How we killed Archbishop Romero
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.
Carlos Dada/El Faro
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?
-Well it’s wrong.
-It says here, “Several years after murdering Archbishop Romero.” And I didn’t kill him.
-Who killed him then?
-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.
This time, he starts to talk. He allows me to take out a tape recorder, saying, “Go for it, Carlos. It’s going to get good now.” He wants to name names. He has just one request: “They should detain them. They should squeeze their balls like they used to and let’s see if they don’t sing!”
The trial against him was based primarily on two pieces of evidence: the first was the testimony of Amado Garay, the driver who took the murderer to the church where Archbishop Romero was saying Mass on March 24, 1980. The second was the agenda book seized by the army that same month containing a description of Operation Pineapple (Operación Piña), which matches the circumstances of the murder. “I haven’t seen that agenda book since they took it away,” Saravia admits. “I couldn’t keep all the things I had to do in my head, so I wrote them down in a little agenda book. It was a natural thing to do. And there was Operation Pineapple, which had been going on for some time, where we picked up grenades on the Guatemalan border.”
I show him a photocopy of his agenda book and the captain gets a blast from the past. He examines it carefully. Operation Pineapple includes a sniper. Strange, because you don’t need a sniper to pick up grenades on the border. “That’s true,” he admits. He keeps staring at the little page titled Operation Pineapple and, suddenly, Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia has an epiphany. “That’s not my handwriting. It’s Roberto’s.”
In effect, the handwriting is different from that on the other agenda pages. Why would Roberto D’Aubuisson have recorded Operation Pineapple in his deputy’s agenda book? Saravia does not know, but there is someone else who does.
In 1980, Colonel Adolfo Arnoldo Majano was a member of the Revolutionary Government Junta and one of the last army men who still believed in a negotiated outcome to the conflict. He ordered the arrest of D´Aubuisson and his followers on San Luis farm in Santa Tecla, and was one of the first people to have access to the Saravia agenda book and its contents.
“Operation Pineapple matches the information about what transpired,” says Majano, “but it was not in Saravia’s agenda book. That paper was seized from D´Aubuisson. The officer from the High Command who helped me make photocopies put it in with the pages of the agenda book, so that it wouldn’t get lost.”
Operation Pineapple is written on a white piece of paper without indentations from the agenda book. The page margin bears a seal that says Mariscos Tazumal, a fishing company founded by D´Aubuisson and Fernando “El Negro” Sagrera.
It was D´Aubuisson, and not Saravia, who wrote the list that, according to the Truth Commission and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, pertains to the murder of Archbishop Romero. Here is the list:
1. 257 Robert*s
Starlight is a telescopic sight for the precision rifles required for this type of operation. It is 35 meters from the street to the altar of the Church of the Divine Providence and the sniper needed a telescopic sight.
The 257 Roberts is a 25 caliber rifle manufactured by Remington that is frequently used for sharpshooting with a telescopic lens. It is probably not the rifle that was used to assassinate Archbishop Romero. The autopsy shows that he took a 22 caliber bullet in the heart. But the sniper was not from D´Aubuisson’s team but rather from that of a co-conspirator: Mario Molina, son of former president Arturo Armando Molina. Mario Molina provided the murderer, the weapon, and the security detail.
The four automatics and grenades on the list were part of the arsenal of the four members of the security detail that would accompany the operation.
The driver came from D´Aubuisson’s team, under Saravia supervision. A former soldier originally from Quezaltepeque, Amado Garay drove the murderer to the church entrance and later conveyed him to a safe place. Garay—to date the only participant in the operation who has given testimony—lives in the United States under the witness protection program.
The sniper is Salvadoran, a former national guardsman and member of Mario Molina’s security detail. On March 24, he ended the life of the Archbishop of San Salvador with a single accurate shot.
Saravia wants them to be apprehended. He has another request the next day. He asks me to take him to the nearest city with a Burger King. When he lived in Modesto, California, every day he would close his used car dealership and buy a double Whopper on the way home. Here, on this occasion, he asks me to do him a special favor:
-Could you buy me two?
-You must be hungry, Captain.
-The other one is for tomorrow. I want to take it back to the mountain.
-But by tomorrow it will have spoiled.
-Don’t worry. Everything I eat is spoiled.
You have to descend into hell to find Saravia. The world ended a few kilometers back and the people who live around here are only interested in cutting themselves to pieces with machetes and getting drunk in order to swell the ranks of widows, or at least relieve the pain caused by worms. Manhood is measured in dead bodies here. There goes Danilo, who’s already killed three people. Thomas just got back. He has been on the lam because he killed his brother.
