Wednesday, August 25: Judge Aitilio Amaya

Judge Aitilio Amaya testified about his involvement in investigating the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the availability of judicial remedies for human rights violations in El Salvador. Amaya told the judge and court room audience about the manner in which National Police scuttled his investigation, attempted to kill him and forced him to leave the country for ten years. He told Judge Wagner that Romero’s killers still enjoy total impunity in El Salvador. Through his testimony, Plaintiff’s counsel demonstrated that there is no possibility of bringing a civil law suit or criminal prosecution against Romero’s killers in El Salvador.

Judge Amaya holds degrees from the University of Santiago de Compestela in Spain, the University of El Salvador, the University of Nicaragua in Managua, and received his Masters from the Institute of Penal Code Procedures in Mexico. He has served as a Justice of the Peace in San Salvador, a judge for the Fourth Criminal Court in San Salvador and as a Magistrate to the Supreme Court of El Salvador. Amaya’s initial post at the Fourth Criminal Court lasted from 1979 to March 27, 1980

Amaya’s testimony also explained the procedure for investigating crimes and the significant role judges played in criminal investigations. At that time, judges were involved from the very initial stages of violent crimes. Normally, the police would secure the scene of the crime, collect evidence and take photos and witness statements. The police are not permitted to remove evidence from the scene, and turn over any evidence to the investigating judge. The only police agency investigating crimes in San Salvador was the National Police. The National Police worked on a country-wide level, operating under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense.

In 1980, prosecutors existed, but they did not have a decisive role in investigations. In some cases, the Justice of the Peace is in charge of the investigation. However, in high profile cases, such as the murder of a president or minister or the assassination Archbishop Romero, the judges of the Fourth Criminal Court would assume responsibility for the investigation. “I went because I was obligated by law to go, because Monseñor was a person who had a high ranking.”

Judge Amaya testified about the day of and the days following Romero’s assassination, his own involvement in the investigation, and the manner in which the National Police failed to conduct their part of the investigation.

On March 24, 1980 at 6:30 pm, he was at the National University, when the National Police came by and sprayed the campus grounds with bullets. These shootings were not uncommon, and occurred during protests in an attempt to dissuade those who had gathered. After the shooting, people began dispersing, at which point he heard someone cry, “Someone has killed Monseñor.” That is how he came to know of Romero’s death.

Amaya then went on to discuss his investigation and the manner in which the National Police flouted normal investigating procedures. They did not arrive at or secure the scene of the crime as they normally should have; they did not take fingerprints or the names of witnesses; and they did not provide security for the autopsy. The police should have surrounded the body where it was being kept to preserve and prevent any tampering with forensic evidence. In Romero’s case, nearly a hundred people surrounded it. Furthermore, his body was not taken to the forensic clinic, where bodies are normally taken. Instead, Romero’ was taken to the hospital. From the clinic Judge Amayo went to the hospital. They had already begun the autopsy by the time he had arrived to begin his investigation.

A photo was then presented in the courtroom, depicting Romero’s body, surrounded by nearly a hundred people, including the forensic doctor Florentin Melendez, one of the Archdiocese’s lawyers from Socorro Juridicio and mourners.

Amaya continued: “The police were not present. They should have been there for security reasons. When I arrived I asked my secretary to call the police because there were too many people there to work. I had to make people leave the room.”

X-rays were taken to detect the bullet. After several x-rays, three bullet fragments were found inside his chest. His chest was then opened. Coagulated blood gushed out, but the bullet fragments could not be found. After dissolving the blood clots, the fragments were discovered.

At this point, he asked his secretary to let the police in so they could begin gathering the evidence, but they had still not arrived.

Counsel for the plaintiffs then admitted into evidence the autopsy report from that night, which contained his own signature and that of the doctors who performed the autopsy. The report revealed that the cause of death had been hemorrhaging caused by the severing of major veins and arteries surrounding the heart.

He told his secretary to call the police so they could accompany him to the scene of the crime- the Divine Providence Chapel. However, since the police never arrived, he traveled to the church with his secretary. He went through the church looking for evidence, especially for the bullet shells, but found none. He kept the x-rays and bullet fragments recovered from the autopsy, since the police never showed up to collect them, which he noted was extraordinarily irregular.

When he went to work the next day, he again told his secretary to call the police so that they could decide how to best coordinate the investigation. The police asked him to send the evidence that he collected. He refused to send the evidence, but spoke to the police technician. Upset at Amaya’s refusal, he asked: “Don’t you trust the police?” Amaya responded “Indeed, I do not trust the police.” He went on to say that if they wanted to conduct any investigation, they would have to bring over their equipment and perform the analysis in front of him.

The day after the assassination, Colonel Majano announced in a televised press conference that the assassins of Monseñor Romero would be immediately identified by INTERPOL, and the names would be sent over to the judge of the Fourth Criminal Court, Judge Amaya, for immediate prosecution. Amaya was at home during this broadcast. Almost immediately thereafter, he received his first death threat. Over the course of the next few days, he received numerous death threats. On one occasion, his twelve year old daughter answered the phone. The voice asked her “what is your favorite color. That is the color we will paint the coffin that we put your father in.”

Amaya then began testimony relating to the attempts on his life. On the night of March 27, just days after the assassination, he received a knock on his door at his residence. His housekeeper opened the door. Two young men made their way inside, one carrying a brief case. Peering from behind his bedroom door holding a shotgun, he observed the men. Since he did not recognize them, he told them to be seated. Instead, they pulled out automatic weapons from the case. In fear, the housekeeper ran towards him. Aiming to kill him, they shot her in the back, and she immediately fell to the ground.

The men then charged out of the house, spraying his house and car with bullets as they fled. Moments later, he heard footsteps on his roof. Wherever he heard footsteps, he shot out the window towards the roof. He threw a mattress over his daughter and gave a pistol to his wife so that she could also fire in the direction of the noises. Eventually, the footsteps ceased, and after ten minutes of dead silence, the phone rang. Amaya picked up the phone and recognized the voice of an acquaintance from the National Police, whom he had known since he was a child. He said, “Doctor, you’re alive?!” and then continued, “Don’t worry, perhaps they were just trying to scare you”. Soon after, friends and family arrived. The night watchman in his neighborhood informed him that two marked police cars were parked just outside the main gate and didn’t move throughout the shooting. The boyfriend of a neighbor, who had witnessed the attack, told him that there were in fact three men who participated in the shooting: the men who entered the house and another who remained in the car. He recognized that man as a member of the National Police, as he himself was also a member.

Amaya then testified that “The attempt on my life was never investigated by anybody, any judge. . . . Two detectives arrived. After asking what happened, they said, ‘These guys are just amateurs. Don’t worry, if we had come in, everything would have been done in five minutes.’ That was the extent of their investigation.” After this experience, Amaya said to his wife, “We have to leave the country or they will kill me.” He fled to Nicaragua by boat and did not return for nearly ten years.

Judge Wagner then questioned Judge Amaya about the legal requirements necessary for a civil suit for wrongful death at that time, and whether he thought it would be possible to bring any civil or criminal cases against those involved in Romero’s assassination.

Judge Amaya stated that a civil action for wrongful death was not then and is still not possible without first obtaining a successful criminal prosecution against the accused. However, since nobody dared, then or now, to bring criminal charges against those involved in the assassination of Monseñor Romero, no civil law suit for wrongful death could go forward.

Amaya emphasized that no minister or members of the ruling ARENA party have ever been prosecuted for their crimes. He went on to say that even after the formal end of the civil war in 1992, the military continued to unofficially control the country. Those in the military most responsible for the violence in El Salvador simply went on to form the political party ARENA, which was founded by D’Aubuisson, one of the conspirators in the assassination of Romero. “The ARENA government controls the country.” Thus, if a district attorney or a private accuser wanted to initiate a prosecution today, they would have to name all those in power and risk reprisal. Moreover, in 1992, the ARENA government passed an amnesty law shielding its members from crimes committed during the conflict, which is still in force today.

[Source: Center for Justice and Accountability, San Francisco, Cal, 27Aug04]

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small logoThis document has been published on 31Aug04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights.