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Retired Captain Liable in Killing of Salvadoran Archbishop in '80

A federal judge orders the man who disappeared when the suit was filed to pay $10 million in damages.

September 04, 2004|From Associated Press

FRESNO — A federal judge on Friday found a retired Salvadoran Air Force captain liable in the 1980 slaying of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero -- a killing that helped push a country to civil war, but for which no one was ever held responsible in a court of law until now.

"The sole remedy the law can provide is money," Judge Oliver Wanger said before ordering Alvaro Rafael Saravia to pay $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages for the killings.

Saravia, whose last known residence was in Modesto, disappeared after learning the suit had been filed by the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf of a relative of Romero's. He was not present in court and had no representation during the hearings.

To the dozens of Salvadorans who were present -- and to many who lost family and friends in the escalating violence that tore the country apart after the archbishop's death -- the judge's words provided solace they'd sought for decades.

Many wept openly when the judge told the courtroom that the defendant's conduct was "the cause in law for the death of the archbishop."

The conclusion of the unusual civil case, filed under a little-known 18th century law and a supporting 1991 statute, reflected the six days of emotional testimony in which witnesses relived the day of Romero's assassination, his opposition to state-sponsored violence, and the chaos and pain of the civil war that followed.

Romero was shot in the heart by a sniper as he performed Mass, in front of dozens of witnesses. At his funeral in San Salvador's main square, which was attended by about 100,000 people, at least 40 mourners died and 200 were injured after shots were fired into the crowd.

It was the beginning of a 12-year civil war that would claim 75,000 lives, displace 600,000 Salvadorans, and send more than 1 million into exile.

Investigations by independent human rights organizations and the United Nations have shown that Saravia, as the chief of security to Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson -- a key figure in steering El Salvador's government toward the extreme right in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- conspired to kill the archbishop.

The party founded by D'Aubuisson, now known as Arena, has been in power since 1989. The current president, Tony Saca, said he served as an altar boy for Romero.

In 1993, the Salvadoran government adopted a broad amnesty that exempted participants in political crimes from criminal or civil prosecution.

In this case, plaintiffs' attorneys argued that Saravia conspired to commit the killing when he provided the sniper with a gun, his payment, and transportation in the form of Saravia's personal chauffeur, Amado Garay.

Garay's deposition was essential to determining Saravia's liability. He described driving the sniper to the door of the church. He said he heard the archbishop's last words as he sat in the car.

Then he heard a single shot coming from his back seat, and was told to drive.

"Slowly," the judge remarked, "with no sense of urgency, no fear of apprehension," to a house where Saravia was waiting.

"Saravia said to the shooter, 'I think you killed him. The news said he died instantly,' " Garay testified.

After Wanger left the courtroom Friday, the crowd made three calls of "Monsignor Romero -- presente," a traditional Latin American affirmation that those who have passed are still among the living.

The Catholic Church has taken the first step toward the canonization of Romero, who was an outspoken critic of state-sponsored violence, and who nearly a quarter-century after his death is still revered for his support for the poor and those working for social change.

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