The countryside might have been taken from a 19th century naturalist painting. Pine forests barely interrupted by small plateaus where tiny villages have sprung up green and lovely, if it weren’t for the fact that they were born of misery and a big stick. Children wander around naked and 30 year old women look like old ladies, toothless, with shriveled hands and sagging breasts from nursing so many babies.
A five year old girl squats to defecate in the brush. The microcosms that took over her digestive system long ago turn whatever she eats into green, foul-smelling diarrhea. The flies are on the scene even before she is finished. A crouching dog is waiting for the girl to finish so he can eat the green filth. This is the food chain of misery. Nothing is wasted here.
Only the flies are properly nourished. Huge and noisy, they mate and then lay their eggs on the backs of cows, dogs and children. In a few days, the little bite puffs up, taking on a life of its own. It is a bot fly that starts to move about on its own on the back of that cow, dog or child. And it itches and itches, until the back is painfully raw from so much scratching. The little larvae can only be extracted in pieces by squeezing them like a giant, purple pimple.
In this land of dark-skinned people shriveled by the sun and diminished by hunger and field work, lives El Gringo, a white man shriveled by the sun and diminished by hunger and field work. He weighed 282 pounds when he arrived here three years ago. Now he weighs 165. He eats whatever a neighbor is willing to share and spends the few cents he earns when he gets some work to buy the cheap alcohol that helps him remember his name and forget where he came from and why he’s here. The only person who has lent him a hand in this Macondo recalls the first time he showed up here: “When he got here, he didn’t even know how to use a machete,” he jokes.
El Gringo lives in a small mud house with wood framed, glassless windows and just three pieces of clothing hanging from a string stretched across the room. His bed is a gnawed, filthy mattress. The place is a loaner. The owner of the house is sweeping up as she describes how someone wants to burn her house down. “They were throwing rocks but none of them hit the window. I thought they were going to destroy it, she says. The assailants are some of the ten children she brought into the world, nursed and raised until they were old enough to kill their own father. “Of the ten, five of them turned out good,” she adds. One night three months ago, two of the other five sat down for a family drink with their father. The conversation turned into a brawl and shouts and threats ensued. “They went after him, beating him with a stick. Ay no! I said, you’ve killed him. But they didn’t listen to me. And there was the old fellow. Dead.” She went to the police herself to report them, and they were apprehended a few days later. They were released two weeks ago. They have sworn to come back and kill their mother.
“Be careful,” the old woman tells El Gringo. “One of my daughters is going to burn the house down around you to take it away from me.” This woman has no idea that El Gringo is Salvadoran. Or that his name is Álvaro Rafael Saravia, or that he was an airplane pilot. She has never seen a plane. She has no idea that El Gringo participated in the murder of an archbishop. A granddaughter clings to the woman’s skirt. Her father is dead. She has a gorgeous smile and an infection in one eye.
Thirty years after murdering Archbishop Romero, Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia is living in hell.
-Of course this is a punishment. Everything around me was rotten. Everybody was after money no matter what. It didn’t matter where it came from, they just wanted money. They wanted to get rich.
-Me too. Of course! And look at me now. I’ve learned to live with what I have. I’ve lived with people who are really suffering. But they are suffering a horrendous calamity. The biggest misfortune of all! Poverty! How would a man not become a guerrilla when he’s watching his children die of hunger? And when they went to take a shit, they shit worms. I’d grab my gun and go straight into hell. I wouldn’t hesitate three seconds, or even two. It wouldn’t take them much to convince me.
-Now you’re living it.
-Now I’m living it. First hand. If I could do something for these people some day, I’d do it. Even take up arms.
-Life takes strange twists.
-Mine has. Terrible twists. And I’ve suffered alongside these people: So there’s no corn. Go pick some bananas then. Sometimes there’s corn but nothing to go with it. So you have to put salt on the tortillas. You eat them with salt. And sometimes there isn’t even that. There’s a family living across from me. Sometimes they give me four tortillas or so. And if that’s being a communist… it’s communist. It would have been communist to them in those days. Take him out, wreck his house and tell him ‘sonofabitch, you’re with the guerrillas.’ Life changes. This is no life.
Álex “El Ñoño” Cáceres keeps two bottles of whiskey and three bottles of champagne under his bed. He hides them whenever he goes on a trip, but his tenants know perfectly well where to find them. In this house in Colonia San Benito, the men in Roberto D´Aubuisson’s security detail spend some nights taking advantage of the fact that the owner lives in Miami.
Fernando “el Negro” Sagrera and Captain Saravia open a bottle of whiskey and start their own little party. Their boss has gone to San Miguel to visit friends for the weekend. He hasn’t gotten back yet.
Outside in the driveway and the guard post for the house, at least 12 men are waiting for their instructions. It is Sunday, a calm day for the party but politically tense because it is the day that the Óscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, says Mass in the cathedral and uses his homily to talk about the situation in the country. “They used to say that Romero’s homily, that he was the one who was stirring people up… Romero’s homily was the little morsel for the day all over,” Captain Saravia would later recall.
