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Who killed Archbishop Romero? D'Aubuisson's role.

This summer El Salvador's President, Jose Napoleon Duarte, announced that a presidential commission had been formed to investigated five political killings attributed to the notorious death squads, particularly the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was gunned down March 24, 1980, as he conducted mass in his small chapel in the capital. Of all the 40,000 killings in El Salvador during five years of fratricidal war, the slaying of this 63-year-old prelate probably touched the Salvadoran people most deeply. Many poor people still display his picture in their homes, revering him as a martyr who spoke out in their favor and against the atrocities committed by El Salvador's little Caesars.

American and Salvadoran officials regard the probe into romero's assasination as a touchy business. One of the suspects, extreme rightist Roberto d'Aubuisson, is El Salvador's most popular politician after Duarte, and is the Salvadoran President's chief rival for power.

Two years ago, when Duarte was President of the civilian-military junta, he told reporters that he knew of no evidence linking d'Aubuisson to the slaying. This year, as the Duarte-d'Aubuisson rivalry unfolded on the hustings, duarte began hinting that his opponent may have had a role in it. In May, right after Duarte assumed office, a source close to the Romero investigation told former Salvadoran Ambassador to the United States Ernesto rivas-Gallont: "Within four months of Duarte's inauguration we either have d'Aubuisson in jail or he's been cleared." Now Duarte has reportedly let it leak that he will testify before the commission if asked, and that he can link d'Aubuisson to the crime.

There was disagreement among Senators about whether d'Aubuisson's supposed connection to the Romero assassination should be included in the unclassified version of the Senate Select committee on Intelligence's just-completed investigation into Salvadoran death squads, scheduled for release last week. Democrats charged that Republicans who control the committee fear that if d'Aubuisson's true role is made public, it could hurt the re-election chances of Senator Jesse Helms, whose strong support for the Salvadoran rightist has been raised as an issue by his Democratic opponent, North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. Helms has defended d'Aubuisson, calling him a "deeply religious" man and saying that he would disavow him if there was any "credible evidence" linking him to the death squads. Helms has said he doesn't require evidence that would stand up in court, and charges that when he sought "specifics" from Administration officials in the past "they backed down."

Administration sources told me privately that their reluctance to provide "specifics" to the Senator arose out of fear that U.S. intelligence sources might be endangered if their identities were made known to Helms's violent right-wing friends in Central America. Other sources said that the Senate Intelligence Committee shared that concern in choosing which staff aides would work on the report. Helms's recent revelation of classified information that the Central Intelligence Agency was funding the Christian Democrats and his assertion that U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Thomas Pickering acted as "paymaster" may have provided psychological encouragement to Salvadoran rightists in their abortive plot to kill the Ambassador this spring.

The classified version of the Senator report, which runs hundreds of pages, analyzes U.S. knowledge and procedures regarding Salvadoran death squads, based on cable traffic and internal reports from the C.I.A., the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Agency and the Justice Department. A Congressional source who read some of the cables said that what he saw days out a convinging case that d'Aubuisson is a "main player, the one who directed and controlled" death squad operations. One person familiar with the report said that it shows that the rightist leader is "involved up to his armpits" in the Romero and other killings. "If he lived in this country, he'd be sent to the gas chamber a hundred times over."

The classified report does not attempt to resolve the question of who killed Romero. A different account is provided by each agency reporting on it, and the identity of the triggerman varies. Each account is based on a different source, "each in a position to know," according to people who have read the classified version. All the accounts agree, however, that d'Aubuisson had a hand in the assassination.

Information linking d'Aubuisson to the Romero killing was first published in April 1983, by this reporter in the Albuquerque Journal and by Laurie Becklund in the Los Angeles Times as part of a joint investigation. Those accounts were based on the investigation conducted by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, whose findings are included in the Senate classified report. A still undisclosed C.I.A. account of the assassination, also considered to be credible, contradicts some of the information in the embassy's report. But the embassy version is important because it comes primarily from a known source whose information proved reliable in the past; because the informant said he participated in the plot; because incidentals of his story were confirmed by an embassy employee; and because all those he named, as well as the source himself, are believed by U.S. intelligence to have been deeply involved in death squad activities.

