Err toward justice.
A California ruling finally assigns blame in the assassination of El Salvador's heroic archbishop. But pursuing the case further could renew conflict.
In El Salvador, where a monstrous civil war redefined social division, one public figure is almost universally revered. That is the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. A conservative priest once aligned with his country's elite, Romero began in the late 1970s to use his weekly homily to denounce the Salvadoran military's brutality (he also criticized atrocities by the nascent left). Romero spoke out in a decade when anti-government sentiment, voiced even in private, led easily to death. In turn, Romero was murdered too, by a hired gunman, as he celebrated Mass in March 1980.
No arrest was made. But the killing of the priest who appealed to moderates on both sides seemed to unleash El Salvador's worst demons. In the next 12 years, a civil war marked by mutilation, disappearance and persecution of the helpless killed 75,000 people.
This month, a U.S. district court in Fresno, Calif., finally assigned legal responsibility for Romero's death. Salvadoran Air Force Captain Alvaro Saravia, who has lived in the United States since the late 1980s, was charged with arming and paying a gunman to kill Romero. Calling the murder "a crime against humanity, " the judge fined Saravia $10 million. The captain was not present, having gone into hiding. But the ruling itself was a momentous challenge to postwar El Salvador.
In 1993, after guerrillas and the military had battled to a draw, their peace accord mandated a United Nations Truth Commission study of the war's high-profile atrocities. But when the report was finished, the government installed a blanket amnesty for war crimes. The outcome of Saravia's trial is prompting many Salvadorans to demand repeal of this amnesty. Opponents warn that this could rip open old scars and jeopardize Salvador's peace.
It's not a frivolous concern. Outsiders marvel how citizens of such a tiny, densely populated land can live side by side again after such inhuman conflict. But El Salvador is not at peace. Violent crime there rivals Colombia's; no longer ideological, it stems from the same inequities that spawned the civil war. Millions of Salvadorans know that military leaders who killed and tortured their families go untouched. It is a constant reminder that Salvadoran courts, government and other institutions are mockeries. The knowledge relentlessly corrodes the public's trust, an essential component of democracy.
It takes years for cultures fully to confront their worst cruelties. But the time has come for El Salvador to do so. Across Latin America, countries from Chile to Paraguay are repealing amnesties and trying crimes from their own civil wars. It's fitting that the United States, itself complicit in shielding criminals like the archbishop's killer, may have opened a new door for justice in El Salvador.
Lifting the amnesty is a real risk. But leaving that amnesty in place is riskier, because it smothers the conditions for stable, democratic society.
[Source: The Houston Chronicle, Us, 19sep04]
DDHH en El Salvador
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