This Sunday, March 23, 1980, Archbishop Romero has said some earth-shattering things. He was addressing the soldiers, the national guardsmen, the police… all the security forces. He told them that they should not kill their brothers the peasants. He told them that God’s law prohibits killing and that it prevails over any other law. That they should not obey any order to kill someone. “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”
In the minds of the group to which the two men now drinking scotch whiskey belong, such words can only come from a communist. And the communist is the enemy. It is time to kill him. Soon. There is still a little whiskey left, courtesy of Álex Cáceres.
In the early morning hours of March 24, 1980, Captain Eduardo Ávila Ávila enters the home of Álex “El Ñoño” Cáceres and wakes up Fernando Sagrera and Captain Saravia. He is holding a copy of the daily newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica, opened to page 20 as proof that this is a good day to kill the Archbishop. Captain Ávila Ávila’s last names appear on the page over and over again. It is announcing a mass to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Sara Meardi de Pinto. Her son, Jorge Pinto, her grandchildren, and the Kriete-Ávila, Quiñónez-Ávila, González-Ávila, Ávila-Meardi, Aguilar-Ávila and Ávila-Ávila families, among others, extend an invitation “to the Holy Mass that will be officiated by the Archbishop of San Salvador in the Church of Divine Providence Hospital at 6:00 p.m. today.”
Captain Eduardo Ávila Ávila informs them of the plan: Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez will be murdered during that Mass. It has all been coordinated already with Mario Molina and Roberto D´Aubuisson.
D’Aubuisson is not at that house. He has gone to San Miguel for the weekend to relax at the home of the García Prieto family. He will give orders by telephone. Ávila first tells them that they already have a sniper, a member of Mario Molina’s security detail. They just need a vehicle. That’s their job. “Mario Molina sent us to request a car… that we had to contact Roberto (D´Aubuisson). El Negro Sagrera made a few phone calls and found out where he was. We called him on the phone. El Negro Sagrera told me: ‘He wants to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Look, Major, what is this all about? I think it’s strange that they’ve come here to ask us for a car.’ His words were: ‘Take care of it!’ Okay, that’s fine Major. We’ll do it. Pah. ‘Yes, I’ll take it to you there. So what time do you want to meet so I can give you the car?’ I asked (Ávila). ‘Look,’ he said, ‘let’s definitely meet around… let’s say one hour before Romero dies.’” At 5:00 in the afternoon, in the parking lot of the Camino Real Hotel.
Mario Ernesto Molina Contreras was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. That is what they say about him and his family of active and retired army officers. The son of Colonel Arturo Armando Molina—one of the most powerful Salvadoran military men of the 20th century and president of the country from 1972 to 1977—Mario Molina grew up with all of the comforts of the son of a 20th century Salvadoran military officer: with security, with impunity, and with his finances secured. With the seal of military nobility. With trips abroad. With the benefits that go with being part of the highest echelons of the uniformed elite.
The son of Colonel Molina and brother of Jorge Molina Contreras—President Antonio Saca’s Defense Minister—Mario led a private existence, far from the world of military discipline.
In his father’s Presidential Palace, he met two men whom he would later reencounter in extreme rightwing movements and who would also be implicated in the murder of Archbishop Romero: Roberto D´Aubuisson reviewed and organized intelligence archives and Álvaro Rafael Saravia was part of President Molina’s advance security detail.
According to Saravia, the group of guards who met in the Presidential Palace of that time would later form Mario Molina’s private security detail, one of whose members was the man who would end Archbishop Romero’s life. “They were staff members of the National Guard who provided security to the President of the Republic. They had civilians there. They did not wear uniforms. They accompanied the president on tours. At that time, Mario Molina was their youngest son. They were assigned specifically to his security because he already knew them.”
Molina, who is named in the reports of the Truth Commission and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has managed to keep a low profile all these years, away from the public eye.
His brother Jorge, the former defense minister, is not even certain that the man mentioned in the Truth Commission’s report is actually his brother: “Couldn’t that be a different Mario Molina? There are a lot of people with that name.” The general says that his brother Mario is abroad.
Few of those involved have ever given their version of the events. Captain Ávila Ávila shot himself a few years later. Major D´Aubuisson died of cancer and Mario Molina has never told his story. Now Saravia, Roberto D´Aubuisson’s deputy, is talking. He is confessing his own participation in the crime and his boss’ involvement.
Like many security houses, the home of businessman Roberto Daglio is an entertainment center for some of the men surrounding Major D´Aubuisson. Drugs change hands here. Trucks roll in at night bringing prostitutes and running liquor and cocaine. Security turns into a party for these thirty-somethings who are married, armed, and feverishly anticommunist.