The circumstances surrounding the embassy's investigation have since been amplified by interviews with U.S. officials and with Congressional sources who have access to confidential State Department cables, and by conversations with Salvadoran military and government officials, including sources close to d'Aubuisson. Because of the sensitivity of the material, all those interviewed requested anonymity.

The U.S. Embassy received its first account of the killing in mid-November 1980, according to former Ambassador to El Salvador Robert E. White in testimony before the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee earlier this year. He said a "particularly brave and resourceful American diplomat" had met with a Salvadoran Army officer who had participated in the plot and who said he had witnessed d'Aubuisson order the killing. (D'Aubuisson has many times denied his involvement.) The cable reporting this meeting describes the Salvadoran informant as being of unknown reliability. But U.S. officials came to regard him as "highly reliable " because he subsequently identified the National Guardsmen who killed four American churchwomen in December 1980. Those he named were later convicted by a Salvadoran court--a lonely example of justice being meted out to military men for their participation in death squads.

Embassy personnel came to refer to the informant as Killer, and that's how his telephone calls were announced by cheery-voiced secretaries. "He was a ruthless, evil guy, quixotic, tough and brutal," recalled a U.S. official who was stationed in San Salvador. Although Killer's motivation for talking to the embassy remains unclear, those familiar with his reports said he resented d'Aubuisson and others in the pay of the wealthy families. Killer said the death squads were necessary because government restraints on the security forces compelled soldiers to take extralegal action. When he mentioned the Archbishop, he referred to him casually and unceremoniously as "that fellow the priest." He said he gave bullets from his own gun to the officer chosen to carry out the assassination, so that he might participate symbolically in the act.

The decision to kill El Salvador's highest-ranking cleric, U.S. officials believe, was part of a planned coup d'etat by the extreme right. The plotters hoped the killing would touch off disorder and panic, which would enable them to seize power and stem the social and economic reforms enacted in early March 1980. "That was a real important time for the right," explained a U.S. diplomat familiar with the Romero killing. "Their backs were up against the wall. They were pushing and kicking. It was like a shark in a frenzy."

Killer said he had been contacted in El Salvador by d'Aubuisson, who in early 1980 moved his paramilitary organization to Guatemala. There d'Aubuisson received financial assistance from supporters of Mario Sandoval Alarcon, chief of Guatemala's ultraright National Liberation Movement (M.L.N.), and from wealthy Salvadoran exiles living in Guatemala and Miami. Those funds were used to sustain a political-military organization in El Salvador capable of carrying on what d'Aubuisson referred to as a "Guatemalan-style" anticommunist campaign, similar to the one in which tens of thousands of Guatemalans had already perished.

A ledger from d'Aubuisson's paramilitary organization, belonging to his bodyguard, Capt. Alvaro Saravia, was seized when d'Aubuisson was arrested for treason by government soldiers at a farmhouse outside San Salvador six weeks after Romero's assassination. Virtually ignored by U.S. intelligence, which did not consider right-wing death squads to be a priority until 1983, Saravia's notebook records in accountant's detail thousands of dollars received and disbursed by d'Aubuisson's organization during the time leading up to and immediately following the assassination. It itemizes payments to hard-line army officers linked to death squads; requisitions of supplies for assault teams, including the types of weapons and the estimated number of bullets to be used; purchases of arms, bulletproof vests, silencers, nightvision scopes, forged identification cards and Guatemalan license plates (for undercover operations); names and flight information for the airborne cavalry of civilian and military pilots who operated an extensive courier and smuggling network between private air clubs in Guatemala and El Salvador; and names and telephone numbers of key operatives, including those of the officer and the triggerman believed to have gunned down the Archbishop.

