Summary of Dr. Francisco Acosta's testimony.
Friday morning, August 27, Dr. Francisco Acosta Arevalo testified about the persecution of his family, the steps Monsignor Romero took to save his life and the life of his brother Jorge, and the Archbishop Romero University that Dr. Acosta helped establish to honor the Monsignor’s legacy.
Dr. Acosta testified that he was born on the slopes of the Guazapa Volcano, in the municipality of Suchitoto in northern El Salvador. Guazapa was a community of poor campesinos and farmers, and his family, made up 14 brothers and sisters, was Catholic. Twenty-eight haciendas, big farms, on the other side of the slope were owned by a few rich families, most of whom were connected with the military. Life was difficult, and he had to work hard to buy his first pair of shoes at the age of fourteen. Dr. Acosta was sent to attend the Catholic seminary in San Vicente. After that, he moved to the capital of San Salvador until he was forced to flee his country. He has been living in Maryland for the past six years.
Dr. Acosta joined the seminary with the goal of becoming a priest. Initially, he had a “[s]trong feeling to become a priest because . . . I saw how welcome in the community the priests were. My sister is a nun and she encouraged me to go to the seminary.”
During his time in the seminary in San Vicente, he had as a professor Father Rafael Palacios who become his mentor. Palacios went to Chile and Argentina and he explained to Dr. Acosta that a different kind of society was possible. Death quads killed Father Palacios some years later.
In 1969, the Asociación Nacional de Maestros Salvadoreños (ANDES)/National Association of Salvadoran Teachers led a big strike. Among the strikers were some teachers from the seminary Dr. Acosta attended who were protesting the abuses they had suffered at the hands of the paramilitary forces, called Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN)/National Democratic Organization. Many of his own teachers were involved in the strike, and he knew their grievances were legitimate. Dr. Acosta participated in the strike, and it caused some tensions between the seminary’s authorities and himself. His bishop and the Church did not come out in support of the teachers; instead they spoke against the strike. This, in addition to other contradictions between the Church’s teachings and its practices, led him to leave the seminary.
Dr. Acosta then enrolled at the Central American University (UCA), so that he could work with the Jesuits there. He was provided a scholarship that allowed him to study sociology. Dr. Acosta testified: “One day I met with Father Ignacio Martin Baro, a prominent professor at the UCA, and I thanked him for the scholarship I had been given. Father Martin Baro told me, ‘you do not have to thank me. Your parents, your grandparents, all your ancestors already paid for your scholarship.’ I thought that was so true – you see my mother is an Indian.”
Dr. Acosta helped to establish the Fundación Salvadoreña de Vivienda Mínima/Salvadoran Foundation for Minimum Housing, which worked to provide homes for the poor. The Foundation was formed after a terrible hurricane had destroyed many homes, and he and others from the UCA volunteered to help build new houses for those who had been left homeless. He worked there for eleven years, during which time the Foundation organized people to build approximately 15,000 homes. Monsignor Romero visited one project of 600 homes in Soyapango. Romero held mass for the people who were participating in the project, and afterwards joined Dr. Acosta at the same table for lunch. Dr. Acosta said, “He struck me as a very humble person . . . somebody with authority sharing food with us. . . that was life-changing for me.”
Dr. Acosta then recounted Romero’s transformation after the murder of Father Rutilio Grande. For some time, Dr. Acosta went to work in Aguilares with Father Enrique Sanchez and later with Father Rutilio Grande. Among his assignments was to bring communion to some 200 peasants in El Paisnal, Fr. Grande’s hometown.
“[T]he killing of Rutilio Grande, who was a friend of Romero, a man of faith, a man of integrity, started to change Bishop Romero quickly.”
Dr. Acosta recalled how, after Fr. Grande’s death, Romero called on the Carter Administration, in one of his homilies broadcast on radio, to stop sending weapons to El Salvador. Dr. Acosta listened with his community of 450 families as they worked on the houses. When Romero called on the Carter Administration to stop sending weapons because they were being used to kill the brothers and sisters of El Salvador, everyone stopped working and started to applaud. “Oh my goodness. I really remember that. How I had the feeling that there was no other voice than Bishop Romero.”
Acosta then narrated the persecution of his family and Romero’s personal assistance to him.
His 13-year-old niece, Yanira Caceres Arevalo, had gone to the store in Suchitoto to buy school supplies, and also picked up several copies of Orientacion, the official Catholic newspaper. This newspaper, as well as the Catholic radio station YSAX, were the only sources of reliable information because the government had almost total control of the media
The National Police stopped Yanira.
They took her to police headquarters in Suchitoto and detained her. His grandmother, Feliciana Alvarez de Arevalo, went to get her, and she also was detained.
The next day, both his niece and grandmother were released. They were told: “Go home, you have a lot of work to do there.” When they reached home, they found that his two aunts, Angelina Antonia Arevalo and Teresa de Jesus Arevalo, had been killed. They had been shot and chopped to pieces with a machete.
Later, men in civilian clothes picked up one of his cousins, Elias Acosta Rivera, who was a labor organizer for the Federacion Cristiana de Campesinos Salvadorenos/Christian Federation of Salvadoran Peasants. Two days later his body was found by dogs. His tongue had been cut out. Dr. Acosta also recalled how a cousin, Geremias Melgar, and his nephew Otsmaro Acosta Rivera, were gunned down two kilometers away from his parent’s house. His father, Pedro Acosta Melgar, found them, and buried them in the local chapel because it was extremely dangerous to bring them to the cemetery in Suchitoto. “I can tell you more and more stories like these,” said Dr. Acosta.