The owner is almost never there. Roberto “Bobby” Daglio, a business man and aviator pilot, spends most of his time in Miami, Florida. Opening his home to ultra-rightwing groups is just one of the many ways he can support the anticommunist struggle from afar.
According to declassified documents from the U.S. Department of State, Daglio spent the early eighties meeting with other businessmen from the extreme right in a group called the “Miami Six,” which funded the illegal operations of D´Aubuisson’s group. The latter engaged in terrorism: it ordered murders and kidnappings, set off explosives and funded death squads. Its aim was to destroy any attempt at reform in El Salvador and to finish off all the communists.
According to State Department documents from 1981, group members also included the owner of the rabidly right-wing Salvadoran daily El Diario de Hoy (identified in some documents as “Viera Altamirano” or “Enrique Viera Altamirano” and in others simply as Enrique Altamirano, who is still the director of the newspaper); Luis Escalante; Arturo Muyshondt [in this case, former U.S. Ambassador Robert White admitted in an interview with El Faro that he made a mistake with Mr. Muyshondt. "I am sure the source meant to mention his brother, Roberto Muyshondt”] and the Salaverría brothers (Julio and Juan Ricardo).
Daglio, along with Enrique Altamirano founded the “Freedom Foundation” or Fundación para la Libertad, in Miami. They hired Fraser Associates to carry out lobbying efforts in Washington. Fraser promised to change the United States’ perception of El Salvador, which was being influenced by “sensationali journalists who headline the massacre of American nuns and photograph military excesses” rather than the “significant efforts by the private business sector to respond to the legitimate aspirations and interests of the Salvadoran people.”
On March 24, 1980, Saravia is using Daglio’s San Salvador home to coordinate the delivery of an automobile from which the Archbishop will be shot. It is a red, four-door Volkswagen Passat that had been donated to D´Aubuisson months earlier by Roberto Mathies Regalado, the owner of the Volkswagen agency, in support of the anticommunist effort. No one remembers the name on the vehicle’s registration. Saravia also has to locate Amado Garay, his chauffer, to drive the car.
“I had to find Garay and I had to find the car he would use … And unfortunately, it was that red car. Or whichever car we used would have been known . We did not know the plan. We were just going to deliver a car. Of course, we knew what they were going to use the car for,” Saravia recalls.
At 4:30 p.m., Amado is waiting patiently in Daglio’s driveway for his boss’ instructions. A domestic employee comes to the service door to offer him bread and a beverage. Saravia and Sagrera are inside the house.
A few minutes later, Saravia orders him to drive the Passat to the parking lot of the Hotel Camino Real. But before Garay gets into the car, a short muscular man with a gravelly voice goes into the house. He is a friend of Sagrera’s, but he has come to pick something up. This is probably the stupidest moment in Gabriel Montenegro’s life. It is absolutely the wrong moment, in the wrong place, and with the wrong vice. It is a blunder that he will regret for the rest of his life.
This is where his friend Fernando Sagrera comes in. He asks him to take them to deliver the car. And the three of them head off behind Garay for the Camino Real parking lot.
There isn’t much security in the Camino Real parking lot. There is always a lot going on there, but in March of 1980, no one is surprised to see armed men around. The place is well situated and there are no restrictions on entry. Sometimes unknown people toss corpses at the hotel entrance, but they leave them outside in the street. They do not go in.
Both cars park. Garay stays inside the red Passat and Montenegro in the white Dodge Lancer. Captain Saravia and El Negro Sagrera descend from the vehicles to meet five men who are already there in a small white wagon. A tall, slender, bearded man climbs into the back seat of the red Passat. He is carrying a rifle.
-They get him in the car and I told them: ‘Well, have the driver get out because he is going to go with me.’ No, but the thing is, we don’t have… he has to drive… because you got the car… no, and I don’t know what. So as usual, El Negro Sagrera had to get involved in that shit … ‘Look, man, go on… and I don’t know what… they’re already in it…because this thing can’t fail.’ And then, once again, I put my foot in it! Seeing that it was all going to fall apart… Go on then! So Garay is there and off he goes. They go to the church.
-And you stay there?
-No. We go looking for the church. Because El Negro and Bibi and I, we didn’t know where it was.
-Who went to look for the church?
-The three of us who were in the car. We found the church after a while and we parked out front. Not in front, but here (to one side of the entrance).
-And they hadn’t killed him yet.
-No. We were parked there and we hadn’t been there for even five minutes when the shot was heard. They had gotten there and were killing him.
-So you were in front of the church when they killed him!
-Yes, we were there. El Negro Sagrera was there, and Bibi Montenegro and I in the back seat of the car.
-And did you see it?
-No, no, no. You could only see the entrance. And the car was parked, that Volkswagen. The car headed down and turned where we were. Then it disappeared and we said, let’s go.
-And why did you decide to go?
-Well, we went… it might seem idiotic… We wanted to know, out of curiosity, to go look. Ridiculous, right? Ridiculous.
He looks like a fascist. He is wearing a cap that says “KGB. We are still watching you,” jeans and a woodcutter’s shirt. He sports a thick, white mustache that extends down to his jaw line in the style experts call a “trucker mustache.” When Gabriel Montenegro, a man who has been living in North America for nearly 30 years, arrives at the interview he is not exactly sure what it is we are going to talk about. “I’m not a Nazi, I’m a fascist, which is different,” he says by way of introduction. “I believe in trade organizations, and controlled from the top. Like in the day of General Maximiliano Hernández, when there weren’t any gangs. For first time thieves, it was the first finger. The second time, the next one, and then the whole hand. Rapists were castrated and the lynch law was applied to murderers.”
When I tell him I know where he was on March 24, 1980, his first reaction is to deny it. “That is false,” he says. Then he asks to “plead the Fifth Amendment,” which in the U.S. is the right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination. He starts to look around nervously. His paranoia is contagious. I start to look around too, trying to make out a baleful gaze from behind a newspaper, or someone talking to himself, his mouth twisted and a discreet wire looped around his ear. I don’t see anything. I follow Montenegro’s gaze like someone searching the sky just because the person standing next to him is looking up. At the next table are two girls on the verge of womanhood. One is wearing a Scottish plaid skirt and a white short-sleeved shirt. The other, who looks freshly showered, is wearing jeans and a yellow t-shirt, They are drinking coffee and chatting in the way of all girls that age, with an adult confidence. They are old enough to hold a cigarette and take a puff, but retain that naïve smile that says they are not quite grown up. Montenegro looks at them out of the corner of his eye. He observes them, while trying to keep them from noticing that he is looking at them. They do not look to me as if they could be agents of anything, but he knows more about such things than I do. The schoolgirls have already become suspect.
Montenegro lights his third cigarette in 15 minutes as I begin to read Saravia’s testimony to him. He sips from his water bottle, gives the agents at the next table a hard look and smokes furiously. His jaw is quivering. When I finish, the blood has risen to his face and it looks as if he is going to explode any second. “I’ve spent 30 years fleeing from this day,” he says. In that, he resembles Captain Saravia. “Not even my family knows I was there. But I’m not going to give you any statements.” We say goodbye, his untold confession still between us. The next day, Bibi Montenegro meets with me again at the same café. This time he is ready to tell me about March 24, 1980.
“I went to that house to pick up certain things that were for my own consumption. They asked me for a ride, and I gave it to them. I told them I had to wait for this person and they said, ‘Don’t worry, we have a little bit here. Come on and give us a ride.’”
Bibi Montenegro drives his white Dodge Lancer to the parking lot of the Camino Real. He is armed with a Colt 45 and pumped up with his “medicine.” Fernando Sagrera sits next to him. He has brought an automatic weapon, a Hechler & Koch mp5 submachine gun. In the backseat is the man about whom Bibi Montenegro has heard a lot of stories but is now seeing for the first time: Álvaro “El Chele” Saravia. The latter is armed with the two pistols he always carries: a 45 gold K stuck in his belt, and a 380 at his ankle. When they reach the hotel parking lot, Montenegro parks his truck very close to the Volkswagen Passat driven by Amado Garay and his two companions get out to talk with some other men. Bibi stays in the car, inspecting his medicine. He glimpses a tall, bearded man with a rifle getting into the Passat and when Saravia and Sagrera return, the Passat takes off. Montenegro and his companions decide that they will also go to the Divine Providence.
-I thought they were going to raise hell with some soldier or some sonofabitch working security there. I was worrying about the stuff I’d gone to pick up and not much else-, says Montenegro.
They drove to Colonia Miramonte, stopping twice along the way to ask directions to the church. When they found it, they parked in the street about 50 meters away.
-They were looking at me with really nervous expressions and I said: Sonofabitch, look, the police could nab us here with this stuff and that’s going to be a problem!
Saravia and Sagrera got out of the car again. They did not go as far as the church entrance. They waited about a block away for just a few seconds until they heard the shot that killed Archbishop Romero. One shot. A crack that some of those present recall like a bomb going off. A powerful explosion, with no silencer. A bang that Gabriel “Bibi” Montenegro did not hear. He was still inside the car concentrating on his medicine.
Saravia and Sagrera returned to the white Dodge Lancer with Gabriel Montenegro at the wheel and they headed back to Roberto Daglio’s house. The driver does not remember what they talked about in the car. “I was so out of it because I had been drinking and taking my medicine and I was not paying any attention. I was looking out for a checkpoint. I did ask, ‘What happened?’ ‘No. Nothing. Keep going. Drop us off.’ ‘And will the person be there?’ ‘Yeah, man, don’t worry, you can keep what we gave you.’ ‘Oh, okay, that’s great then.’”
Three decades and eight heart surgeries later, Gabriel Montenegro lights another cigarette. He sighs and his eyes are moist. His jaw and his mustache are shaking. He clenches his teeth. The cigarette looks as if it is being held by someone with Parkinson’s. He is angry, he says, with those who changed his life that day. “Two different people would have been dead.” Two different people, in a car with three. “I would have done the impossible to stop it. But they had me there like some moron, feeding the poor addict his drugs. I’ve been clean for 27 years now, thanks to God and my friends up there.”
According to him, it was not until the next day that he found out where he had been the previous afternoon. He learned that he had gone to kill Archbishop Romero and from that day forward, he distanced himself from that circle of saviors of the fatherland, drugs and prostitutes.
I asked him whether he ever confronted D´Aubuisson and his people about the crime. “Yes. I confronted them about it. And they reminded me that people are found in the streets every day. Then something about a white car appeared in the news. So I called a friend and said, ‘Damn, my car is white, asshole!’… ‘Get rid of that car and we’ll give you another one,’ he told me. And my life changed just like that.”
Fernando Sagrera and Álvaro Rafael Saravia were inseparable. That is how Marissa D’Aubuisson, Roberto’s sister and founder of the Romero Foundation, remembers them. “They went everywhere together. I always saw them with Roberto,” she says. Saravia in the front seat next to the major and Sagrera in the back.
Once she and her brother were both at their mother’s house at the same time. Saravia was outside on guard in a Cherokee jeep. Marissa went up to talk to him. “I asked whether it had polarized windows and he said yes, but the best protection was the paint. ‘Why?” I asked him, ‘Is it bullet-proof?’ He said no. But it had so many coats of paint that it stood up to anything. One day it’s gray and the next day its black.”
On another occasion, her brother insisted on driving her home. She refused, because she did not think it would contribute to her own safety if the neighbors were aware of her relationship to the major. At her brother’s insistence, however, she got into the jeep. “You couldn’t find a place to put your feet because it was lined with guns,” she says.
They parked the car several blocks away. Sagrera and Saravia got out and walked her home. Both were fat in those days. El Chele and el Negro. “The fact is, Roberto couldn’t take a single step without the two of them behind him. They went all over the place together.”
Fernando Sagrera was a man who always got home early. He was there by 7:00 or 8:00 at night. He does not know what his friends did after that time but, he says, he never got involved in anything. That is why he finds it strange that three different people—Amado Garay, Captain Saravia and Bibi Montenegro—implicate him in the events. “I had nothing to do with it.”
He finds it even stranger that those three people are not in touch with each other, and that two have offered the same “defamatory” version a full 30 years later. It is just as strange, he says, as when the Truth Commission interrogated him about the same crime and he explained to them that he had had nothing to do with it and, even so, they mention him in their report. Or as finding out, as he has just now, that he is also named in the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But all of those accusations are false. “So where was Fernando Sagrera on March 24, 1980? “I don’t remember. It’s just like any other day to me. Why would I be paying attention to what happened?”
Saravia was never a friend of his, “because he was crazy. That guy’s a demented alcoholic.” It is true that he was a friend of Roberto D´Aubuisson’s. A good friend. “That is my sin. I only saw Saravia when they gave me a ride somewhere.”
And he has never killed anybody or participated in clandestine operations. “I was a drunk and belligerent. The type who gets into fights. But nothing more.”
Sagrera has a face that must never have looked innocent, even when he was a baby. The furrowed brow, two dark bags under the eyes and a white mustache frame the face of a man who has been known his whole life as crude, bad-tempered and unsophisticated. “He was always a uncouth,” observes a friend of his.
When El Jabalí Racetrack opened in 1979, Fernando Sagrera partnered with Elías Hasbún to form an auto racing team that competed with an Aston Martin owned by landowner Juan Wright. The car is light. Sagrera would pull it with a rope to the starting gate and he would parade past the pits with the other racers, intimidating them with the Aston Martin on his back. The other competitors baptized his race team as the “Really Rotten.”
His body is scarred from a burn injury. When Napoleón Duarte defeated ARENA candidate Roberto D´Aubuisson in the 1984 presidential election, Sagrera tried to barbecue the campaign documents and was engulfed in flames. They had to take him to a military hospital in the United States, even though he was not a U.S. citizen and did not possess a visa. They got him in through the military system.
