Justice served (partly) by suing killer

The author of a new book about the men who killed Archbishop Oscar Romero while celebrating Mass 37 years ago says the subject is still dangerous to talk about.

Matt Eisenbrandt and a team of lawyers in the U.S. and El Salvador were behind the only successful legal case against Archbishop Romero’s murderers to date, and although Assassination of a Saint contains new revelations, Eisenbrandt said he can’t reveal everything.

“There are people whose testimony I would love to include in the book, but it is still too dangerous,” he told about 100 social justice activists in Vancouver April 3.

The case against Archbishop Romero’s killers began when the U.S.-based Centre for Justice and Accountability got a tip that a man linked to El Salvadorian death squads was living in California.

“What we were able to do is to bring a civil lawsuit. Our charges were extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity,” said Eisenbrandt, who details the endeavour in Assassination of a Saint.

The CJA, a non-profit that aims to bring torturers and war criminals living in the U.S. to account, began looking for answers in 2001. When Eisenbrandt joined the group as a young attorney, he found himself on a historical mission.

“This was going to be the only trial ever in Archbishop Romero’s murder,” said Eisenbrandt, who went on to become legal director of the CJA.

Archbishop Romero, a vocal advocate for the poor and oppressed, was gunned down while celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador March 24, 1980. A judge in El Salvador was assigned to the case, but three days later suffered an assassination attempt and disappeared.

But the CJA had a lead. In 1987, the assassin’s getaway driver had testified in secret and under oath that his boss was death squad member Alvaro Saravia. That same man was seen in San Francisco in 2001. CJA went after him.

“An amazing amount of evidence already existed,” said Eisenbrandt.

Lawyers in the U.S. and El Salvador also researched the complex political and military climate and looked into Saravia’s superiors. While collecting evidence, a laptop with sensitive information was stolen, one American colleague was followed by a vehicle with tinted windows, and a witness in El Salvador was threatened.

Then, in 2004, they brought the case before a U.S. judge. In a guarded courtroom, they found Saravia guilty.

“We ended up winning the case,” said Eisenbrandt. “He was found legally responsible for Archbishop Romero’s assassination.”

The judge ruled Saravia would have to pay $10 million in damages, but Saravia had fled his California home and vanished. “To this day, we have not yet gotten a penny.”

None of Saravia's superiors were brought before the court. “If we were going to bring one of them into the case, we would have to have the most ironclad evidence you can imagine because these guys are multi-millionaires,” he said. “You can imagine the fight we would have on our hands.”

Eisenbrandt decided to write a detailed account of the evidence, some of which the public eye had never seen before. However, he admits he left much out of Assassination of a Saint. “El Salvador remains an incredibly dangerous country, and even 37 years later, the Romero assassination is still very dangerous to talk about.”

He added that Archbishop Romero’s chapter in history is far from closed. While the Church looks forward to his canonization, some petitions in El Salvador are starting to surface about reopening his case.

Among the 100 audience members crowded in St. James Community Hall was Daysi Bonilla, Consul General for El Salvador in Vancouver.

“Thank you for writing the memories of my country, El Salvador,” Bonilla said in halting English.

A wide variety of social justice groups were represented, including the Migrant Workers’ Dignity Association, fair trade coffee vendor Café Etico, and the Solidarity Notes choir.

“Activists from a number of different fronts are here to honour Romero and to learn about the book, and also to talk to each other and build a movement, because that’s how change happens,” said event organizer Tom Sandborn.

“In a time like this, with forces of hatred so ascendant, we have to understand that we have to stand up and stand up together.”

Eisenbrandt is now the legal director of the Canadian Centre for International Justice, based in B.C.More information about his book is available at www.assassinationofasaint.com.