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How we killed Archbishop Romero

Carlos Dada/El Faro
El Faro / Publicado el 25 de Marzo de 2010
Major Roberto D´Aubuisson participated in the conspiracy to assassinate Archbishop Romero, although a son of former president Molina provided the sniper, asserts Captain Álvaro Saravia. Thirty years later, he and some of the other people implicated in the crime reconstruct those days of arms trafficking, cocaine and kidnapping. Reduced to ignominy, Saravia has been a pizza delivery man, a used car salesman and a drug money launderer. Now he is burning in the hell he helped create during a time when killing “communists” was a sport.

He begins to read aloud slowly: “Several years after murdering Archbishop Romero, Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia resigned his military commission, abandoned his family and moved to California.” He is holding several pages, a copy of a newspaper article published five years ago. He adjusts his glasses—two large lenses sustained by a wire—. His nails are broken and dirty, his eyes wide and nervous. He rereads the first paragraph. “Several years after murdering Archbishop Romero, Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia…”  He pauses to repeat a name he has not pronounced for a long time: “Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia”.

He raises his head and looks at me intently.

-You wrote this, right?

-Yes.

-Well it’s wrong.

-Why?

-It says here, “Several years after murdering Archbishop Romero.” And I didn’t kill him.

-Who killed him then?

-Someone else.

-A foreigner?

-No. An “indio,” one of our own. He’s still out there somewhere.

-You didn’t fire the gun, but you participated.

-Thirty years and this is going to persecute me until I die. Of course I participated. That’s why we’re here talking. 

His hands are worn by misery and field work. These hands have nothing in common with the Air Force pilot who became a deputy of Salvadoran anticommunist leader Roberto D´Aubuisson, and later a pizza delivery man, a money launderer for the Colombian mafia and finally a used car salesman in California. Now he is none of those things. He lost a trial he did not attend, during which he was found guilty of the murder of Archbishop Romero.

-Tell me how it was.

-I’m going to tell you everything, but slowly. It is a long story.

                                                            ***

In 1979, Saravia was an undisciplined aviation captain, beloved by his peers but with a strong proclivity toward alcohol and brawls, when Major Roberto D´Aubuisson persuaded him to help him form an anticommunist front. It happened during the visits that D’Aubuisson, an army major with counterinsurgency intelligence experience, frequently paid to the National Guard to recruit officers to his cause.

Major D´Aubuisson founded the ARENA party a couple of years later, ultimately becoming the highest leader of the Salvadoran political right. He was also president of the 1983 Constituent Assembly and a prominent member of the World Anti-Communist League.

Captain Saravia can still recall how D´Aubuisson ended up incorporating him into his movement as they sat on a Salvadoran beach sharing a bottle of rum. The two of them took off for two weeks. They went to Guatemala, where the major arranged for him to receive a salary, a car and whatever else he needed to carry out the errand that had been reserved for him: “You’re going to take care of some things for me.”

D’Aubuisson died in 1992 of tongue cancer after having led his party to the presidency of El Salvador and not long after the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the civil war. By then, Captain Saravia was already living in the United States, having escaped one trial in El Salvador for the murder of Archbishop Romero and another in the United States for money laundering. He moved to Modesto, a small city in central California, and stayed there selling used cars for a living until 2004.

In October of that year, he began to flee from himself. That was when the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization filed a civil suit against him during which he was found guilty of murdering Archbishop Romero and ordered to pay $10 million to his relatives. Saravia vanished shortly before the trial and now lives in hiding. He has gone to live in a Spanish-speaking country.

An old “Arenero” known for being a hard-liner once told me this about him: “Saravia was crazy. He would see that you had a toothache and ask you what happened. So you’d say a dentist had messed you up and the next day, the dentist would be dead.”

Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia was an active member of a group known to be responsible for murder and torture – a death squad. “A psychopath,” Arena founder Ricardo Valdivieso calls him.

The U.S.-based National Security Archive has information from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador notifying Washington of the 1985 kidnapping and murder of Carlos Humberto Guerra Campos. His family paid the ransom but he was never seen again. According to the U.S. embassy, the kidnappers were Captain Álvaro Saravia and “Tito” Regalado, the man who would later become Chief of Security of the Assembly when D’Aubuisson became president of the Legislature.

Saravia was always surrounded by kidnappers and murderers and yet he denies participating in this or in any other murder. “I never led an operation to go out and kill anybody. I’m telling you this straight out.” He forgets that we are sitting here precisely because he participated in the most transcendent murder in the history of El Salvador.

