Trial starts for Salvadoran man sought in '80 slaying

A retired Salvadoran air force officer is due to be tried Tuesday in Fresno's federal court in a civil case accusing him of crimes against humanity.

Alvaro Rafael Saravia, whose last known address was believed to be in Modesto, is accused in the civil lawsuit of conspiring in the 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed the lawsuit on behalf of an unidentified plaintiff, a relative of Romero's.

Fear of retaliation is still strong enough that U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger issued an order last year allowing the plaintiff's identity to remain secret, at least until the trial.

Saravia's whereabouts are not known, but the judge ruled that the center made adequate efforts to notify him of the lawsuit, by delivering legal papers to a Modesto house where it was believed he was living.

"It's important that the United States not be a safe haven for human-rights abusers," said Matthew Eisenbrandt, a lawyer with the center.

Saravia has never responded to the lawsuit, Eisenbrandt said, so he does not think the former officer will show up for the trial. It is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Fresno and will proceed even if the defendant is not there.

The trial, scheduled to run through Friday, may shed new light on the unsolved killing, Eisenbrandt said.

Archbishop Romero was known for speaking out against violence during a time when death-squad killings terrorized El Salvador.

He called for peace in sermons broadcast on radio. On March 23, 1980, he challenged Salvadoran authorities: "In the name of God, in the name of these suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression." The next day, an assassin's bullet struck him down at a church altar as he said Mass.

The center's lawsuit against Saravia was filed under a federal law that protects victims of "crimes against humanity."

The center asserts that Romero's murder was part of a "systemic attack against a civilian population," a campaign to terrorize.

The lawsuit seeks money damages. There is no guarantee that the Center for Justice and Accountability, if it wins a judgment, can collect anything from Saravia.

But Eisenbrandt said: "We're certainly going to work on that." A person who has won a judgment can seek to track down the defendant's property and get a court order to seize it.

Monetary damages are not all the lawsuit seeks, Eisenbrandt said. "We're also hoping this will spur [Saravia's] arrest and deportation by the immigration service."

Eisenbrandt said four days of testimony will recall the terror of 1980. A scheduled witness is the Salvadoran judge who was assigned to investigate the case.

The judge's inquiry was cut off by terror, according to Eisenbrandt, who said, "There was an attempt on his life, and he was forced to flee the country."

Saravia or someone with his name was in Modesto in 2002, public records show.

In documents filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court, he gave his home address as Manor Oak Drive in Modesto.

After the lawsuit was filed last year, a woman at the house said Saravia had used her address to get mail.

Saravia was a retired Salvadoran air force officer, the woman said. He moved, and she did not know where, she said.

The Saravia who lived at that address ran an auto sales business on Yosemite Boulevard, court papers in Modesto show. He sued a woman for $5,000 over a car.

He also sued the Manor Oak Drive house's owner, saying he had fallen and hurt his leg. The case was dismissed.

Two lawsuits were filed against Saravia: A man sued him for $3,000, over a truck. A credit union sued over a $732 debt.

Sheriff's deputies, sent to deliver the small-claims lawsuit papers, could not find Saravia at the Manor Oak Drive house or the used car lot in February 2003.

[Source: By Blair Craddock, The Modesto Bee, Ca, 23Aug04]

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