On two occasions during El Salvador’s terrible war years, I had an inkling of being in front of an unusual experience. One was visiting El Salvador’s Cathedral, where Archbishop Oscar Romero officiated mass. He had been assassinated by one of the country’s death squads. I could almost feel, although he was already dead, that he was still present there. The other experience was meeting a Spanish priest, Ignacio Martín- Baró, who had also been assassinated by death squads for his work with the Salvadoran poor. He was the closest I have ever experienced to a saintly figure. Recently, uncovered evidence ties presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s search for funds to those death squads.
Investigations by The Los Angeles Times and Huffington Post showed that over a third of the $37 million raised by Mitt Romney to launch his highly profitable Bain Capital enterprise in the mid-1980s came from rich Salvadorans linked to the country’s death squads. Former Bain executive Harry Strachan introduced Romney to those investors. “I owe a great deal to Americans of Latin American descent,” said Romney at a dinner in Miami in 2007.
Some, among El Salvador ruling class, supported the death squads during the country’s civil war to crush left-wing guerrillas and social reformers such as Martín-Baró. According to Strachan, Romney had asked him to make sure that none of the new investors in Bain Capital had ties to illegal drug money, right-wing death squads or left-wing terrorist groups in El Salvador. After Strachan assurances that those investors didn’t have questionable ties, Mitt Romney met with the investors at a Miami bank and approved the investment.
While investing in the U.S., though, some of those families were financing Salvadoran death squads, groups that were responsible for almost 35,000 civilian deaths between 1979 and 1984. The groups’ atrocities provoked international condemnation. In 1982, El Salvador’s independent Human Rights Commission, confirmed that most of the 35,000 civilian killed died at the hands of the death squads. Robert D’Aubuisson Arrieta, a major in the Salvadoran army and founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party was considered to be the leader of those right-wing death squads. He was known as “Blowtorch Bob” because of his frequent use of a blowtorch during interrogation sessions.
In a book entitled “The Country Between Us,” the noted US poet Carolyn Forché writes about the brutality in El Salvador during those years. In a short vignette called The Colonel, Forché tells of being invited for dinner at a Colonel’s house. “What you have heard is true. I was in is house,” writes Forché. “…The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught the scrap of his voice. Some of the ears were pressed to the ground.”
There is conclusive evidence that Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed on D’Aubuisson’s orders. There is also clear evidence that several of the leading families in El Salvador were closely connected to D’Aubuisson’s ARENA party and to the death squads who killed thousands of innocent civilians.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Mitt Romney knew about the investing Salvadoran families’ relationship with that country’s death squads. However, given their terrible record of killing and maiming those groups had in El Salvador, it also meant that not enough efforts were made to know the origin and connections of their blood money.