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Vatican Canonizes Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, Who Was Killed by a U.S.-Backed Death Squad

StoryOctober 15, 2018
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Pope Francis has named Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero a saint. Romero was a champion for the poor and oppressed who was murdered by a U.S.-backed right-wing death squad in 1980 at the beginning of the brutal U.S.-backed military campaign in El Salvador. Wearing the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was assassinated, Pope Francis praised Romero for disregarding his own life “to be close to the poor and to his people.” We speak with Matt Eisenbrandt, a human rights lawyer and the author of “Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice.” Eisenbrandt served on the trial team that brought the only court verdict ever reached for Romero’s murder.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show with the canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero. Archbishop Romero was a champion for the poor and oppressed who was murdered by a U.S.-backed right-wing death squad, March 24th, 1980, the beginning of the brutal U.S.-backed war in El Salvador.

On Sunday, Pope Francis made Romero a saint, along with Pope Paul VI and five others. Wearing the blood-stained rope belt that Romero wore when he was assassinated, Pope Francis, who’s originally from Argentina, was praising Romero for disregarding his own life to be close to the poor and to his people.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] It is wonderful that, together with Pope Paul VI and the other new saints today, there’s Archbishop Romero, who left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.

AMY GOODMAN: Only weeks before his assassination, Archbishop Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter, calling on him to not provide military aid to the right-wing Salvadoran military government. Then, in the Archbishop’s final and now-famous sermon, he made a direct appeal to Salvadoran soldiers to lay down their weapons.

ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO: [translated] In his name and in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression!

AMY GOODMAN: The next day, a driver and a gunman pulled up in a red Volkswagen Passat outside of the church where Archbishop Romero was giving mass. The gunman fired a single shot from the car, killing Romero. Romero’s murder was one of the most shocking of the long conflict between a series of U.S.-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands of dissidents and everyday civilians in Salvador were killed by right-wing and military death squads. Activists continue to call for justice in Romero’s assassination. Last year a Salvadoran judge reopened the case.

For more, we’re joined by Matt Eisenbrandt, human rights lawyer, author of Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice. The book won the 2017 Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America. Matt Eisenbrandt served on the trial team that brought the only court verdict ever reached for Romero’s murder.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Matt. It’s great to have you with us, joining us from British Columbia. Can you talk about what happened to Óscar Romero? Who was responsible for his assassination?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Romero was killed by a death squad that was headed by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was a very important military intelligence figure in El Salvador in the late '70s who was backed by some of the wealthiest families in El Salvador, who were very outspoken against Archbishop Romero for his condemnation of the repression that they underwrote in El Salvador. And the murder occurred, as you were just saying, a day after Romero's most strident call in his homily to stop the repression. And so, this death squad carried out his murder, and Roberto D’Aubuisson, rather than ending up in jail, ended up becoming one of the most powerful political figures in El Salvador throughout the 1980s.

AMY GOODMAN: D’Aubuisson’s relationship with the U.S. government and with the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, Matt Eisenbrandt?

MATT EISENBRANDT: Yeah, so, I mean, there is a long history of U.S. government training of Salvadoran military officials. D’Aubuisson did attend an international police academy in Washington, D.C., and there was some connection to the School of the Americas. Now, his training, as far as I know, was not as extensive as some of the other connections to even higher-ranking Salvadoran military figures, but certainly he did have some connections to the U.S. government, and he and his sort of political backers had close connections to politicians and political groups in Washington, D.C.

And it’s also important to note that the death squad that D’Aubuisson headed and other death squads in El Salvador occurred as a result of U.S. policies starting back in the 1960s of training Latin American militaries. And so, there is U.S. responsibility in terms of building up that structure that led to the death squad and the just horrific violence that occurred in El Salvador at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Eisenbrandt, your response to the pope’s making Óscar Romero a saint and what this means, as thousands celebrated in El Salvador?

MATT EISENBRANDT: It’s a tremendously important moment for El Salvador and for—you know, Romero’s canonization took decades, and for it to finally happen and for him to be declared a saint is—it cannot be overstated how important this is for El Salvador and just really a tremendous, tremendous moment. It would be, regardless, for El Salvador, but especially after decades of resistance to him being declared a saint, both in the Vatican and in El Salvador. For his cause to have finally overcome all of these challenges is tremendously important.

But I also do make the note that as big an achievement and as important a day as it was yesterday for El Salvador, there’s still a second piece, which is justice for his killers. And to this point, other than the civil lawsuit that I was involved in in the United States against one of his killers, nobody has been held accountable for his killing, and no one has gone to jail in El Salvador or even been been put on trial there. So, there is the second—as important as the canonization was, there is now the second piece that has to be achieved after all these years.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and post it at web exclusives at So, Matt Eisenbrandt, please stay with us, author of Assassination of a Saint.

I’ll be speaking at the Metrograph theater in New York tonight, and in Florida, in Gainesville, as well as other places this weekend. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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