Martyr in heart of darkness still offers hope

The elevation to sainthood of assassinated archbishop Oscar Romero, who spoke out against the murderous US-backed junta in El Salvador, helps the downtrodden in Latin America to keep the faith

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 10:19pm

The elevation to sainthood of slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero is no surprise to anyone who follows these things. In 2014, a year after Francis became pope, he ordered the speeding up of the beatification of Romero that would lead to him becoming a saint.

For Salvadorans, the recognition for a national hero was long overdue. For Americans, it should be a time for self-reflection. That will not happen, of course.

In response to the killings, tortures and kidnappings of peasant leaders, fellow priests and their followers by government forces, Romero wrote to the US president Jimmy Carter to beg him to stop military aid to the ruling junta. He warned that continuing aid would “sharpen injustice and repression”.

A few weeks after the letter was sent, Romero was assassinated while delivering mass in his own church. Two weeks before his death, in March 1980, a joint Honduran and Salvadoran army operation butchered 600 people at the Rio Sumpul.

Romero’s murder was at the start of a terror campaign against its own population by the junta. His warning soon came to pass. Washington championed then president Jose Napoleon Duarte, the civilian face of military and right-wing leaders. The civil war would claim more than 75,000 lives by the end of the 1980s.

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After Ronald Reagan became US president, military aid and training to EI Salvador expanded. Reagan officials suppressed evidence that Roberto d’Aubuisson, an extreme right-wing power broker, ordered the archbishop’s killing. He was finally implicated by the United Nations’ Truth Commission for El Salvador of 1992 to 1993.

The country’s security forces such as the National Guard and Treasury Police all had their own death squads. But the most horrific and ferocious was the army’s Atlacatl Battalion, set up, trained, equipped and financed by the US military throughout the civil war. It was formed at the US Army’s School of the Americas, alma mater of many of South America’s most brutal dictators and military officers in the past century.

Senior Atlacatl officers were trained by special forces of the US Army at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. Once described in an article in The New York Times as “the pride of the United States military team in San Salvador”, the battalion committed some of the worst massacres and atrocities.

Did Romero die in vain? Politically, perhaps. But his martyrdom has given hope and faith to the downtrodden throughout Latin America to this day.