He then recounted the attempted murder of his brother and the murder of another one of his nephews. In February of 1980, he heard Major Roberto D’Aubuisson say on television that Acosta’s brother, Jorge Alberto Acosta, was one of the most influential subversives in northern El Salvador. “[O]nce Roberto D’Aubuisson said something, something would happen for sure.” Three days later, around 4 o’clock in the morning, more than 20 gunmen surrounded his brother’s house on the Guazapa Volcano and opened fire. Seven M-16 shells were picked up by the family. Luckily, neither his brother nor his brother’s family were killed or injured.
Dr. Acosta said he then sought help to get his brother to a safe place. But everyone was too afraid to help, afraid that the security forces would come after them. That week Mario Zamora Rivas, the Attorney General of El Salvador, was killed and every body was afraid. So Dr. Acosta went to Bishop Romero. Msr. Romero said: “Look, I understand. Leave him here at the seminary. . . We will take care of him and your cousin Otsmaro Caceres will help.” His brother was sheltered in the seminary for three weeks, and was then able to make his way to the Mexican Embassy where he could request political asylum. His request was granted and he made it safely to Mexico.
Otsmaro Caceres Arevalo, who was a seminarian, was celebrating his first mass when the death squads came for him. They shot 12 people along with Otsmaro. Dr. Acosta testified: “It was [recently] decided that the name of the school in his community should be changed to his name. I am really proud of that kind of thing happening. The terrible irony is that I spoke with my brother Jorge two days ago, who continues to organize people in El Salvador, while Monsignor Romero and my cousin Otsmaro are not alive.”
Dr. Acosta then spoke about the days before Romero’s assassination:
I saw Bishop Romero three days before he was killed. . . at 10 o’clock at night driving by himself. I thought to myself, how can this man, who has a death threat, be driving by himself at 10 o’clock in the evening? Sure enough, he was killed three days later.
Dr. Acosta was in classes at the University of Central America when he found out that Romero had been killed. “We were in class when my classmate and member of the Human Rights Commission, Patricia Cuellar, said “Monsignor Romero has just been killed”. Everybody in the class was in shock and in twenty minutes, the whole University was empty. “And my feeling at the time [was] ‘oh my goodness, my goodness. If someone like him can be killed, the rest of us, we are like chickens.’”
Dr. Acosta then described the chaos of Romero’s funeral. He saw people trampled underneath the masses, including many elderly people. He recalled his feeling of total helplessness -- that there was nothing he could do to help those who had been trapped under one another. His brother Amadeo’s daughter, Evelyn, who was only thirteen, got lost in this bedlam. They found her two days later.
Dr. Acosta then recounted his decision to leave El Salvador, what he did while he was abroad, and upon his return.
Dr. Acosta’s neighbor had warned him not to sleep at his house, that it would be too dangerous for him. So he began sleeping in different places, even under the bushes on a coffee plantation. After days of this, he returned to his house and found that it had been broken into. When the intruders did not find him, they had gone next door. Six of his neighbors were killed.
At that point, he said he had to decide whether to continue working with the poor, to join the guerrillas and take up arms, or to flee his country. He knew he could no longer continue doing what he had been doing because it was not safe. But he was morally opposed to killing another human being. His father had always taught him to resolve conflicts peacefully, and he felt that “two wrongs do not make a right.” So he decided he would have to leave his country. He made his way to Mexico and eventually to Canada and then to the United States. When he returned to El Salvador 10 years later, he found that five of his former professors, Jesuit priests, had been killed. Father Segundo Montes, who had agreed to safe-keep his books and records while he was gone, had also been killed.
After he left El Salvador, he did extensive public speaking in Mexico, Canada and the United States to educate the public about human rights violations in El Salvador. While he was in the United States, he was asked by several members of Congress and the State Department to serve as a liaison between the Salvadoran Embassy, the military attaché, and the FMLN in order to facilitate negotiations to end the civil war. Acosta was able to bring the parties together to begin a dialogue. This process ultimately led to the UN-brokered Peace Accords two years later.
In 1990, he decided to return to El Salvador with his U.S.-born wife, Barbara Dole Acosta, and his children. He wanted to do something to honor Romero’s memory. They decided to create a new university in his name. They raised some money and, in 1992, taking advantage of the mood created by the Peace Accords, the Archbishop Romero University was formally recognized as a legal entity. The University, located in La Aldeita in Chalatenango Province, initiated classes in 1994 and now has almost 800 students and 52 professors. The university has graduated over 160 new professionals. Dr. Acosta testified that this University is part of the realization of Romero’s vision, when the Archbishop said, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
Dr. Acosta was then asked what meaning this trial had for him. He answered: “I am really pleased to be able to be in this chair . . . in front of a judge. Because this is a strong effort against impunity.”
Recalling that he lost 72 family members during the 12 years of the civil war, Dr. Acosta went on to say that names that had never been mentioned in the Truth Commission process were mentioned in this trial; names that had been buried have now been recovered and recorded for history. “I think that that after justice is done, I will be able to forgive but not forget, and it is time to move on. I think that giving this testimony before a federal judge and before all of you here in Fresno, California, provides a sense of closure for me to my family and for the Salvadoran Society. Thank you so much.”
[Source: Center for Justice and Accountability, San Francisco, CA, 03Sep04]
DDHH en El Salvador
|This document has been published on 15Sep04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights.|