Moral Low Ground

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‘On This Day’ 1980: Archbishop Oscar Romero Assassinated by US-Backed Salvadoran Military Death Squad

Oscar Romero

El Salvador, 1980. The nation was plunged into civil war as a small group of wealthy families with powerful friends on Wall Street and in Washington struggled to maintain control over the impoverished and increasingly disenchanted masses. Fortunately for them, the wealthy elite controlled the country’s security forces and it was equally fortunate that those forces were heavily funded and armed and well-trained by the most powerful nation on earth.

Not only did the United States fully support the Salvadoran regime, it also looked the other way as American-trained death squads kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered anyone who dared challenge the country’s ‘democratic’ leadership. Some 3,000 people a month were being murdered by state security forces and no one was out of their reach, not even the most respected religious leaders in the country.

Of these, Oscar Romero was the greatest.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero was consecrated Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977. His nation’s downtrodden had no reason to expect greatness; Romero was chosen by fellow conservative bishops and he was often critical of left-leaning clergy who spoke for the poor. That changed when his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande was assassinated along with two of his parishioners for speaking out against the grave injustices that were the peasantry’s daily lot. Father Rutilio once said that the “dogs of the big landowners ate better food than the peasant children whose fathers worked their fields.”

Immediately following Rutilio’s murder, Oscar Romero was a changed man. He delivered a rousing sermon the day after his friend’s brutal slaying that shocked the nation. Wrote Renny Golden:

In a packed country church Romero encountered the silent endurance of peasants who were facing rising terror. Their eyes asked the question only he could answer. Will you stand with us as Rutilio did? Romero’s ‘yes’ was in deeds. The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one.

Overnight, Archbishop Romero became a hero to the oppressed masses of El Salvador. As more and more peasants and clergy were murdered by the regime’s forces, Romero took to the airwaves with weekly radio broadcasts that stirred the spirits of the poor and stoked the ire of the authorities. Government death squads responded by occupying villages, attacking churches, and indiscriminately murdering the hapless peasantry.

Instead of choosing silence, Archbishop Romero stepped up his rhetoric. He even criticized the president. He knew this was dangerous but he felt compelled to do it; the whole country listened to his radio broadcasts. He pleaded for international help; he even wrote a letter to U.S. President Jimmy Carter, begging the devout Baptist from Georgia to stop funding the Salvadoran military that was murdering his people with impunity.

While Archbishop Romero received no reply from President Carter, the armed forces of El Salvador got a million and a half dollars a day for the next 12 years in military aid from the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations. American taxpayer dollars funded the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of a nation.

Even as his fame grew, Archbishop Romero lived a simple life, traveling around the countryside ministering to and helping the poor. And even as the country’s leaders escalated their horrific campaign of violence against their own people, Oscar Romero, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King before him, remained a steadfast champion of non-violence. He wrote:

The counsel of the Gospel to turn the other cheek to an unjust aggressor, far from being passive or cowardly, shows great moral force that leaves the aggressor morally overcome and humiliated. The Christian always prefers peace to war.

Archbishop Romero would often drive out to a garbage dump where the government death squads would toss the bodies of their victims. Other times all he had to do was walk down the street to collect the dead. Mark Danner of the New Yorker described what it was like:

The most visible signs of the “dirty war” were mutilated corpses that each morning littered the streets of El Salvador’s cities. Sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless, their features having been obliterated with a shotgun blast or an application of battery acid; sometimes limbs were missing, or hands or feet chopped off, or eyes gouged out; women’s genitals were torn and bloody, bespeaking repeated rape; men’s were often found severed and stuffed into their mouths. And cut into the flesh of a corpse’s back or chest was likely to be the signature of one or another of the “death squads” that had done the work.

Archbishop Romero would accompany grief-stricken Salvadorans as they searched these macabre roadsides and trash heaps for their disappeared relatives. Through it all, he never wavered from his message of hope and non-violence. “These days,” he said, “I walk the roads gathering up dead friends, listening to widows and orphans, and trying to spread hope.”

On March 23, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero gave his most impassioned sermon ever. He spoke directly to the murderers, the rapists and the torturers. This is what he said:

“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own peasant brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination… In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

The next day, the Archbishop held a mass, preaching that one must die as Christ died so that others may be saved. As he finished his sermon, he was shot through the heart. Like Ghandi and King, Oscar Romero was assassinated for preaching peace.“If they succeed in killing me,” he had said, “I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero’s funeral was El Salvador’s largest- ever demonstration. But the forces of repression did not rest that day. Government security forces attacked the massive crowd with snipers, bombs and automatic weapons, killing 30 mourners and preventing the funeral mass from being completed.

The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero was planned and ordered by Roberto D’Aubuisson and Captain Eduardo Ernesto Alfonso Avila. Both men were trained by the United States at the School of the Americas. During the planning stages, D’Aubuisson presided over a sick sweepstakes in which his men drew lots for the “privilege” of being the trigger man. U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton knew about this meeting, and so did top U.S. officials, because Hinton secretly wired them about it.

Although he was dead, Oscar Romero continued to inspire others to carry on his work. Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel were four American churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980 who dedicated their lives to helping the poor. All four were kidnapped, raped, murdered and mutilated by Salvadoran forces that were directly trained by the United States at the School of the Americas.

In March 2010, the Texas Board of Education, which effectively decides what textbooks all across the country will and will not teach, decided that Archbishop Romero’s story wasn’t worth teaching while Rush Limbaugh’s was. Later, a new Pope—a Latino who also lived through the horrors of a military dictatorship—would vehemently disagree. In fact, Pope Francis would declare Archbishop Oscar Romero a ‘martyr for the faith,’ the last major step toward a well-deserved sainthood.

(Last updated March 24, 2015)

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