Thousands gather outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador March 30, 1980, as the casket of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero is carried inside for a funeral Mass.
No one may have noticed the red Volkswagen Passat as it glided slowly to a stop near the modest chapel of Divine Providence Hospital. Two other cars haunted the streets outside the small church: one filled with armed men working as “security” for the assassin and, in the other car, two men who loosely supervised the operation waited to assess its outcome.
A thin, bearded man, the Passat’s passenger and a stranger to its driver Amado Garay, told Garay to crouch down and pretend to repair something.
On another typically hot evening in San Salvador, the Carmelite sisters had kindly left the wing-shaped chapel doors open, hoping for a breath of air to cool the congregants inside. Through the open doors of the Divine Providence chapel the assassin had a clear view of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the altar as he made his way through the homily he had prepared for this requiem Mass, one he agreed to celebrate for the mother of a friend.
“My dear sisters and brothers,” the archbishop was saying, his homily gathering steam. “I think we should not only pray this evening for the eternal rest of our dear Doña Sarita, but above all we should take to ourselves her message...that every Christian ought to want to live intensely. Many do not understand; they think Christianity should not be involved in such things,” Archbishop Romero said, referring to the “things” of the physical world, the problems of the times in which we live. “But, to the contrary,” he continued, “you have just heard in Christ’s Gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone.” He was wrapping up yet another memorable homily for those gathered in the church and those who would listen to his words later on the radio. “The harvest comes about,” he said, “only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”
Soon he would elevate the host above the altar, and he would speak the words of consecration; his eyes, as so many hundreds of times before, would be on the host held high before him. If for a second then he had glanced through the open doors of the chapel, would he have seen the young man taking aim? Would he have been afraid? Would he have been tempted to flee? It hardly matters.
We know Archbishop Romero was focused on prayer at the moment of his death, preparing for that prayer said during the Eucharist at Masses each day all over the world. We know also that as he spoke his last homily the archbishop knew that death was seeking him out; he knew his words were pulling death closer to him. He surely knew, too, that if he were only to remain silent, to stop speaking out about the killing and the oppression and the poverty, death just might lose interest in him. There were so many others on death lists in El Salvador in those days on whom it could slake its thirst. But he would not be silent.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” he said in this final homily, his final moments, “let us all view these matters at this historic moment with [hope], that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can...because all those longings for justice, peace and well-being that we experience on earth become realized for us if we enlighten them with Christian hope.”
Outside in the red Passat, Garay heard a shot, turned around and saw his anonymous passenger “holding a gun with both hands pointing towards the right side of the rear right window of the vehicle.” Garay could smell gunpowder. The bearded man turned to him and calmly told him, “Drive slowly, take it easy.” He did as he was asked; no one interfered with the assassins as they departed. The two men drove in silence to meet with the supervisors of the operation. “Mission accomplished,” the thin, bearded man told them.
Everyone in El Salvador who could reach a radio or visit with the Monseñor in person at Mass listened to his homilies. His words brought hope and courage to thousands. But to some who listened—just as intently—they provoked only a cold, seething hatred. The archbishop’s homily was “the little morsel for the day all over,” as one of the conspirators in the murder would remember later. Everyone tuned in for them: the poor, the workers, the revolutionaries, surely, but also the leaders of the death squads and the members of the business and landowning class alarmed by the growing social consciousness of El Salvador’s peasants.
On the night he was murdered, there was much celebrating among the military and members of El Salvador’s patron class, those who had ordered the killing of the archbishop and those who were merely cheered to discover it had taken place. There was much contentment on a farm in Santa Tecla, where the Salvadoran anti-Communist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson had been waiting with a group of his followers to hear the outcome of the operation. But 30 years later, few of those directly responsible would feel like celebrating. D’Aubuisson was dead—killed by throat cancer—as were many of those directly involved in the assassination of the archbishop, some under highly suspicious circumstances. Perhaps there remain a few who are happy to have their role in Archbishop Romero’s death whispered only to the grave. The man who pulled the trigger, in fact, has never been caught.
Captain Álvaro Rafael Saravia was among those who celebrated the night of March 24, 1980, but his delight was to be short-lived. One of the few direct conspirators today still among the living, his experience since the Salvadoran peace sputtered into life in 1992 has been one of exile and diminishment. But back then, as one of D’Aubuisson’s most trusted lieutenants, he could only have been gratified about how well the “operation” had turned out, how professionally it had been conducted.
He had long been suspected of being the man in the Passat, the man who pulled the trigger. But, tracked down after years hiding in the United States and Central America in flight from a civil judgment against him for the killing of the archbishop, Saravia is finally ready to come clean, to tell what happened that night.
