Doe v. Saravia: Case Against Key Organizer of the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Thursday, August 26

On Thursday morning, Father Cortina testified, followed by Maria Julia Hernandez. Summaries of their testimony follow. Prof. Terry Karl testified in the afternoon, and also on Friday afternoon. She will conclude her testimony on September 3rd, and we will post a summary of her testimony thereafter.

Father Jon Cortina

Father Cortina is a Jesuit priest and the director of Pro Busqueda, an organization that helps reunify families torn apart by the Salvadoran civil war, especially those whose children were kidnapped by the military and put up for adoption, often for money. He lives in the residence of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, run by the Jesuits. He was born in Bilbao, Spain and was sent by the Jesuits to El Salvador in 1955. He has degrees in philosophy, the humanities and engineering. He helped poor communities build bridges and housing developments.

Fr. Cortina testified that the Jesuit priests received letters in 1976 threatening them with death if they did not leave the country within a month: “They said we would be military targets, our house would be a military target, and to scare the possible ones that could give us shelter, they said that the houses of all those who gave us shelter would also be military targets.” When the Judge asked whom he meant by “them,” he replied: “The death squads, the White Warrior Union.” At that time, there were a total of 25 Jesuits in El Salvador. The Jesuits conferred and all but one of them decided to stay.

Cortina recalled the first time he met Oscar Romero, at a meeting on March 9, 1977, two weeks or so after he had been appointed Archbishop of El Salvador. The clergy and sisters had been called together to discuss the persecution of Church members. Father Rutilio Grande, one of the first proponents of liberation theology in El Salvador, was at the meeting. He said to Romero, “Monsenor I have many sheep that live up in the hills. I have sent them up to the hills so that they can be all right, so if you say that there is no persecution, I am going to call them down to the valley.” And Romero said, “Well, no, no, it is better that they stay up in the hills, that they stay hidden.” In this way, Romero acknowledged that persecution existed.

Fr. Cortina worked in Aguilares, the same community in which Fr. Grande had worked. There were several large haciendas in the area, but all the inhabitants of the town of Aguilares and the surrounding rural area were very poor. Salaries were low, and when the campesinos tried to organize for better wages, they were violently repressed. Father Grande helped the campesinos revitalize FECCAS, the Federation of Christian Campesinos. ORDEN, the paramilitary organization that worked with the government security forces, responded with brutal persecution.. On March 12, 1977, Fr. Grande was murdered. Thereafter, Fr. Cortina and others connected with the church had to sleep in the fields because it was too dangerous to sleep in their homes.

Until the death of Father Grande, Romero had been regarded as a moderate conservative.. But after that killing, as Father Cortina said, “[M]aybe the Holy Spirit had different plans [for Romero], and Romero became an extraordinary man”. Rutilio Grande and Oscar Romero had been good friends; Fr. Grande had been the master of ceremonies at Romero’s episcopal ordination. Romero knew that Grande was not a communist, as the hardliners claimed. The killing of Rutilio Grande caused Romero to wonder how many other priests might have been unfairly labeled. Romero began to investigate. He set up a Human Rights Office within the Archdiocese, and he began to regularly visit rural parishes so as to better understand the violence and the experience of the campesinos.

Romero learned a great deal from the peasants. As Cortina observed, “I think that is what really impacted him: the example, the teaching, the life, the faith, the hope of the poor, and that changed Romero.” Romero came to Aguilares the week before he was murdered to celebrate mass. Cortina testified that, “to the poor [Romero] was a holy man, and … for every one of us who knew him, he was a holy man.” Cortina related that Archbishop Romero’s homilies “were a theology class for me because he took the main ideas of the Gospel and brought them to life. … Everyone in El Salvador listened to his homilies.” Cortina illustrated this point with an anecdote. One day he was stopped at a traffic light in his car, listening to the Archbishop’s homily on the radio. A police car drove toward him, and he instinctively turned down the radio to avoid any trouble. When the police pulled up beside him, he could hear that they too were listening to the homily.

Cortina emphasized Romero’s dedication to his people. He recalled the first time campesinos occupied the church. Fr. Cortina and three nuns went to Archbishop Romero to ask what he thought they should do, stay away from the church or be with the people. Romero answered, “I think the most Christian thing is to accompany the people.” So Fr. Cortina returned to Aguilares to be with the people.