While he does not deny that his boss, Roberto D’Aubuisson, participated in clandestine operations to murder human beings, he contends that this was done through contacts in other security forces.

His agenda book, which was seized on San Luis farm just days after Archbishop Romero’s murder, contains several lists of weapons and the telephone number of a man called Andy. Andy del Caribe. A U.S. citizen and arms trafficker who drove trucks down from his country filled with weapons concealed under Playboy magazines, which he cheerfully handed out to customs officials at each border crossing.  Those weapons, says Saravia, were for his personal use and to arm members of the Frente Amplio Nacional or FAN, the political movement that D’Aubuisson headed prior to founding ARENA.

There are two versions of his break with the major he served. His own version is that he had tired of his frenzied existence and lost confidence in D’Aubuisson, and that is why he left for the United States. The other comes from ARENA founder Ricardo Valdivieso, currently the director of the Instituto Roberto D’Aubuisson: one day, during one of their long sojourns plotting in Guatemalan, they received a call from a cantina in Izabal letting them know that Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia had gotten into a fight with several men. When they went to get him, Saravia also hit D’Aubuisson and that was the end of the relationship.

Saravia alleges that he was not involved in planning Archbishop Romero’s murder and he tries to corroborate this by pointing out that on the day of the crime he was not carrying any weapons other than the two he always carried. “If you kill, it’s because you’re going to have… you have a machete in your hand, or a knife, a razor, a fork, anything – whatever you’re going to put into him, a pen, but you’re not going to say to me, look, I need a car….” 

There is no outstanding arrest warrant against Captain Saravia, except in the United States, where he is being sought for deportation. But that does not matter because he isn’t there. A few years ago, he spoke with a U.S. newspaper, The Miami Herald, confiding that he had asked the Church’s forgiveness and was going to tell all in a book. He neglected to mention that there isn’t a single piece of paper to be found where he is living and that the closest neighbor who knows how to read and write lives 20 minutes from his house. Rather than write a book, he wants to tell all in an interview.

We meet for the first time in a tiny hotel, in a tiny village, where he arrived after a trip that involved a cross country trek, catching a ride on pick-up trucks and two buses. I remembered him as the fat man with puffy jowls, a mustache and blond hair featured in the “Wanted” poster published by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2004, “for suspected human rights violations.” The photo—in which neck and torso run together before disappearing into a Hawaiian shirt—adorned my refrigerator for over a year as I searched for him in California. This was how I expected to find one of Archbishop Romero’s murderers. Fat and tanned and sporting a Hawaiian shirt. What I found instead was a gaunt, skinny old man, his skin withered and gashed, his face hidden behind a wild gray beard, and a distinctly rancid odor. He looks so small.

-And why is it you want to talk now?

-Because of my children. Even they look at me as if I’m Hitler.

Saravia bows his head for the first time since we began talking. He presses his lips together. Suddenly, he is alone at the table, even though I am sitting there too. And I am the one to break the silence.

-How long has it been since you’ve spoken with them?

-Uffff! Ufff! Ten years! I think about them every day. But I’m afraid even to call them.

In the sessions that follow, Captain Saravia will confess other reasons for talking: of all of those implicated, he is the only one who was tried and the only one living in hiding. The driver, Amado Garay, is also in hiding, but as a protected witness in the United States. But one thing should be perfectly clear: the main prerequisite for living in hiding is that you are alive. Five others involved in this crime, or in covering it up, were not able to hide. One was decapitated, one committed suicide, another disappeared, still another was killed at a highway checkpoint, and the fifth ended up torn to pieces. In Guatemala. Or so they say. But there is no name or death certificate for the last one.

It is true. Saravia is the only one living in hiding. He has tried on numerous occasions to contact some of his old comrades in arms, but no one has gotten back to him. “Thirty years have gone by and it’s still the same shit. I don’t have anything to hide anymore. For what? How could I be any more screwed than I am now? Nothing! I get the feeling that there’s a conspiracy and that they really don’t want to know who in the hell killed Romero.”

He too has been part of that conspiracy, but now he is alone. His only friend is a man who owns a small piece of farmland and an old pick-up. There is a little wood cabin much like the Unabomber’s with four walls and one window enclosing a wood floor and nothing else. Saravia spent more than a year there, until thieves broke in and stole a belt, an undershirt and a machete, which was all he had.

The second time we meet, in the same hotel, he comes down from his room fifteen minutes late. He is pale.

-What is the matter,  Captain?

-I just saw myself in the mirror. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror for five months.

                                                ***

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