Tuesday, August 24: The Trial Begins

Even before the trial started at 9am in the courtroom of Judge Wanger, the courtroom was full, with people having converged from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Fresno, many wearing their Oscar Romero buttons (provided by Isabel Cardenas from Los Angeles). People from the Fresno Oscar Romero Center stood in solidarity outside with a beautiful banner.

Lead counsel Nicholas van Aelstyn, partner with the San Francisco office of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, set forth the broad contours of the case in a powerful opening argument. (The transcript will be posted in a few days.)

Van Aelstyn brought the judge and the courtroom audience to the doorstep of the same chapel where, on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero conducted a commemorative mass. Van Aelystyn played an audio tape of the homily Romero was delivering that night. We listened as a loud gunshot intruded, and screaming followed. And then we viewed a series of traumatic photographs showing Romero’s fallen body as the nuns around tended him, there faces wracked with grief.

He noted that Archbishop Oscar Romero in his life was a symbol of hope and inspiration, Romero was the most prominent and outspoken advocate for human rights foe El Salvador. He was the one person who could talk to all the factions in Slavadorian society and create dialogue. For these reasons, Romero was seen as a threat. As no criminal responsibility has ever been asserted for his murder, his murder has come to serve as the paradigmatic symbol of impunity. One aim of the current case is to eliminate this aspect of his legacy.

Mr. van Aelstyn pointed out that a major task of the judge in this case is to determine the appropriate amount of damages to be awarded. He noted that the loss of Romero cannot be comprehended without understanding his life and the impact of his death in El Salvador and the world. Van Aelstyn enumerated the following relevant legal factors: the brutality of the act; the egregiousness of the defendant’s conduct; the unavailability of a criminal remedy; and the extent of international condemnation of the act. In addition, and very importantly, judges set the amount of damages so as to deter others from committing similar acts and to redress the harm caused to the plaintiff, his country and the world.

Mr. van Aelstyn emphasized the many purposes to be served by this case. The case will break the impunity that has shrouded this infamous crime. It will have a deterrent effect on all those who think about coming to the U.S, and will send the message that human rights abusers cannot retire to the United States without fear that they may be pursued. Indeed this case may help lead to Saravia’s arrest and eventual deportation. The case contributes to the world-wide movement against impunity, and it will help to establish the truth of what happened and who bears responsibility. The case represents the channeling of vengence into the rule of law.

Mr. van Aelstyn called the first witness, Fr. William Wipfler, an Episcopal priest, who served as the Director of the Human Rights Office of the National Council of Churches from 1977-88. Because of his growing concern about the abuses by the Salvadoran military, and U.S. assistance to that military, he helped organize an ecumenical delegation to visit El Salvador in March 1980. The delegation included representatives of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and the American Friends Service Committee in addition to the National Council, itself a network of 34 Protestant and Orthodox churches.

On March 22, Fr. Wipfler met with Archbishop Romero and members of his office. During this private audience, Romero expressed his tremendous concerns about the level political violence then occurring in El Salvador. He especially noted that the overwhelming repression by the government security forces was breeding retaliatory violent attacks by the left. At that meeting, the Archbishop invited him and other members of the delegation to participate in the Sunday mass with him. It was a great honor. At the Sunday March 23, 1980 Mass, the Basilica was packed with people, and a microphone carried the service to people who clustered outside the church. A tape of the stirring homily that the Archbishop delivered that day was played in the courtroom. The homily concludes with the words that continue to ring through history: “I appeal to the members of the army: Brothers, you come from your own people … No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. … I implore you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!”

Fr. Wipfler related how, at the end of the service, Archbishop Romero personally offered communion to everyone who so desired. Fr. Wipfler was deeply moved by the fact that he was the last person to receive communion from the Archbishop.

On March 24, 1980, Fr. Wipfler and the other delegates were conducting their human rights investigation at the office of the non-governmental Salvadoran Human Rights Commission. There, he received a phone call that the Archbishop had been shot. He and others rushed to the hospital. From there, they went to the U.S. Embassy. The next day, Fr. Wipfler attended the wake. Thousands of Salvadorans filed by the body. The outpouring of shock and grief was immense.

Fr. Wipfler related that he met many wonderful, courageous people in El Salvador who worked to combat human rights abuses, including many who worked for the Church. It was a great tragedy that so many of these people themselves became the victims of human rights abuses. Among these courageous people were two U.S. nuns, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, whom Fr. Wipfler met at a refuge established by the Archdiocese for displaced persons. By December, they too had been murdered.

In the following months and years, Fr. Wipfler traveled to more than 40 countries. Everywhere, Monsignor Romero was held in reverence as a voice of the voiceless, a spokesperson for the downtrodden. His homilies were quoted; everyone talked about him. One Palestinian Muslim man made a particular impression. He said that Archbishop Romero had been a great inspiration. From him he had learned that the greatest weapon for justice is truth.

Fr. Wipfler stated his view that impunity is not only the absence of justice, it is also a sin and a terrible immorality. The ease with which perpetrators forgive themselves is an abomination. This trial is one more step in the search for justice which must be constantly carried forward. It does not matter that 24 years have passed. As Fr. Wipfler emphasized, “Justice must be served and the court can serve justice.”

Amado Antonio Garay – Saravia’s Driver

Following lunch, Amado Antonion Garay took the witness stand. There was noticeable anticipation in the courtroom given that he is the witness whose identity had been concealed. Garay testified that he was born in a village in El Salvador, as a youth he attended seminary for a short time because, as he testified, “My dream was to become a priest, … to help people who were really in need.”