Another person prominently mentioned in the Saravia notebook was one of d'Aubuisson's most trusted aides, Capt. Eduardo Alfonso Avila, who later claimed he helped plan the Romero assassination. U.S. investigators have identified Avila as a principal figure in the death squad network. He once told an Argentine intelligence officer than his specialty had been executing people by insulin injection. In addition to or as part of his terrorist activities, Avila served with the army's general staff. He was also a contact of a former U.S. defense attache in El Salvador. After he was implicated in the November 1980 failed bombing attempt against liberal army chief Col. Adolfo Arnoldo Majano, Avila was banished to the Salvadoran Embassy in Costa Rica, where he ran intelligence operations.

A cable transmitted to Washington from the defense attache in Panama in May 1982 relates the bizarre story of how Avila came to confess his part in the Romero assassination. While vacationing on Contadora Island off the coast of Panama, Avila suffered what one might interpret as an existential crisis. He had fallen in love with a young Costa Rican prostitute who had learned too much about his past, and he couldn't decide whether to kill or marry her. The cable says he tried to kill her but failed, then in remorse attempted to overdose on Valium but failed, then called for help.

When help arrived, Avila, reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, told the person he was having hallucinations of a bloody figure in black "crawling from the floor" of the San Salvador Sheraton Hotel--a reference to the January 3, 1981, killing of Jose rodolfo Viera, director of the Salvadoran agrarian reform program, and his two American aides, Michael Hammer and Mark David Pearlman. Queried about what he knew of that incident, Avila reportedly said, "I have killed them as I have killed many others." When pressed for details, the cable says, Avila admitted that "he personally planned and had two others assist him in the killing of Archbishop Romero. He indicated that he had used a dark car on this occasion and that he had spent three months planning the execution."

Avila's statement that the killing had been planned for three months is not contradicted by any other evidence attributed to the embassy. During that time there were several threats and failed attempts against the Archbishop's life. Also, Ernesto Panama, who worked closely with d'Aubuisson in 1980 and served as his press spokesman during the last election, said that as part of their "psychological war effort" they had tried to discredit Romero, who was known to suffer from a nervous disorder. "We tried to find out about when Monsignor Romero was in the cuckoo's nest in Costa Rica," Panama said. "We tried buying the records but we couldn't. They wanted too much money." Civilian members of d'Aubuisson's inner circle, who spoke on background only, also admitted that in the months leading up to the assassination, they blew up the Catholic radio station, which had broadcast the Archbishop's homilies, bombed the Jesuit-run Central American University, delivered death threats to priests and machine-gunned the Jesuits' residence.

One February 24, 1980, a month before his assassination, Romero announced in his Sunday sermon that he had been notified that his name was on a list of those to be killed the following week. His personal diary--quoted in The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, by James Brockman--shows that he was aware that the military was carrying out what he termed "special warfare," killing not only suspected leftists but also their families to stop the spread of "communist" ideas. Each Sunday until he died the Archbishop read the names of those arrested, murdered and "disappeared" by government forces (at that time the toll was upward of 500 a week). He called on the Duarte faction of the Christian Democrats who remained in the ruling junta to resign and stop "concealing for the sake of international public opinion the bloody repression of the people." In a letter to President Jimmy Carter he called for the cessation of American military aid to the Salvadoran government and pleaded for the United States not to involve itself directly or indirectly in Salvadoran affairs. Romero seemed to seal his fate during his last Sunday homily, March 23, when he appealed directly to the enlisted men carrying out the killing to disobey their orders. But by then the preparations for his assassination had passed the point of no return.

Killer told an embassy official that on or about March 22 d'Aubuisson summoned about a dozen active-duty military officers to a safe house in San Salvador and announced that a decision had been made to assassinate Romero. There was so much vying for the honor of carrying out what was regarded as a "sacred duty," an embassy source explained, that it was determined "the only fair way to do it was by lot . . . as though it were some sort of competition for a prize."