Furthermore, Romero refused the riches that usually accompany his position because he did not want what his people did not have. As the threats to his life increased, he was offered security guards and bullet proof vests. Cortina recounted that Romero responded by saying “As long as my people do not have security, I cannot have security. If my people are unsafe, I want to live like my people.” Romero rejected the offer to build him a palatial home and instead lived in a small house at a hospital for dying cancer patients, the same hospital in whose chapel he was assassinated.

When asked whether Archbishop Romero was political, Cortina said, “All of us, when we talk, no matter whether we say A or B, our speech has political components.” He accused the government of carrying out injustices but he also criticized the popular organizations “when they went too far with their ideas.” But for Romero, this was because “he was ethically-minded, not political. … To tell the truth hurts and he told the truth. That’s what the campesinos said, he told the truth, no matter what.”

Cortina also described Romero’s humility. For instance, although initially Romero had criticized Father Jon Sobrino, one of the leading proponents of liberation theology in El Salvador for “presenting Jesus too much as a man,” Romero later apologized to him.

Father Cortina described how he was at the University when he learned of Archbishop Romero’s assassination. The phone rang. “Something awful has happened,” Father Sobrino said. “Come fast.” When he learned that Romero had been killed, he felt a tremendous emptiness: “You get all of sudden like, without knowing anything, without seeing anything, without feeling anything, you feel as if you are in an empty space.” Fr Cortina reiterated what other witnesses had said: “If they could do this to him, then they could do it to anybody.” He worried that there would be more killings and that there would be no one to take care of the people; that the church would falter.

Fr. Cortina soon found out that a photographer had been at the chapel and had immediately started taking pictures. Initially the photographer was suspected of carrying out the assassination and had been taken prisoner by some of the patients at the hospital. As Cortina had some experience with photography, he went to the chapel to examine the cameras that had been confiscated from the photographer. He determined that the cameras could not have been used in any way in the murder. He then went with the photographer to the offices of the newspaper, Diario de Hoy, where the photographer worked, to develop the photos. Many of the photographs, including dramatic and searing images of Archbishop Romero’s fallen body and the pained faces of the attending nuns, were displayed in court.

Over 100,000 people attended Romero’s funeral in the square in front of the Cathedral and National Palace. Cortina identified a photograph of the gathering. He then recounted that bombs were thrown from the direction of the National Palace and that some people were trampled to death while trying to flee. In response to a question from Judge Wanger, Father Cortina replied that he thought the bomb was probably homemade.

The assassination had a tremendous, depressing impact throughout the country. The campesinos asked, “Who will speak up for truth now?” Romero’s body was on display in the National Cathedral for six days. Each day a different community was in charge of helping out there. One peasant said he had walked for three days to see the Archbishop. He told Fr. Cortina “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body. Continue your work.” Fr. Cortina was deeply moved by the courage he derived from the people.

Maria Julia Hernandez

Maria Julia Hernandez is the founding director of Tutela Legal, the legal assistance office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, established in March 1982. She worked very closely with Archbishop Romero during his three years as Archbishop from 1977-1980. Under Ms. Hernandez’s leadership, Tutela Legal has been a leading force for human rights in El Salvador and has continued to carry on the vision of Archbishop Romero. Prior to founding Tutela Legal, Ms. Hernandez taught philosophy and law at the University of Central American (UCA) in San Salvador.

Tutela Legal defends and promotes the full range of human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural. The office investigates and documents cases of violations regardless of who commits them. If the office found that the violations were committed by the military or the death squads, they presented their demands to the military authorities. In one situation, her office filed a complaint against the FMLN in Mexico for violation of its obligations under the Second Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Her office filed in Mexico because the FMLN had an office in Mexico, whereas it operated clandestinely in El Salvador.