Garay was recruited to work as Saravia’s driver by two members of the National Police, Nelson Morales and Nelson Garcia. He often stayed at Saravia’s house because Saravia needed him to arrive at odd hours. On several occasions, Garay drove Morales,Garcia, and other armed men to assassinate people. Sometimes he drove Roberto D’Aubuisson. On one occasion, D’Aubuisson gave Garay his gun to hold when he left the car to go to a meeting. Saravia often said that “the people from the church are the worst enemy.”

On the day of the assassination, as it was getting dark, Garay picked up Saravia at his home and drove to a house with a gate in an upper class neighborhood with two distinctive Maranon trees. Saravia came out of the house with a man. Garay had never seen him before. He had a beard and spoke Spanish with no accent, like a Salvadoran. Garay saw that the man had a long rifle with a telescopic lens. Saravia told Garay to drive a red Volkswagen with the man as a passenger in the back. Saravia told Garay to follow the man’s instructions about where to go. The man gave Garay driving instructions. A car followed them for their protection.

They came to a church. The shooter said, “I can’t believe I am going to kill a priest.” Garay followed his instructions to drive to the front door of the church, so that both he and the shooter were on the side of the car closest to the door. The shooter said to move forward until he was directly in front of the door. Garay looked into the church. He saw people celebrating mass, kneeling or sitting in the pews, and at the altar he saw a priest. Garay heard the priest talking. The shooter said, “Try to look like you’re fixing something in the car.” So Garay bent down to pretend to work on something. Garay heard a loud shot, and then a lot of screaming. The shooter said, “Calm down, relax, drive slowly to the exit . . . Go slow around and let’s get out of here.”

He drove out the gate and kept driving. He was not familiar with the area and was lost for an hour or more. There was a walkie-talkie in the car, and someone from the other car guided him so that eventually he returned to the house with the Maranon trees. He drove through the gate and the shooter got out of the car. Saravia was waiting. Saravia said, “You killed him. I heard it on the radio.”

Then Saravia, Garay, and Nelson Morales drove to Saravia’s house. Later, Garay drove Saravia to a meeting house in San Salvador. They drove through a big gate and along a long driveway until they came to a building. Roberto D’Aubuisson was there. Saravia went over to D’Aubuisson and said, “Mission accomplished.”

On another occasion, Garay was driving Saravia when they saw a burnt Volkswagen in a parking lot. Saravia said that that was the car Garay had used in the assassination.

Garay testified that a few months after the assassination he drove D’Aubuisson to a farm in the countryside. Later he learned this was called San Luis Finca (farm). At some point, two trucks and several jeeps with soldiers drove up, surrounded the place, and captured everyone. They put everyone – about 25 people – in a truck. No one fired a shot. The military brought them all to San Carlos barracks, where they all were held for about a week and then released.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit

Bishop Gumbleton has been one of the leading advocates for peace and disarmament in the U.S. and has spoken and written widely about Archbishop Romero. He founded Pax Christi in 1972 and served as its President until 1991. He co-authored the 1983 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “The Challenge of Peace.”

Bishop Gumbleton testified about the impact Archbishop Romero’s life and death had on the Salvadoran people and his own life and work. He testified that, although he had never met Archbishop Romero, he was inspired and transformed by his life: he was a “major influence on my thinking. I became committed to non-violence, love and spiritual development.”

Recalling an interview Romero gave two weeks prior to his assassination, Bishop Gumbleton said that he frequently relied on Romero’s homilies in his own teachings, especially in his outreach to inner-city youth.

Romero’s “teaching was clearly a teaching about how to overcome oppression, injustice and violence.” Romero said the Church should be a Church of the poor. “What does it mean to be poor in El Salvador? It means to be disappeared, tortured and killed.” Romero spoke out for the masses against the violence perpetrated by the military, and was not afraid to continue his criticisms, despite threats on his life. As he stated:

I do not believe in death without resurrection, so even if I am killed, I will rise again, I will be resurrected as the people of El Salvador. . . As a shepherd, I am obliged to give my life for those I love, including those who will kill me. If I am killed, tell the killers that I forgive them and bless them.

Bishop Gumbleton met Sister Dorothy Kazel in the summer of 1980 and corresponded often with her during what turned out to be the few remaining months of her life. She, along with Jeanne Donovan, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford were killed by the Salvadoran military in December of that year. Bishop Gumbleton testified that the assassination was intended to send the message that if Romero could be killed with impunity, then anybody could be killed.

He went to El Salvador in the mid-eighties and observed “a continuing escalation of violence.” In one instance, he was held at a road block and armed U.S. soldiers were there and prevented him from going forward. This was a direct violation of U.S. law which prohibited armed U.S. soldiers from assuming anything other than an advisory role in El Salvador.

When asked if Romero’s work could have been continued by another, Gumbleton replied: “There wasn’t one single person who could take his place . . . he was the voice of the voiceless – no other person had that voice.” Not even seven people could replace Romero; neither the six Jesuit priests at the UCA nor the new but unconfirmed Archbishop of San Salvador were able to fill the void created by Romero’s death. Without Monsignor, the people of El Salvador were left voiceless.

When asked about Romero’s lasting theological impact, Gumbleton said that Romero “helped give a reality to the teaching. . . The joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the poor, should be the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of the Church.” These were not just words, but the way he lived his life.

[Source: Center for Justice and Accountability, San Francisco, CA, 25Aug04]

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small logoThis document has been published on 07sep04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights.