When I embarked six years ago into investigating the killing of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, I didn’t know I was not beginning to work on a story, but taking a trip to the darkest era in modern Salvadoran history, guided by one of its cruelest perpetrators.
Captain Alvaro Rafael Saravia, the confessed plot coordinator, was the right-hand man of Roberto D’Aubuisson, a prominent member of the World Anti Communist League and the founder of ARENA, still one of the main political parties in El Salvador. D’Aubuisson showed up frequently on television reading lists of his enemies. People on the list would generally disappear.
D’Aubuisson was a former student at the School of the Americas, the Fort Benning, Ga., facility that trained Latin American soldiers and police officers. He and Saravia represented the visible part of a complex structure, with members at all levels of the security forces, trained by expert South American and Central American officers. The structure was financed by rich Salvadoran businessmen, some of them living in the United States.
And it was they who were responsible for the plot to kill Archbishop Romero, an assassination that ignited the Salvadoran civil war, a conflict that left about 100,000 people dead.
Captain Saravia played God with a .45 caliber gun, sleeping in big houses where cocaine, women and alcohol were provided by the owners, wealthy businessmen. Captain Saravia coordinated, on March 24, 1980, the killing of Archbishop Romero and even went to the church where Romero was delivering Mass to see for himself how the bishop was killed.
Thirty years later, Saravia is a diminished old man, abandoned by his peers, living undercover and in misery, working as a peasant in remote lands, hiding himself in the poorest corners of Central America. He has lost his family and his name.
No Central American tribunal is looking for him, but still he hides. He knows too much. He is afraid not of justice, but of his former peers.
He is the only one ever tried in connection with the killing of Monsignor Romero.
In 2004, a civil trial was held in Saravia’s absence in Fresno, Calif. He was the first person ever found culpable of crimes against humanity for the killing of a single person. By then, Saravia was already on the run. His punishment in the end is to live like most Central Americans: in poverty, without any state structure that can guarantee food, shelter, security, justice.
If he had seen this coming, he told me, he too would have been a revolutionary.
Then why had he been a prominent member of D’Aubuisson’s structure? Because he was trained to do that, he says. Because in the army they tell you that the communists are the enemy. And who is a communist? Everyone. And then you act accordingly. The banality of evil, you might think.
Journalists and scholars have failed so far to adequately investigate the structures behind the killing squads. Not only at a local level — where it involved soldiers, police officers, army officers and wealthy businessmen — but also at a regional and even global level.
According to State Department declassified documents, there was a group of wealthy Salvadorans operating from Miami called the Miami Six who were actively involved in financing death squads in El Salvador and ordering selective killings, bombings and terrorist acts.
Two of the Miami Six founded an organization called the Freedom Foundation and hired a lobbying group to put a benign face on their activities. In the work agreement with the Miami Six, the lobbyists stated:
“American opinion about El Salvador is shaped more by sensationalist journalists who headline the massacre of American nuns and photograph Salvadoran military excesses than it is by knowledge of the significant effort of the private business sector to respond to the legitimate aspirations and interests of the Salvadoran people.”
One of the Miami Six still owns a newspaper in El Salvador.
After I published the story on Archbishop Romero’s murder in March this year, he called my work a piece of sensationalistic journalism. It is our duty to do a better job uncovering the networks that brought repression, torture and systematic disappearances and killings in Latin America.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I have ever received came from a former target of the death squads. This man – a politician who suffered persecution and death threats, who had to leave the country because he was on the list of the death squads, who saw many friends disappear – called me with a sobbing voice after I published a story on Romero.
“Thanks,” he said. “Those monsters ... you just made them so small.”
We don’t have death squads anymore. But now we have gang members, crazy and full of tattoos. Or fat drug dealers with mustaches and sombreros in big trucks who kill immigrants because they refuse to become hit men. Such is the cartoon of the new victimizers. Such are the new unknown executioners. And some death-squad killers would turn pale at the extreme cruelty inflicted upon some of the bodies found every day in clandestine graveyards.
We don’t have another 30 years to get to know the new organized criminals and their networks. We must start right now.
Please explain the relevance of including that Roberto D’Aubuisson ‘was a former student at the School of the Americas, the Fort Benning, Ga., facility that trained Latin American soldiers and police officers.’ With only a little research, and from the group SOA Watch itself, you could find that his only association with that school was in 1972, when he took a Communications Officers’ Course. With a little more research, you could find that means he learned to operate and maintain military radios and telephones. What could that possibly have to do with his later criminal behavior? Suggesting that the school contributed to his behavior with no evidence is a moral libel of those who taught there. I take offense because those were my peers (I’m a retired Army officer). Sincerely, Lee Rials, Public Affairs Officer, WHINSEC
Lee Rials writes: “With only a little research, and from the group SOA Watch itself, you could find that his only association with that school was in 1972, when he took a Communications Officers’ Course.”
I did the search, and found repeatedly that D’Aubisson is referred to as a “graduate” of SOA.
“Suggesting that the school contributed to his behavior with no evidence is a moral libel of those who taught there.”
Moral libel? This from a PR man at Death Squad Central. A serious charge. Let’s see who is taking the moral high road here …
From tenpercent.wordpress.com on the author of this comment and SOA:
Lee A. Rials
Public Affairs Officer
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation
Ft. Benning, Geo.
You certainly do your job with enthusiasm and diligence, just what is the exchange rate on 30 pieces of silver these days?:
In mid-2002, “to counter negative political rhetoric that detracts from the mission of both WHINSEC and the Army,” the Defense Department approved a $246,000 “consistent, programmed, proactive public affairs effort in direct support of the Institute.” Dubbed WHINSEC’s “Strategic Communications Campaign Plan,” it was also ridiculed as “putting a new label on a bottle of poison” by SOA Watch communications coordinator Christy Pardew.
And I am sure you are earning your every cent, unfortunately I will not be taking up your offer because even if you paid the airfare to the US I am not traveling in US territories until habeas corpus is restored. Me and my silly insistence on human rights eh? So take these refutations from a previous response to your PR attacks-
• Salvadoran Lt. Francisco Del Cid Díaz, an SOA graduate who played an important role in the Las Hojas massacre of 1983, where he ordered the assassination of 16 civilians (United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Salvador, 1993) and was later invited to speak at WHINSEC in 2003.
• Chilean Col. Pablo Belmar, who was a guest instructor at the SOA in 1987 and who was directly implicated in the 1976 torture and murder of United Nations official Carmelo Soria (Americas Watch report, “Unfinished Business: Human Rights in Chile at the Start of the Frei Presidency,” 1994). According to former SOA instructor Maj. Joseph Blair, as a guest instructor in 1987, Belmar was responsible for teaching the human rights component.
• Colombian Gen. Farouk Yanine Díaz, a graduate and regular guest speaker at the SOA, was implicated in the massacre of 20 banana workers in Antoquia in March 1988; the assassination of the mayor of Sabana de Torres, Alvaro Garcés Parra; and in the massacre of 19 businessmen in 1987. According to the 1998 State Department report on Human Rights in Colombia, “Despite the government’s attempts to bring him to justice in the civilian court system, the military prevailed, continuing the tradition of impunity for all but the lowest-ranking members of the security forces.” According to former SOA instructor Blair, Yanine visited the SOA annually as a guest speaker from 1986-89 and was a close personal friend of U.S. Army Col. Miguel Garcia, then-commandant of the SOA.
They weren’t just students, they were lecturers! D’you think there might be just the teensy weensiest problem with the curriculum? And about the civilian staff, are they in a union? I ask because, well, some of your graduates seem to have a thing for killing union members. That could cause problems on base, oh and are there any priests or nuns on your staff, sadly again that could cause some difficulties. Perhaps you feel you are dong a good job, perhaps you have been told that your country faces terrible foes who you must do your utmost to defend against. I know the drill, got a lot of military history in my family, but you know what I learned about that mindset (regardless of debates about history or the position of your country globally, or who is in the wrong)-
Every war US was in had huge massacres covered up by propaganda outlets like FOX lying for dollars. What’s the problem PR person; it’s the truth; you guys in the US military regularly massacre civilians; it’s part of Kissingers depopulation plan and don’t worry, Bush got the mass kill bugs prepared in advance. Leonard Horowitz, no slouch, found the research grant and the researcher that made AIDS in 1970-71.