All those present at the meeting "were people who worked together officially or unofficially," the source continued. They were part of "that network of really, really bad guys who identified with each other, their ability to be valiant. . . . There's a certain mystique around you if you're macho, and a little cruelty adds to that." Among those reportedly present were National Guard Capt. Victor Hugo Vega Valencia, a d'Aubuisson crony who was later exiled to Mexico as military attache because of his involvement with the extreme right. Saravia's notebook records that Vega received a $1,000 payment the day after the assassination. Another alleged participant in the death lottery was Lieut. Francisco Amaya Rosa, a National Guard officer. Lieutenant Amaya and his confederate Lieut. Jose Rodolfo Isidro Lopez Sibrian, an intelligence officer with the guard and partner with Amaya in a Central American car-theft ring, have been described by U.S. officials as "action men" for "the most efficient killing machine in the National Guard." Ambassador White told the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee that Lieutenant Amaya drew the winning lot. Amaya is said to have chosen a favorite triggerman (a "dog," as they are known) to do the shooting.

Late in the afternoon of March 24, in an appearance previously publicized in the newspaper, Romero celebrated a memorial mass for the mother of a journalist friend at his small chapel at the Cancer Hospital. As he was concluding the ceremony, a dark car drove up to the door, and a single shot was fired from it at Romero inside. The bullet struck him close to the heart, and he slumped to the floor. A short time later he died on a table in the emergency room of a nearby hospital.

Until Killer's first report, eight months later, the U.S. Embassy had few details about the assassination plot. It was not until late 1981 that U.S. diplomats learned the name of the alleged triggerman. According to embassy accounts, this happened when Killer was shown a copy of the Saravia notebook by a Foreign Service officer. While leafing through it he stopped at the name "Musa" and is said to have told his handler, "That's the guy who shot the priest."

Embassy sources said that after conducting his own investigation, the foreign Service officer learned that Musa was Walter Antonio Alvarez, a 27-year-old former National Guardsman from Apopa, a small town outside San Salvador. The telephone number listed by his name in the notebook belonged to a downtown department store called Almacenes Pacifico, where Alvarez was employed Alvarez spent most of his spare time, however, with present and former Guardsmen who served as glondrinas, of foot soldiers of the paramilitary far right.

Alvarez's role as triggerman is one of the weaker pieces in the embassy's investigation, according to U.S. officials, but his history indicated that he was well qualified for the job. Additional information about Alvarez was obtained by this reporter from one of d'Aubuisson's personal pilots, who has proved a reliable source in the past. The pilot had access to d'Aubuisson's inner circle and was in a position to hear things. While evasive about the Romero assassination, he said he believed it was carried out by a low-level military officer "who decided the job had to be done and nobody would have the guts to order it. You know, one of those people who had to be in charge of one of those death squads." He said he remembers somebody mentioning the name of the triggerman, but it wasn't Alvarez. The pilot's version is somewhat consonant with what other sources told me had been reported by the C.I.A. and was contained in the Senate Intelligence Committee's report.

His description of Alvarez is worth repeating, because Alvarez is somewhat typical of the death squad "dogs" used by the higher-ups to kill. The pilot said the former military man earned extra money as the bodyguard of one of the owners of Almacenes Pacifico, who valued him not only because he was an excellent marksman who "had the guts to kill somebody" but because he was happy to do it. (There is no information linking the owners of Almacenes Pacifico to the Romero assassination.)

The pilot said he frequently met Alvarez at the private air club in San Salvador, which was a gathering place for leaders of the paramilitary right. While their bosses were discussing politics and plans, the pilot said, he Alvares and other bodyguards would sit around boasting about their prowess and misdeeds in order "to gain status."

