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Modesto Man Accused in Archbishop's Death

A human rights group sues former Salvadoran air force officer in the 1980 killing of Romero.

September 17, 2003|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

A suit filed Tuesday in Fresno by a human rights group accuses a former Salvadoran air force captain living in Modesto of ordering and assisting in the assassination of a Salvadoran archbishop more than 20 years ago.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, archbishop of San Salvador and a critic of human rights abuses by the Salvadoran armed forces, was slain by a sniper's bullet while saying Mass in 1980.

The suit contends that Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, who had earlier resigned his commission in the Salvadoran air force, coordinated the assassination, ordered the transport of an unnamed assassin to the chapel where the archbishop was killed and saw to it that the assassin was paid.

Saravia moved to the United States about five years later. He is still a Salvadoran citizen.

The suit against Saravia was filed under a 1789 law authorizing lawsuits against foreign defendants for human rights abuses overseas.

The suit seeks unspecified damages.

The Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco says that during his tenure as archbishop in San Salvador, Romero broadcast weekly sermons exposing human rights abuses by the Salvadoran military.

"As a result, the Salvadoran military and security forces came to perceive Archbishop Romero as a threat," the suit says. "He received death threats throughout the winter of 1979 and 1980."

On March 23, 1980, Romero broadcast a sermon asking the military to stop the repression, the suit says. He was killed the next day.

According to the suit, the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights both studied the case and concluded that Saravia was involved in the assassination, but he was not arrested while in El Salvador.

However, in 1987, after Saravia had moved to the United States, the Salvadoran Supreme Court initiated criminal proceedings against him in connection with the assassination and requested his extradition.

Saravia was jailed in south Florida while he fought extradition. A year later, the Salvadoran government dropped the proceedings against him and Saravia was freed. He later moved to Modesto.

Saravia could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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