In addition, Tutela Legal reported its findings to the courts of El Salvador. Unfortunately, according to Ms. Hernandez, “the judges didn’t do anything about our cases. [Going to] the Supreme Court did not work. Habeas corpus did not work.” Ms. Hernandez stated that between 1982 and 1992, her office presented 24,000 complaints of human rights violations to the courts. All were well documented. The only one that was ever investigated concerned the murder of the six Jesuit priests. Colonel Benavides was finally put in jail for that crime, but then, on March 20, 1993, even before the Amnesty law was officially published, the military released him.

Ms. Hernandez then described the conditions surrounding the Amnesty law. The Peace Accord stated that the findings from the UN Truth Commission Report would be brought before the tribunals to administer justice. Five days after the Truth Commission Report was issued, however, the National Assembly, with an ARENA majority, enacted an amnesty law protecting perpetrators of crimes committed during the conflict.

Ms. Hernandez described her close working relationship with Archbishop Romero. In the late 1970s, while she taught philosophy at the UCA Law School, she volunteered all of her free time to work in his office. When helping out with secretarial work, she came across many death threats. The one she remembers most vividly was a white handprint on a dark piece of paper, which at that time meant “leave or you will be killed.”

Most of the correspondence was from people asking for the Archbishop’s homilies. One day Ms. Hernandez asked Romero to publish his homilies but he refused. After showing him the requests she said, “Monsignor, it is not me who is asking for the homilies, the people want your homilies” and for the first time she saw him shaken. Two weeks later, he agreed.

Hernandez testified that in 1982, when she started the Legal Aid Office, the office did not have the capacity to present a case on Romero’s assassination to the court. With so many cases of human rights abuses and people in jail, it was impossible to manage that big a case. She asked two criminal lawyers to take on the case, but both refused out of fear.

She did not approach any more lawyers in the following years because “no lawyers would accept, even now.” Moreover, after the Amnesty law was passed in March 1993, it would have been futile to try.

Florentín Melendez, a lawyer with Socorro Juridico, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese and the predecessor of Tutela Legal, tried to investigate the assassination but he and the office’s director, Roberto Cuellar, were threatened with death. Immediately after the funeral they went into hiding and soon thereafter, fled the country. Socorro Juridico kept files on Romero’s assassination, but two months after the killing, members of the National Police searched the Socorro Juridico office and seized all of the files.

Ms. Hernandez eventually filed a complaint on behalf of family members of Archbishop Romero with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States. Finally in 1999, the Commission condemned the Government of El Salvador for failing to investigate the crime. Citing the Truth Commission’s conclusion that Robert D’Aubuisson had ordered Alvaro Saravia to organize the assassination, the Commission called on the Government to investigate the murder. El Salvador’s President Flores, a member of the ARENA party, refused.

Ms. Hernandez then identified pictures from the scene of the crime. She described how a photographer near the back of the chapel stood up as soon as he heard the shot and started taking pictures. The first photo taken was of the chapel filled with people, but the second one of the chapel was empty. She explained that at that point everyone had ducked down on the ground.

Next she identified several gruesome photographs as typical of scenes of summary executions documented by Tutela Legal during the 1980s. After describing the means by which people were generally assassinated, Hernandez added that the violations increased after Romero’s death. 1980 through 1984 were known as the “years of terror” during which hundreds of laypeople were killed in large-scale massacres.

While official figures state that there were 85,000 victims during the conflict, Ms. Hernandez stated that the number was probably double that figure because the majority were not recorded. Since the government refused to build a memorial, Tutela Legal commissioned a wall memorializing many of those killed, including Archbishop Romero. It currently stands in Cuscatlan park and serves as a place to put flowers and remember victims.

Ms. Hernandez noted that a Canonization Office has been established in the Archdiocese to request that Archbishop Romero be declared a saint. The office collected all of his records and writings and now maintains them in its archives. Prior to this trial, Ms. Hernandez made copies of numerous documents to give to the legal team. She noted that, “in evaluating the evidence for Canonization, the Vatican examines three things: the candidate’s theology; who killed him and why; and what the people say. Perhaps this trial will help establish facts that will assist in the Canonization process.”

[Source: Center for Justice and Accountability, San Francisco, CA, 01Sep04]

Tienda de Libros Radio Nizkor On-Line Donations

DDHH en El Salvador
small logoEste documento ha sido publicado el 07sep04 por el Equipo Nizkor y Derechos Human Rights