On Sunday, October 14, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador who was gunned down by a right-wing death squad in 1980, will be canonized as a Catholic martyr and saint in Rome. Romero has long been revered for his commitment to social justice and his understanding that the struggle for justice entails a preferential option for the poor. At times this conviction put him at odds with those in power, including his fellow bishops.
Romero, a champion of human rights, forcefully and publicly condemned military abuses during El Salvador’s brutal civil war. In 1980, weeks before his assassination, Romero authored a public letter to President Jimmy Carter pleading for him to halt all U.S. military assistance to El Salvador’s government. (From 1980 to 1991, the United States provided over $1 billion dollars in military assistance to El Salvador, and nearly $6 billion in broader war-related assistance.) No one has yet been prosecuted or convicted of the murder of Archbishop Romero. Notably, a United Nations Truth Commission report found that the U.S. government had provided training to a number of the Salvadoran military officials who were behind the killing.
Can El Salvador's justice system eventually dismantle the culture of impunity that has prevailed for major human rights crimes like Romero’s killing?
Romero’s assassination is among various historic human rights cases recently reopened by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office. These cases include the wanton murder of over 1,000 civilians (many of them women and children) at El Mozote, the massacre of El Calabozo, and the case of three U.S. military advisors killed following a helicopter crash during the war. In another promising step forward, earlier this year Attorney General Douglas Melendez signaled that he supports the reopening of another major human rights case, in which several Salvadoran officials are accused in executing and covering up the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter in 1989.
The reopening of these major human rights cases was made possible thanks to a 2016 ruling by El Salvador’s Constitutional Court, which overturned a 1993 Amnesty Law that essentially protected officials accused of wartime abuses from prosecution. This was a historic step forward for justice and accountability in El Salvador, and is what made a renewed investigation into Romero’s assassination—alongside the other major human rights cases—possible.
On other issues including corruption, organized crime and gang violence, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has made progress, showing that it is interested in providing justice and tackling impunity. Needless to say, the litmus test for Attorney General Melendez will be if he can move beyond just the reopening of historic human rights cases, to actually securing convictions for those who committed abuses decades ago.
Recent actions by El Salvador’s Congress raises questions about the degree of political will to seek justice for the victims of war crimes.
Is El Salvador’s justice system up for the challenge? In some ways, this recent progress on the human rights front means that the the Salvadoran justice system itself is on trial. Can the justice system eventually dismantle the culture of impunity that has prevailed for major human rights crimes like Romero’s killing?
As much the Attorney General’s efforts are worth, recent actions by El Salvador’s National Assembly raises questions about the degree of political will to seek justice for the victims of war crimes. The most troublesome decision involves the appointment of certain candidates to an ad-hoc commission charged with creating a new National Reconciliation Law. Shortly after the Constitutional Court overturned the 1993 Amnesty Law that had prevented investigations into responsibility for major wartime human rights abuses, the National Assembly began to discuss how to pursue these cases. Congress appointed several deputies to the commission who belonged to either the armed forces or to guerrilla groups during the war, as well as one commissioner—Rodolfo Parker—who is mentioned in a United Nation Truth Commission report as playing a role in covering up the murder of the Jesuits. A major test for El Salvador will be whether and how this commission proceeds with the creation of a new reconciliation law: will they propose an approach that satisfies the demands of truth and justice, or something closer to the 1993 Amnesty Law that shielded officials from prosecution?
The U.S. government should closely watch how the Salvadoran justice system handles the re-opening of major human rights cases like Romero’s.
There are other signs that suggest progress on the human rights front remains fragile. In June, El Salvador’s Constitutional Court held hearings to verify which government institutions had complied with the 2016 ruling that overturned the Amnesty Law. Asides from the re-opening of infamous cases like the massacre at El Mozote or the killing of the Jesuits, few other concrete achievements were reported.
However, the magistrates presiding over the hearing also observed that since the 2016 ruling, El Salvador’s president and Congress have not yet fully complied with the repeal of the Amnesty Law. The court ordered Congress to create a new National Reconciliation Law that assists victims of the conflict by next year, and ordered President Sánchez Cerén and Defense Minister David Munguía Payés to facilitate access to military archives that could be useful to investigators in major human rights cases like Romero’s. (Lawyers for the victims and families have charged that the military has refused them access to files, or insisted that records don’t exist.)
Promptly following through with the Court’s orders would be a major signal that El Salvador’s institutions are showing a significant commitment to truth, justice, and human rights—which would be the most meaningful way of honoring Archbishop Romero’s legacy.
The U.S. government should closely watch how the Salvadoran justice system handles the re-opening of major human rights cases like Romero’s, give U.S. investments to help strengthen
rule of law and the capacity of El Salvador’s judicial institutions. Since 2015, the United States has appropriated close to $2 billion dollars in assistance for Central America, with a large part of those funds funneled towards good governance and security initiatives in El Salvador. Tied to the assiantace came a set of conditions that included investigating and prosecuting members of the military and police who are alleged to have been involved in human rights abuses.
There is another big reason why the U.S. government should pay close attention to the re-opening of major human rights cases like Romero’s: the United States was complicit in training members of the Salvadoran armed forces responsible for carrying out human rights abuses during the war. By supporting the Attorney General’s Office and those seeking justice, the United States can be an important voice in helping end impunity for historic human rights violations, including in the murder of Archbishop Romero.
El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war officially ended on January 16th, 1992 with the signing of a historic peace agreement. On that day, both sides sat down in Mexico City to end a conflict that had claimed more than 70,000 lives. While the guns were silenced, the wounds have continued to fester. According to Aristotle’s ancient warning, tragedy can only end with catharsis. Can durable emotional healing occur without judgement? Does justice inevitably imply some punishment for the perpetrators of violence? Salvadoran society has wrestled with these questions in the 38 years since Archbishop Romero was gunned down. In many ways the current violence and impunity plaguing the country is a manifestation of these wounds that have yet to heal. In the words of Romero, “Peace is the product of justice.”
Elyssa Pachico and Geoff Thale contributed to this article.