After running for so long from the assassination, Saravia is happy to set the record straight when he is brought to ground by Carlos Dada, a founding editor and investigative reporter from El Salvador’s El Faro, a digital newspaper.
“You wrote this, right?” Saravia says, referring to an article that speculated that Saravia himself had pulled the trigger that felled the archbishop. “Well it’s wrong.... It says here, ‘several years after murdering archbishop Romero.’ And I didn’t kill him.”
“Who killed him then? Someone from outside El Salvador?” Dada questioned. “No,” said Saravia. “An ‘indio,’ one of our own. He’s still out there somewhere.” Was Saravia denying that he had a role in the murder?
“Thirty years and this is going to persecute me until I die,” Saravia mutters to the journalist. “Of course I participated. That’s why we’re here talking.”
The man he helped kill can be said to have unknowingly begun to walk the path to martyrdom on Feb. 17, 1980, when he addressed a letter to President Jimmy Carter pleading that the American president not send military aid to the Salvadoran government. Archbishop Romero warned President Carter that whatever material support the United States provided would quickly be turned against the people of El Salvador themselves. That gesture was provocative enough, but the archbishop would soon generate even deeper animus among the men who held his life and death in their hands.
‘Cease the Repression’
The night before his murder, the archbishop made a personal appeal in a desperate attempt to place some sort of moral obstacle before the escalating pace of the killing in El Salvador. He spoke directly to those soldiers of the night who were most responsible for the growing horror. “I would like to appeal in a special way to the men of the army,” he said, “and in particular to the troops of the National Guard, the police and the garrisons. Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God that says ‘Do not kill!’ should prevail. No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin.... Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you! In the name of God: ‘Cease the repression!’”
The applause was so thunderous the radio station’s beleaguered audio technicians at first took it for some sort of short circuit or feedback in the system that had knocked the good archbishop off the air.
For Archbishop Romero to have said such words after receiving so many warnings and direct threats is a testament to his faith and his courage. As far as the men who were directing the violence against the “leftists” in El Salvador were concerned, he was speaking the purest blasphemy to the soldiers.
Salvadoran newspapers had already essentially called for assassination. They had condemned him as “a demagogic and violent archbishop” who “preached terrorism from his cathedral.” One menaced, “The armed forces should begin to oil their weapons.”
And just two weeks before he was shot through the heart, a briefcase containing an unexploded bomb was found behind the pulpit of the church where, the day before, he had said Mass for a murdered government official.
He must have known they were coming for him and that it was too late to turn back. He certainly knew that death was stalking him. Since the killing of his dear friend, the Jesuit Rutilio Grande, Archbishop Romero understood where the path that he was following would lead.
Though he dismissed the concerns of others, he was acutely aware that he could be preparing the ground for his own martyrdom, and he knew in all likelihood that his death would be violent. He had already seen what had become of many who had threatened the political order in El Salvador, and that specter of his own fate filled him with dread as it would any person. He loved life; he loved his people. He was not eager to leave either behind.
In his last retreat, he made a note of one of his final discussions with his spiritual director. “It is not easy to accept a violent death, which is very possible in these circumstances, and the apostolic nuncio to Costa Rica warned me of imminent danger just this week. You have encouraged me, reminding me that my attitude should be to hand my life over to God regardless of the end to which that life might come; that unknown circumstances can be faced with God’s grace; that God assisted the martyrs, and that if it comes to this I shall feel God very close as I draw my last breath; but that more valiant than surrender in death is the surrender of one’s whole life—a life lived for God.”
Certainly there were men in El Salvador the night before who heard the assassination of Archbishop Romero’s imploring words to the soldiers in the streets of her cities and the hills of her countryside who knew exactly what he was doing with those last words. He was signing his own death warrant. The men of the death squads had long ago gotten over whatever superstitions they might have had about killing a priest. Now they were ready to kill a bishop, even one standing before an altar.
At the Mass for Doña Sarita, Archbishop Romero was finishing the homily. “In this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation,” he told the assembly before him. “May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for [humanity] nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.”
The instant when a shot cracked the quiet of the church has been captured for eternity on audiotape. The assassin found his target, and Óscar Romero, mortally wounded, tumbled to the floor behind the altar. Some sisters and others at Mass quickly reached his side, indifferent to the possible threat to their own lives as pandemonium erupted in the chapel. But the archbishop was already dead, and the red Passat, with the young man inside, was drifting away into the streets of San Salvador.
Kevin Clarke is senior editor and chief correspondent of America and the author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press), from which this article is excerpted.