Tuesday, March 24, 2009


At the start of 1980 the human rights situation in El Salvador was rapidly deteriorating. By the end of the year the nation was embroiled in a civil war that ultimately claimed 75,000 lives. In February of that year Óscar Romero, the nation's Catholic Archbishop, wrote to U.S President Jimmy Carter "You say that you are Christian. If you are really Christian, please stop sending military aid to the military here , because they use it only to kill my people." The Human Rights Administration ignored the plea. While giving mass a month later, twenty nine years ago today, Archbishop Romero's life was ended with a bullet to the hears as he raised the Eucharist, his blood was spilled across the alter. His death came only a day after he called on government soldiers to refuse to obey orders to suppress human rights. He was the first of many martyrs for human rights in El Salvador's brutal civil war where 85% of the civilian victims were targeted by their own government.

A UN report found Romero's assassination to be the work Roberto D'Aubuisson. An ultra-nationalist admirer of Hitler and his Final Solution, Blowtorch Bob, as victims of his torture sessions dubbed him, attended the infamous School of the Americas before spending fourteen years leading death squads to implement his vision, articulated in 1981, that between 200,000 and 300,000 people needed to be exterminated to restore peace to El Salvador. He found friends both in the ARENA party he founded whose members still revere him as a national hero and in right wing circles in Washington. In 1984 a group including the Moral Majority, Young Americans for Freedom, Young America's Foundation, the Conservative Alliance, the Free Congress Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation, and the National Pro-Life PAC, presented him with an honorary plaque in appreciation of his "inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere". This is the same corp group that helped arrange for the Human Rights Administration to resume aid to El Salvador after it was halted in response to the rape and murder of four American humanitarian workers from the Catholic church by government forces in December of 1980.

Once the civil war moved into its second year and a new administration took over in Washington the situation deteriorated further. Government forces escalated their terror, torturing and disappearing suspected leftists; students, intellectuals, peasants, human rights observers, union members, opposition leaders, members of the clergy, and anyone else suspected of anti-government tendencies. Only months after President Reagan took office over a thousand civilians were massacred by U.S trained government forces in the town of El Mozote. Over the opposition of human rights groups the U.S dismissed the massacre as propaganda and continued supplying weapons and training to the military.

In 1987 the body of Herbert Anaya, an assassinated human rights activist was dumped in protest outside of the U.S embassy in San Salvador. Washington continued to denounce human rights organizations operating within El Salvador as rebel propaganda groups, but domestic support for the U.S's policies was beginning to unwind. The war ended in 1990 and nineteen years later the last chapter of this period of El Salvador's history was closed when the Obama administration indicated it would not interfere with elections in which the ARENA party was finally driven from power.

The defeat of fascism and the restoration of the principles of human rights in El Salvador was made possible only through the courageous work and sacrifice of human rights activists, both American and Salvadorian, who risked their freedom and their lives to document and resist massive crimes against humanity. In El Salvador they won, but the ideology that led to the initial problem persists. While marking the murder of Archbishop Romero it is important to remember that the courage, strength, and convictions that drove him remain badly needed in the ongoing struggle for human rights.

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