Nearly 25 years after Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass in San Salvador, a chance for justice has finally appeared. In a landmark lawsuit, a federal judge in California ruled Friday that a former Salvadoran air force officer now living in the United States must pay $10 million to the family of the late archbishop.
The officer, Alvaro Saravia, once a close associate of Roberto d'Aubuisson, the late founder of El Salvador's ruling right-wing party, is accused of obtaining a gun for the assassin, arranging for his transportation to the chapel and paying him afterward.
The suit, filed on behalf of a relative of the archbishop by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a human rights group, sought damages for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity. Although Saravia went into hiding and was tried in absentia, he now faces monetary damages.
The case was watched closely in Central America, where fragile new democracies suffer the lingering effects of unpunished wartime crimes. The failure to bring rights violators to justice encourages more violence, as Romero's killing and the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala sadly illustr
The lack of arrests in the Romero murder was a signal that Salvadoran armed forces and paramilitary groups enjoyed impunity for their crimes, quickening the country's descent into a brutal 12-year civil war that left more than 75,000 civilians dead.
Countries emerging from civil conflict must reconcile the dual needs of consolidating stability and pursuing justice, a difficulty easily exploited by those intent on protecting their own interests.
In El Salvador, a sweeping amnesty law rendered the 1993 findings of a United Nations truth commission legally irrelevant. That commission found d'Aubuisson (who died in 1992) and Saravia responsible for Romero's murder, but neither man could be prosecuted in his homeland.
Thus the best chance for justice stems from the coincidence of Saravia's residency - he has been in the United States since at least 1987.
Through the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, the United States allows foreign citizens to sue people living within American borders. Fortunately, this summer, in a case involving the kidnapping of a Mexican doctor, the Supreme Court decided against the Bush administration and affirmed the applicability of the act in human rights cases.
The Saravia trial, while an inspiring exercise in American law, does raise disturbing questions about U.S. policy.
How did Saravia come to live in California in the first place? Declassified State Department and Central Intelligence Agency documents reveal that the government was aware of Saravia's alleged involvement in the Romero assassination as early as May 1980.
The trial also represents an opportunity to examine, albeit obliquely, the responsibility of the Salvadoran government and its closest ally, the United States, in the events that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Salvadoran civilians.
It is a sort of redemption, then, that the first trial in this murder took place in an American court.
Let us hope that justice will be served at last in the case of Oscar Romero, and that it will inspire the governments of the United States, El Salvador and other nations to prosecute the many human rights abusers who live openly among us.
Rigoberta Menchú Tuma, a Mayan refugee from Guatemala, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her work for the rights of indigenous people.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune