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El Salvador Slaying Case to Open in Fresno

Relative of Archbishop Oscar Romero sues over his 1980 death. But the suspect is missing.

August 24, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

MODESTO — The short man with the big belly who came from El Salvador by way of Miami was hiding a terrible secret. He arrived here one day in the early 1990s and began living a quiet suburban life amid the fruit and nut farms.

Nothing stood out about him, not unless you counted his devotion to beans. He loved all kinds -- black, red, pinto. There was certainly no hint he was looking over his shoulder. Not even Ines Olsson, the old family friend from El Salvador who let him stay at her Modesto house, was sure of his past.

But Alvaro Rafael Saravia was a man on the run, trying to put as many miles as he could between him and one of the most infamous assassinations in Latin American history -- the murder of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero 24 years ago.

Today, one of the last twists of that past will play out in an unlikely setting: a federal courtroom in Fresno where Saravia faces a civil lawsuit brought by a relative of Romero alleging "crimes against humanity." It marks the first time that the assassination of the beloved archbishop, a crime that still resonates in Latin America, will be heard by a court of law in any country.

Saravia, who has been named by witnesses as the chief planner of the assassination, isn't expected to show up for four days of testimony that will replay the dread of paramilitary death squads and the sniper's bullet that struck down Romero in the Chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence in San Salvador on March 24, 1980. In a federal courthouse in downtown Fresno, attorneys representing Romero's relative will call 14 witnesses, four of whom have come from El Salvador.

Friends say Saravia, a former Salvadoran air force officer who made his living in Modesto by selling cars, vanished more than a year ago. He left behind a trail of debt and lawsuits from dissatisfied customers.

Some believe he remains in this vast farm belt between Bakersfield and Stockton. Others think he went back to Miami. All agree that the man in his early 60s nicknamed "Chele" -- slang for someone with light skin, blond hair and green eyes -- is mercurial, above all.

"I let him stay here, but he moved from address to address so many times I couldn't keep track," Olsson said. "He was no businessman, I will tell you that. Then one day he took off, and we never knew what happened to him. I would like to know myself."

A lawyer for the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability, which has brought the lawsuit on behalf of the unnamed relative of Romero, says Saravia's failure to defend himself will result in a default judgment against him. But that won't stop the witnesses from testifying.

"There was no reckoning for the people who carried out Archbishop Romero's assassination," said Matt Eisenbrandt, a lawyer with the center. "This can't replace a criminal prosecution in the courts of El Salvador. But this will be the first public airing of the facts in a judicial context, and that's incredibly important."

In the early 1990s, as Saravia moved from Miami to the northeast side of this fast-growing farm town, the murder became the subject of two inquiries: one by the United Nations Truth Commission and the other by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Witnesses testified that Saravia was "actively involved in planning and carrying out the assassination."

Saravia was a longtime officer in the air force when a reform movement in 1979 forced him and other right-wing officers to leave the military. This old guard was headed by Saravia's close associate, former Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, who once headed the country's national intelligence agency.

A struggle for power between the reformists and the old guard ensued. D'Aubuisson organized a network of paramilitary groups, or "death squads," that began carrying out a systematic campaign of terror against so-called "communists."

Romero, the Metropolitan Archbishop of San Salvador, became an outspoken voice on behalf of the oppressed. From the pulpit and in weekly homilies broadcast on national radio, the slight but willful cleric exposed the human rights violations committed by the paramilitary groups.

Romero began receiving death threats. On March 10, 1980, a briefcase containing a bomb was found behind the pulpit of the church at which he had said Mass -- for a murdered official -- the day before.

Two weeks later, Romero directed his sermon at the current and former soldiers tied to the murders. "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression."

The next day, according to the lawsuit, which cites testimony from both international commissions, Saravia and D'Aubuisson met at the home of a supporter in San Salvador.

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