"This guy [Alvarez] was a real hothead," the pilot recalled. "He was just mad as hell" because the Guardia was being restrained and the military wasn't acting tough enough. Once, when Alvarez and his employer were watching a leftist demonstration from a terrace of the department store, Alvarez persuaded the owner to let him take a potshot at one of the prostesters. The pilot recounted, without indicating the source of his knowledge, how Alvarez pulled out his gun--a small pistol with a four-inch barrel--and fired at a demonstrator in the street. "Picked him off right from the terrace, with a .38 Special! That's some shot. And he got this guy, and boom! And he was jumping up and down." Then he added:

He's probably the one person I ever met in this whole movement who probably was really off his head . . . the type of human being that likes to kill, period. He was very shifty-eyed, very unstable. You knew there's something inside the guy that's dangerous and could explode any minute--his eagerness, his eyes, the fire burning in there.

Apparently he was working on the side with one of those military teams and got killed in some operation. . . . All of a sudden a lot of people were dead before I knew when or how.

One theory held by U.S. and Salvadoran sources is that Alvarez was killed for talking too much. A brief investigation by an embassy official, reported in a December 1981 cable, said that in late September, while Alvarez was watching a match between the Almacenes Pacifico soccer team and another club, a group of men thought to be plainclothes police officers hustled him out of the crowd, threw him to the ground and shot him. An item in a San Salvador newspaper dated September 28, 1981, reports that municipal authorities found Alvarez's bullet-riddled body on a road in the capital. It said further details were lacking.

At the House hearings earlier this year, former Ambassador White charged that the State Department had cables from an eyewitness source (Killer) linking d'Aubuisson to the Romero assassination, and accused the REagan Administration of covering up in the information. The State Department then announced that the source was dead. But when White checked with his sources in El Salvador he learned that the department's statement was false, and he said he gave Killer's real name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Although there are differing accounts within the intelligence community, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that Archbishop Romero's killing sprung out of a tightly woven conspiracy involving military officers, guns for hire and wealthy civilians: the traditional Salvadoran confraternity that has always acted above the law. Yet despite Duarte's high-sounding resolve to bring to justice those responsible for the crime, a resolution of the case appears doubtful. The president's commission has no authority to act on its findings, which must be turned over to the attorney general, a member of d'Aubuisson's Arena Party. And, observed former Ambassador Rivas-Gallont, even in the best of circumstances "to convict someone in a murder case in El Salvador there needs to be a witness who saw you pull the trigger, saw the bullet hit the guy and then watched the victim fall down and bleed to death. This is difficult in a normal murder case--imagine this one!"

It does not appear that the Salvadorans will receive much help from the United States on this one. The official U.S. line on the assassination is to treat it as an internal Salvadoran affair. "We won't touch it with anything," explained an embassy source in El Salvador. "There is no U.S. support for it. If the Salvadoran government asks for confidential [cable] traffic, it will be difficult for us to cooperate because we won't disclose our sources."

The State Department's reluctance to tackle d'Aubuisson on the Romero case has at least been consistent. The Foreign Service officer who unearthed many of the details about the killing was ordered to stop his investigations shortly after his discovery of Musa, according to department sources. They said it was to dangerous. In the spring of 1982, when a Congressional committee holding hearings on the suitability of granting d'Aubuisson a visa requested all the department's files on the rightist leader, the cables linking him to the Romero assassination were withheld. Now, in the interest of not upsetting volatile right-wing forces in the Salvadoran government, the State Department is opposed to making public any conclusion in the Senate's report linking d'Aubuisson to the death squads.

From the point of view of day-to-day policy, appeasement of the violent right-wing faction headed by d'Aubuisson may seem logical, at least until other democratic forces are strengthened. But this is the logic of desperation. Four years ago, d'Aubuisson allegedly tried to seize power by throwing over the card table in the middle of the game--assassinating the highest-ranking church official in the land. Four months ago, U.S. intelligence sources learned that a group of people tied to d'Aubuisson was going to try it again--attempting to kill U.S. Ambassador Pickering and possibly President Duarte. Assassination teams were formed, guns were collected, overt actions were taken in furtherance of that plan. The plot was foiled by some fortunate tips and the persuasive power of the U.S. government. Next time we may not be so lucky.
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Title Annotation:Oscar Arnulfo Romero and Roberto D'Aubuisson
Author:Pyes, Craig
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 13, 1984
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