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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.


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:

Operation Pineapple

1. Starlight

1. 257 Robert*s

4. Automatics



1. Driver

1. Sniper

4. Security

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.

-You too.

-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.

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