Doe v. SaraviaEl Salvador: The Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero
Doe v. Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112 (E.D. Cal. 2004)
One of the architects of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Captain Alvaro Saravia, found safe haven in Modesto, California, where he ran a used car dealership. In September 2003, CJA and pro bono partner Heller Ehrman filed suit against Saravia for his role in the assassination. After being served with the complaint, Saravia went into hiding. In 2004, a federal judge issued a default judgment finding Saravia liable for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity. He was ordered to pay $10 million to our client, a relative of Monsignor Romero. Saravia remains on the Department of Homeland Security’s wanted list.
“In the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression.”
On March 23, 1980, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, Archbishop of San Salvador and a leading figure in the struggle for human rights in El Salvador delivered this sermon over national radio. The very next day, the Archbishop was assassinated while he celebrated mass in the Chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence.
Archbishop Romero was the leading voice for victims of government repression and for the poor through his weekly radio homilies, broadcast throughout the country, which captivated Salvadoran audiences and called for an end to military repression. As Romero biographer Margaret Swedish remarked, “This was a remarkable thing for the poor of El Salvador – to hear someone pronounce their reality, to name the causes of their suffering, to denounce the injustice, to speak to their hopes and help them believe that it was right and good to believe that these hopes should be realized in this world.”
Obstruction of Justice in the Salvadoran Courts
The assassination was conceived and coordinated by officers of the Salvadoran military and leaders of right-wing paramilitaries, men of influence who were able to thwart all attempts to hold them accountable for their crimes. In May 1980, a government raid on a death squad meeting produced documents implicating Major Roberto D’Aubuisson and his chief of security, Alvaro Saravia in the assassination. In the weeks that followed, right-wing paramilitaries carried out a series of death threats and terrorist attacks in order to secure the release of the conspirators. D’Aubuisson and Saravia were released without charge. Several years later, in a cruelly ironic turn, D’Aubuisson’s private attorney was appointed as prosecutor of the Romero case; he promptly produced a videotaped confession from a common criminal who later admitted to receiving a $50,000 bribe in exchange for his cooperation.
In 1986, then president Jose Napoleon Duarte, a rival of D’Aubuisson, reopened the case and eventually uncovered evidence linking Saravia to the crime. By the time a judge could issue an arrest warrant, Saravia had already immigrated to the United States. El Salvador filed an extradition request with the US government, but one year later, the Salvadoran Supreme Court rescinded the warrant and withdrew the extradition request. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was none other than the same D’Aubuisson lawyer who had previously produced the false confession.
Saravia was in federal prison for immigration charges at the time the extradition request was filed, but was released on bond in 1988 following the Salvadoran Court’s decision. He has since lived in California and Florida, where Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs have denounced his presence.
In September 2003, CJA filed suit against Alvaro Rafael Saravia, for his role in the assassination of Archbishop Romero. The suit was filed on behalf of a relative of the Archbishop, whose name has been withheld for security reasons.
Saravia was served with the complaint at his home address, but failed to respond and has since gone underground. The complaint alleges that Saravia procured weapons and other material used in the assassination, provided his personal driver to transport the assassin and paid the assassin for his services.
In August, 2004, Judge Wanger of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California held a hearing on damages. CJA presented evidence tying Saravia to the assassination of Archbishop Romero, including testimony from Amado Antonio Garay, Saravia’s former driver who transported the assassin to and from the crime scene. Garay testified that Saravia told the assassin: “…better to shoot in the head because maybe he have a bullet proof vest. You have to be sure he got killed [sic].”
On September 3, 2004 Judge Wanger issued an historic decision holding Alvaro Saravia responsible for his role in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Judge Wanger ordered Saravia to pay $10 million to the plaintiff. In announcing the monetary award, Judge Wanger stated that "the damages are of a magnitude that is hardly describable."
Until this ruling, no single individual had been held responsible for the assassination, one of the most heinous and shocking murders of the last part of the 20th century.