SAN SALVADOR — President Jose Napoleon Duarte charged Monday that former army Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, a rightist leader long accused of ties to clandestine death squads, ordered the 1980 assassination of the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador.
Duarte said the driver of the killer's car has provided "absolutely accurate" testimony implicating D'Aubuisson and a former army captain in the murder of Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
"The case of Msgr. Romero is solved. We know who gave the order and who carried out the execution," Duarte said.
Slain at Chapel Pulpit
Romero was shot to death at the pulpit of the Divine Providence Hospital chapel as he said Mass on the evening of March 24, 1980. He had denounced widespread military repression and the killing of thousands of peasants, students, church and union workers by rightist death squads.
The archbishop's death is one of the most emotional and politically charged human rights cases in El Salvador and the only one specifically omitted from a new amnesty law that pardons political crimes.
D'Aubuisson, a leader of the National Republican Alliance (Arena) party, denied any link to the Romero murder.
"I was not in El Salvador (at the time), I am going to prove this," he said in a television interview.
D'Aubuisson called the charge a political ploy to hide Duarte's failure to restore the economy, enact social programs and bring peace. He said he is ready to engage Duarte and the government's witnesses in a public debate "to make it evident who is lying in this controversial affair."
Duarte's announcement coincided with the return to El Salvador of leftist political leaders who are allied with guerrillas fighting to oust his U.S.-backed government. Guillermo Ungo, president of the civilian Revolutionary Democratic Front, returned Monday, and Ruben Zamora, vice president of the front, arrived Saturday. Both have been in exile for seven years.
Zamora held an emotional outdoor rally Monday night with several thousand supporters in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral, which houses Romero's tomb. They stressed that they are working toward "a new era" in Salvadoran politics.
Five of the Revolutionary Democratic Front leaders were slain by death squads in 1980, and diplomats have warned that Ungo and Zamora could become the targets of rightist extremists.
The leader of a small Social Democratic Party newly allied with Ungo's and Zamora's front said Monday that he has received three death threats in the last 10 days. Mario Reni Roldan said four armed men in civilian dress arrived at the house of his ex-wife Monday morning warning him to break his alliance.
Duarte suggested at a press conference that reopening an inquiry into the Romero killing could add to the risk to the returning leftist leaders. He said there is a danger "that these persons accustomed to killing will assassinate someone. I have great fear that something might happen because there are persons who could pay for this act by the government."
On Sunday, Duarte denied that the timing of the Romero case testimony was politically motivated to counter the return of Zamora and Ungo. He said then that the left rather than the right may try to kill them to create martyrs.
Zamora, who has worn a bullet-proof vest since arriving three days ago, angrily rejected Duarte's claim and said it was "carte blanche for the extreme right to kill us. Anything that happens, the president has already said who is responsible."
Duarte, meanwhile, claimed the Romero investigation as a personal political victory and likened the lengthy case to the investigation into the killing of John F. Kennedy in the United States.
But a close adviser to Duarte said he believes the case also is dangerous for the president. "I told him to be careful, that D'Aubuisson is going to try to kill him," he said.
It is not clear how the far right political parties or the military will respond to the charges against D'Aubuisson, who ran against Duarte for president. They already have criticized Duarte for permitting Ungo and Zamora to return.
Death squads are known to have operated out of the security forces in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The witness, Amado Antonio Garay, said in sworn testimony submitted to a Salvadoran court that he drove the gunman to the chapel. Garay said the triggerman made him put his head down before firing with a rifle from the back seat of the car while the motor was running.
Garay, 37, said he did not see who the shot was aimed at but put two and two together when Romero's death was reported later.
He described the triggerman but could not identify him by name. He said he and the gunman were sent to the chapel by former army Capt. Alvaro Saravia, a longtime associate of D'Aubuisson.
In his testimony, Garay recounted overhearing a conversation between Saravia and D'Aubuisson "at a house that looked like a castle" three days after the killing:
"The captain said to Maj. D'Aubuisson, 'We have done what you had planned--to kill Msgr. Arnulfo Romero.'
" D'Aubuisson responded, 'You shouldn't have done it yet.'
"Then Saravia answered, 'As you gave the order, we did it.' "
The house reportedly was D'Aubuisson's.
D'Aubuisson is a member of the Legislative Assembly and under the constitution can only be charged for a crime by the assembly and not by a court. Duarte's Christian Democratic Party has a majority in the assembly.
Duarte said that the witness, Garay, is "out of the country" and that Saravia is living in the United States. He said that if the court presses charges against Saravia, the government will seek his extradition. So far, no arrest orders have been issued.