While he was in bed recovering, men that he believes were from the CIA arrived to interrogate him “More than anything, they were after the arms that came into El Salvador and (they believed) that I was bringing them in and that I was financing them.” Feeling pressured by the interrogations, he fled the hospital. “To leave the hospital, I made friends with a gringo. I left at 9:00 in the morning and he let me stay at his house. And they made me to come back secretly.”
According to Saravia, Sagrera was “our only casualty during the whole war.” Besides the burns, Sagrera took a bullet fired from his own gun as he was sitting in a car.
Sagrera does not remember much about the Archbishop’s murder. While before he had said he found it strange that his name appeared in the Truth Commission’s report, now he says he did not even know that his name was in it. Because he hasn’t seen it. “Hasn’t it ever happened to you that when you don’t have anything to do with something you use the expression ‘I don’t give a shit because I don’t have anything to do with that?’”
He was not friends with Bibi Montenegro either. I tell him that I know that on March 24, he was riding in a white Dodge Lancer on his way to the church of the Divine Providence.
-That doesn’t fit. I don’t remember, I don’t have… I don’t know.
-There was a third person in that car, a friend of yours. Do you remember him?
-Montenegro of which Montenegros?
-Bibi Montenegro, your friend.
-Well, I would say no... but now it is clicking with me, you know? I do know him, but we’re not friends or anything. I’ve seen him five times in my life… maybe four.
Elías Hasbún enthusiastically recalls the days of the “Really Rotten” in El Jabalí. He and Sagrera, racing together, and the third friend as support: Gabriel “Bibi” Montenegro. “He always came. We were good friends. He brought his wife to all the races. Bibi was like the team’s fan. Afterwards we’d all go out together.”
Hasbún, known as “Urly” in the automobile world, still races and he also still runs a little auto repair shop specializing in race cars. In 1980, the Voglione auto body shop rented space in Colonia La Rábida in San Salvador one block from the Canada Dry bottling company. Several garages operated out of the same open space. Today this building is an extension of the Mondini plastics factory. According to Saravia, that is where they took the red four-door Passat from which Archbishop Romero was shot: “They assigned the mission to El Negro Sagrera, to tell him look this son-of-a-bitch car that doesn’t… They should destroy it or burn it. A street runs behind Canada Dry. There’s an auto repair shop on that street. El Negro Sagrera says that’s where he took it. He says he took it to someone there to have it destroyed.”
Hasbún says he does not remember who brought that car. “I remember seeing it there. A red Passat. Brand new. It arrived one day and I later learned that it was involved in the Archbishop Romero thing, but I didn’t inquire further because in those days it was dangerous to go around asking questions. I kept my mouth shut.” The car, says Hasbún, stayed at that auto repair shop for nearly a month, until one day it disappeared and he never heard anything else about it.
Two or three days after Archbishop Romero’s murder, D´Aubuisson’s group holds a meeting at the home of Eduardo Lemus O´Byrne. Saravia knows about this meeting because he left from there to go pay the man who shot Archbishop Romero. He went to pay him for his services.
“I didn’t know the sniper. I saw him that day in the car, saw him get in. He had a beard. And later I personally went to give him the thousand colones that he was paid. D´Aubuisson borrowed it from Eduardo Lemus O´Byrne. We were in his house when they came to tell him … Time to pay! And Roberto D´Aubuisson never handled cash. He lent him 1,000 colones to pay him.”
Eduardo Lemus O´Byrne is a prominent Salvadoran businessman. A former president of the National Private Enterprise Association (ANEP) and a poultry farm owner, he is well known in Central American business circles.
A staunch enemy of the land reform since the days of Colonel Molina he gravitated naturally towards D´Aubuisson’s group. He has this to say about Saravia and Sagrera: “They were a couple of heavies. I never had anything to do with them. I defend principles, but they had become warlords and mafiosos.” He assures me that he never, ever gave money to D´Aubuisson and that if he had asked him for 1,000 colones for Romero’s murderer he certainly would remember it. “And no, I do not recall that meeting. That meeting never happened.”
Lemus O´Byrne split from D´Aubuisson and the founders of the ARENA party shortly afterwards. On September 14, 1982, his brother-in-law, Julio Vega, an aviator pilot, disappeared from a Guatemalan runway. “I believe they eliminated him because he was trafficking arms for the FAN. The FAN was the Frente Amplio Nacional, a paramilitary movement led by D´Aubuisson that laid the groundwork for ARENA.
Vega’s widow married D´Aubuisson soon afterwards and Eduardo Lemus O´Byrne still does not discard a possible link between the murder and the love affair. How else do you explain why, when one of his friends started to investigate the crime, he immediately began to receive death threats: “The D´Aubuisson, Sagrera and Saravia group tried to kill him. So I said to Roberto: You don’t mess with me because I will bust your ass.”
