginning to carry out its promised reforms. There is even the suggestion that the U.S. diplomat said, “If a stick [Romero] doesn’t break, you have to break it.”[8]

The formal U.S. response to Romero’s plea came in a March 11, 1980, letter from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. It rejected Romero’s plea for ending U.S. financial assistance to the Salvadoran government. Vance said the Junta had shown itself to be “moderate and reformist” and the “best prospect for peaceful change toward a more just society,” thereby justifying U.S. assistance to the Junta. The vast bulk of this assistance, Vance asserted, was economic support for reform efforts while the military assistance was “to enhance the professionalism of the Armed Forces so that they can fulfill their essential role of maintaining order with a minimum of lethal force” coupled with U.S. monitoring any misuse of the assistance to prevent injury to human rights of the people. [9]

Vance’s letter then made seeming compliments of Romero that, in my opinion, were veiled criticisms of the Archbishop’s actions. The U.S. hoped, Vance said, that Romero would “agree that a less confrontational environment is necessary to implement the kind of meaningful reform program you have long advocated.” (Emphasis added.) Vance continued, “The great moral authority of the church, and your uncompromising defense of human rights and dedication to nonviolence, place you in a unique position to use your influence with other people of goodwill in a cooperative effort to quiet passions and find peaceful solutions. . . . You have a major role to play in helping your fellow countrymen find peaceful solutions to their problems. May God give you wisdom and strength in this difficult task.” (Emphasis added.)[10]

Meanwhile, the U.S. worked behind the scenes to try to get the Vatican to muzzle Romero. In January 1980 National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski noted that the U.S. already had contacted Pope John Paul II about Romero and had suggested that the Pope be urged to call Romero to Rome for consultations. The U.S. State Department then prepared a draft letter for Brzezinski to send to the Pope that said Romero had rejected prior U.S. requests for him to support the Junta and that asked for “the wise intervention of Your Holiness to ensure that the Church plays the responsible and constructive role on behalf of moderation and peaceful change.”  Although it is unclear if this letter was ever sent, Brzezinski in early February 1980 had a personal communication with Pope John Paul II, his fellow Polish national, seeking help to restrain Romero and probably voiced some of the same sentiments. At about the same time President Carter had drafted a letter to the Pope about the more general U.S. concern that “[e]lements of the extreme left” in Central America were engaged in “violence and terrorism designed to destroy the existing order and replace it with a Marxist one which promises to be equally repressive and totalitarian.”[11]

Whether the Pope needed U.S. urging or not, the Vatican did attempt to restrain Romero’s public opposition to the Salvadoran government and military. On January 30, 1980, Romero was in Rome, where the Pope told him that although he understood the difficulties facing El Salvador and the need to defend social justice and love for the poor, Romero needed to be careful of ideologies that could produce greater violations of human rights in the long run. The next day the Vatican’s Secretary of State told Romero that the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican (Robert Wagner, the former New York City Mayor) had expressed concern over Romero’s apparent support of a “revolutionary line of action.” In part, these Vatican actions stemmed from Pope John Paul II’s opposition to liberation theology and its assertion that economic justice required deep structural changes to increase the power of the poor; for the Pope such thinking was too secular, too reliant on Marxist concepts of class warfare and too challenging to the authority of the Pope.[12]

Even the Salvadoran Conference of [Roman Catholic] Bishops did not support Romero. They had complained to the Vatican that Romero was too political. On March 11, 1980, a representative of the Pope came to see Romero to discuss the need for greater unity among the Salvadoran bishops. When Romero talked about the difficulties facing El Salvador, the papal representative expressed fear that the country’s popular organizations were communists. Romero said that he would be glad to yield on minor issues, but “never in my convictions about faithfulness to the gospel, the new directions of the Church and my dear people.”  The next day, March 12th, at a meeting of Salvadoran bishops with the papal representative, Romero set forth what he was trying to do, but the other bishops with the exception of Bishop Rivera, “were against the direction of [Romero’s] archdiocese.” And the other bishops surprised Romero by refusing to elect a Romero supporter (Bishop Rivera) as vice president of the conference and instead electing a Romero opponent (Bishop Aparicio), and by making what Romero saw as  “aggressive” attacks on him.[13]

Romero, however, had the support of many Salvadoran people and of Christians from other countries. He received honorary degrees from Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, in early 1978 despite opposition from the Vatican, and from Belgium’s University of Louvain, the oldest Catholic university in the world, in early February 1980. In addition, in early March 1980, he received an award from Sweden’s Ecumenical Action group.[14]

Nevertheless, Romero was increasingly threatened and isolated in early 1980. Yet he continued to speak out against the repression. He was not deterred by the death threats he had received. He said in early March 1980 to a Mexican journalist, “I’ve been threatened with death many times, but I should say that as a Christian, I don’t believe in death. I believe in resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. . . . A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” Romero added, “Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.”[15]

[1] See Post: Archbishop Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011).

[2] Commission for the Truth for El Salvador, Report: From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador  at 128 (March 15, 1993),“Truth Commission Report”].

[3] Id. at 127-28.

[4] Id.; Oscar Romero, A Shepherd’s Diary at 441, 501 (St. Anthony Press 1993)[“Diary”]; Betty Glad, An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy at 254 (Cornell Univ. Press 2009) [“Outsider”]; Maria Lopez Vigil, Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic at 298, 359-60, 382-84, 395-96 (EPICA 2000) [“Mosaic”].

[5]  Outsider at 250-53; John A. Soares, Jr., Strategy, Ideology, and Human Rights: Jimmy Carter Confronts the Left in Central America, 1979-81, 8 J. Cold War Studies 57-67, 78-89  (No. 4 Fall 2006)[“Strategy”].

[6]  See Post: Archbishop Oscar Romero, A Saint for All People and All Time (Oct. 5, 2011).

[7]  Diary at 493; James Brockman, The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero at 202-09 (Orbis Books 1982).

[8]  Diary at 494, 496-97; Mosaic at 378-79.

[9]  Outsider at 25; Strategy at 87-88; letter, Cyrus Vance, U.S. Secretary of State to Archbishop Oscar Romero (3/11/80)[Carter Presidential Library].

[10]  Id.

[11]  Outsider at 250-53; Diary at 461, 468, 493, 524-25; Mosiac at 378-79; Strategy at 66, 87-88.

[12]  Outsider at 250, 252, 257-58; Diary at 465-69, 493; Mosaic at 374-76.

[13]  Diary at 438, 460, 494, 520-22; Outsider at 257.

[14]  Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements at 162-88 (Orbis Books 1985); Outsider at 257.

[15]  Mosiac at 396; Outsider at 255.