THE BLOG

The US Helped Create a Christian Martyr in Oscar Romero

02/09/2015 02:37 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

On February 3, The New York Times published an AP report announcing Pope Francis' decree:

...that slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in 1980 out of hatred for his Catholic faith, approving a martyrdom declaration that sets the stage for his beatification. Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was gunned down by right-wing death squads March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass. A human rights campaigner, Romero had spoken out against repression by the Salvadoran army at the beginning of the country's 1980-1992 civil war between the right-wing government and leftist rebels. His assassination presaged a conflict that killed nearly 75,000.

Not too surprisingly, this story omitted some key facts about the role of the U.S. in the killing of Romero and other Catholic priests in El Salvador. For one, while the story pointed out that "[i]n 1993, a U.N.-sponsored truth commission determined that Romero's assassination was ordered by a former army major, Roberto D'Abuisson," the story failed to report that D'Abuisson had been trained at the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), then based in Panama and now based in Columbus, Georgia. As Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer notes in his book, School of Assassins (Orbis Books, 2001), the SOA encouraged attacks upon clergy, with 75 percent of the training exercises at the SOA ending with the priest or other religious figure (usually played by a U.S. army chaplain) either killed or wounded.

I reached out to Noam Chomsky who is an expert on the subject of the U.S.'s role in repressing the Liberation Catholic Church in Latin America since the Second Vatican Council in 1962. When visiting Noam Chomsky at his MIT office several years ago, I noticed that the one poster he had on his office wall depicted Romero and the six Salvadoran Jesuits killed in 1989.

Chomsky sent me these remarks in response to the story on Romero's martyrdom and the glaring omissions therein:

The New York Times published an AP report on Pope Francis's determination that Archbishop Oscar Romero, revered as "the voice of the voiceless," was martyred when he was assassinated while reading Mass in 1980, and is therefore a candidate for sainthood. The Pope's recognition of the martyrdom of this remarkable figure is most welcome. There is more to the story than what was reported.

Melvyn Goodman, at the time a senior analyst for the CIA, reports that the US Ambassador to El Salvador, the late Robert White, at once informed the State Department that the assassination was ordered by El Salvador's leading right-wing politician, Robert D'Aubuisson. The facts were known to the CIA, Goodman reports, and the CIA deputy director for intelligence Robert Gates suppressed all intelligence on the killing, "part of the Agency's effort to bury many of the truths of American policy toward Latin America in the 1980s." White was soon dismissed from the Foreign Service.

What followed, as described by Archbishop Romero's successor Bishop Rivera y Damas, was "a war of extermination and genocide against a defenseless civilian population." That had been predicted by the martyred Archbishop in a letter to President Carter a few days before his assassination when he vainly pleaded with the President not to send aid to the armed forces who "know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadorean oligarchy." The monstrous crimes continued through the bloody decade of the 1980s, always with full US participation, until a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the murderous Atlacatl Brigade, fresh from renewed US training, broke into the Jesuit University on the orders of the high command and murdered six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests -- and their housekeeper and daughter, to make sure that no witnesses survived. Washington again sought to deny and suppress the facts.

The gory record in El Salvador was only one part of the vicious US campaigns of terror in Central America in those horrific years, for the most part subject to what legal scholar Michael Glennon termed "intentional ignorance," referring to the government stance -- not restricted to official circles.

Lest this all seem like ancient history, Catholic priests continue to be murdered in Latin America, particularly in Colombia -- the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere. As the Catholic News Agency reported in 2013, over 80 Catholic priests have been killed since 1984, along with "five religious sisters, three religious brothers, three seminarians, one bishop and one archbishop." This same piece -- written upon the death of Father Luis Alfredo Suarez, who, quite typically, was a target because of "his humanitarianism and solidarity with those in need" -- explained that "the problem of violence against clergy is a common one in Colombia."

As my dear friend, Colombian priest and human rights advocate, Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., explains, the murder of progressive clergy in Colombia continues to be part and parcel of the policy of both the Colombian military, and the U.S. which sponsors it, to prevent social change in Colombia and throughout Latin America. Sadly, one will not read about this in the paper of record of the U.S.