Captain Saravia insists that Lemus O´Byrne put up the money. “He gave the thousand pesitos. I personally went to deliver it. I went to him and I told him look, Roberto D´Aubuisson says he doesn’t want to hear shit from you and that you should work it out with your boss.”
He took the money to the parking lot of Balam Quitzé, a small shopping center in west San Salvador. The sniper, now beardless, was waiting for him there along with Walter “Musa” Álvarez, a strange man who was murdered soon after that.
“He gave the cash. He gave the thousand and I went to deliver it to him and I told him the following: That’s it for me! From there I started to see him, this, what’s his name,… He would go to Daglio’s offices and spend time there. And (Jorge) “El Chivo” Velado was already an older man by then and he would go around with him. The guy would be out in the street with him driving. And I wasn’t the only one who saw him. And he must have said to people, ‘this is the one who killed him.’ He knows his exact movements.”
Jorge Velado is an old man now. He was a founder of the ARENA party and worked side by side with D´Aubuisson for many years. But that, says Velado, has nothing to do with the murder of Archbishop Romero. After weeks spent trying to reach him, Velado has agreed to speak to me only briefly and by telephone. “I didn’t know this Saravia and I never went around with anyone, ever. I have nothing to say about any of that.”
Marissa D´Aubuisson remembers another scene: A few days after Archbishop Romero’s death, rumors were going around that Roberto D´Aubuisson had ordered the murder.
His older sister decided to find out for herself and she confronted her paramilitary brother. “Roberto, they’re saying that you had something to do with Romero’s death.” Major D´Aubuisson replied: “Look, it’s better to keep quiet in case you don’t know it, because they’re going to build a monument to the one who killed that sonofabitch.”
The murder and rumors of D´Aubuisson’s involvement with death squads, helped to consolidate his leadership in the ranks of the Salvadoran extreme right, as well as his stature as an iconic figure in the anticommunist struggle.
Years after he participated in the murder of Archbishop Romero, Major Roberto D´Aubuisson became a presidential candidate, the president of the 1985 Constituent Assembly, a legend, and a father and mentor to the Salvadoran rightwing. The party he founded, ARENA, governed El Salvador for 20 years until the former guerrilla group, the FMLN, defeated it at the polls in March 2009.
Deeply disturbed by the turn his life had taken and his direct contact with impoverished and excluded sectors, Saravia’s world view has changed. Now he would like to gun down the same man he previously handed a thousand colones. “They should execute him!… I don’t know why there’s no death penalty in El Salvador, because he deserves to die. I’d like to believe it like that and I’d like to confront him. Because he knows. And if he’s alive, what could be better than to nab him?”
He has this to say about Roberto D´Aubuisson’s role: “He told me: ‘Take care of it.’ Take care of delivering the car, right? Now, looking back, you know what I think? I think it was an order to kill. Right? I thought about it. I thought about it. I don’t know for sure whether D´Aubuisson got involved in the matter and made a fool out of me, because I’m in all of it – knowing what I know and what I’m telling you, I’d like to know that too. And if not, I shit on D´Aubuisson’s mother. ¿Ah? At least I have more …”.
Father Jesús Delgado—a Romero biographer who promised many years ago that one day he will write a book revealing who ordered the Archbishop’s murder—asserts that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson was merely an operational game piece and not the mastermind of the murder. “It was easy for Duarte to assign all the responsibility to a single person. D’Aubuisson did participate, but he did not order it,” he says.
Captain Saravia and I have agreed to meet again at a local eatery in the village. When he arrived, he found me sitting at a table under a painting of the Last Supper. He stopped to look at it.
-Why did you sit here?
-It was the only free table, Captain.
-Didn’t you notice? You’re sitting right under the Last Supper. That has to be a sign.
He told me that he wanted a photo under the Last Supper and I took one with my cell phone. I took a chance and asked him to pose in front of the Wanted poster bearing his photograph and he agreed. While I was taking the picture, I told him I’d bring a photographer next time I came, and he agreed to that too.
The last time we met, he had just finished doing some farm work, machete in hand, that put some cash his way. He had shaved, cut his hair and was wearing new glasses. “Now you can take all the pictures of me that you want to.”
I take advantage of the moment to play the tape of Archbishop Romero’s last Mass. The captain frowns and listens attentively. Archbishop Romero pronounces his last words: “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and blood to suffering and to pain – like Christ, not for ourselves, but to teach justice and peace to our people. So let us join together intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer for Doña Sarita and for ourselves”.
A shot rings out and Captain Saravia shudders. He gives a little start in his chair. An electric current runs through his body and stops in his eyes, which are now wide open and moist behind his new glasses. He looks at me intently for a couple of seconds. He takes a deep breath.
-Is that the shot?
-Yes, Captain. That is the shot.
-- translated by Gretta Siebentritt