Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was killed by a US-backed death squad in 1980, is canonized by Pope Francis

Raymond Bonner’s classic Weakness and Deceit chronicles Central America in the 1980s, a time when El Salvador was the centerpiece of the US’s disastrous “domino theory”-style foreign policy in the region. Here, amid news that the Vatican has this week canonized Archbishop Óscar Romero, Bonner recounts Roberto D’Aubuisson’s cozy relationship with the US up to and after the archbishop’s assassination by D’Aubuisson’s death squad.

archbishop óscar romero


From Weakness and Deceit:

[Archbishop Óscar] Romero was considered the enemy by the oligarchy and the military, a voice for the poor and repressed. El Salvador’s leading conservative newspaper called him “demagogic and violent,” and accused him of preaching “terrorism from his cathedral.” He had received many death threats, but it was his sermon the Sunday before he was assassinated that may have propelled [Roberto] D’Aubuisson and the right wing into an unspeakable crime. Addressing the country’s soldiers, Romero’s call from the pulpit rings through the ages:

“In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

(Those words, that plea, have played in my head over the years—as I looked at the skulls and skeletons lying in churches in Rwanda, the Tutsi victims of the genocide there; as I watched the exhumation from shallow dirt graves of the Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks; and as I interviewed survivors of the massacre in Srebrenica. In the name of God, stop the repression). Thirty-five years after Romero was assassinated, Pope Francis declared that he had died a martyr and would be beatified, the final step before sainthood.

We now know, from documents released in 1993, that Washington had evidence early on that D’Aubuisson was complicit in Romero’s assassination, and the question has to be asked whether the murder of the priests ten years later might have been prevented had Washington worked to rein in D’Aubuisson, treating him as a pariah instead of covering up for him and praising him.

Elliott Abrams, the head of the State Department’s policy planning bureau, said during congressional testimony in August 1982 that he did not consider D’Aubuisson an extremist, that D’Aubuisson would have to have “engaged in murder” before he would say that. At that time, the embassy in San Salvador had sent at least three cables containing exactly that evidence.

How the American government acquired the evidence of D’Aubuisson’s involvement in the assassination of Archbishop Romero is a story that hasn’t been told. It is a story of skulduggery and intrigue, the story of a young American diplomat with a moral conscience who cultivated an unlikely and unsavory source with a guilty conscience, a source who eventually also provided the embassy with critical evidence about the murder of the four American churchwomen in December 1980. It begins in November of 1980, eight months after the archbishop’s assassination, when the American military group commander, Colonel Eldon Cummings, asked a junior political officer, H. Carl Gettinger, to meet with a lieutenant in the Salvadoran National Guard. Cummings considered the 26-year old Gettinger a leftist sympathizer—after all, he had a beard and he believed in Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy—and wanted him to hear from the lieutenant about the depredations of the guerillas. Gettinger assured Cummings he was well aware of guerrilla atrocities, but agreed to meet with the officer. Gettinger was not prepared for what followed.

The lieutenant hated the left—his father and a brother had been killed by the guerrillas. But he seemed to have a lot that he wanted to get off his chest. He confessed to Gettinger that he had ordered the execution of three young men who had been captured, and whom he had initially considered releasing. He had also killed several other individuals whom he thought were a threat to his own life. How could he be sure. And if they weren’t, “I would have made a mistake,” the lieutenant replied. The embassy reported all this to Washington in highly-classified cables Gettinger gave him the sobriquet “Killer.”

The expletive-filled language, the “Killer” expressed equal loathing of the right. He was resentful that the oligarchy was using the military to do its dirty work. The death squads were not independent entities, he explained, but were made up of members of the security forces operating in civilian clothes. The lieutenant, whom Gettinger colorfully described as “a man with the flattened face of an unsuccessful boxer,” was possibly one of the best sources ever developed in El Salvador, including by the CIA, and the embassy was careful never to put his name in a cable. He was referred to only as “the source.”

The lieutenant had been a member of D’Aubuisson’s right-wing cabal, had carried out bombings as well as murders, but he had become disillusioned and disenchanted. D’Aubussion and his followers had degenerated into gun runners and smugglers, motivated by money and not political ideology, he told Gettinger.

“The source” proceeded to give the United States the first concrete evidence that D’Aubuisson was the mastermind behind the assassination of Archbishop Romero. The lieutenant described to Gettinger a meeting chaired by D’Aubuisson during which the soldiers had drawn lots for the right to kill the archbishop. A few months later, Gettinger met again with the lieutenant, and he provided more details about the planning and execution of Romero, including the names of the military officers who had been involved. In reporting this meeting to Washington, the charge d’affaires, Frederic Chapin, noted that the political officer (Gettinger is never named in the cables) “believes that his interlocutor reports accurately.” Chapin closed the three-page, nine paragraph cable with a chilling revealing Comment. “Though much of what the EMBOFF [embassy officer] was told may appear incredible to someone outside of El Salvador, the events described and the the alleged participants would raise few eyebrows here. Unfortunately, for fifty years the Salvadoran security services have engaged in kidnapping, murder, bombings, torture and assorted mayhem at the service of the wealthy families.” (These cables were heavily redacted when given to me, in response to a FOIA request, when I was writing this book. In 1993, they were released with few if any redactions.)

In 1984, at the request of Vice President Bush, the CIA prepared a four-page memorandum, “El Salvador: D’Aubuisson Terrorist Activities.” The evidence that D’Aubuisson had been complicit in the murder of Archbishop Romero, that there had been a meeting to draw straws, was “credible,” the agency said. “While any number of rightwing death squads could have planned and carried out what was a relatively simple execution… there probably were few so fanatical and daring as D’Aubuisson to do it.”

A year later, when D’Aubuisson applied for a visa, Gettinger was on the El Salvador desk at the State Department. Over lunch, he and two colleagues began to look for ways to deny the visa. They discovered that under the immigration law, a visa could be denied if there was a reason to believe that the applicant had engage in acts of terrorism. The murder of Archbishop Romero was certainly such an act. They began drafting a memo for Secretary of State George P. Shultz. The memo worked its way through State Department bureaucracy, slowly and quietly lest it come to the attention of Senator Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative and powerful chairman fo the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who considered D’Aubuisson a friend and good ally of the United States; he had successfully interceded on D’Aubuisson’s behalf to get a visa a year earlier. The American Ambassador in El Salvador was now Thomas Pickering, a diplomat’s diplomat, who held more ambassadorial posts in his career than anyone in history, and who had an unimpeachable reputation for honest reporting. He also recommended that the visa be denied. Based on the reporting from the American embassy, the Latin American bureau at State agreed. “We believe it is highly likely that Roberto D’Aubuisson was an active participant in and very possibly at the head of the meeting during which Archbishop Romero’s murder was planned,” Elliott Abrams, who had become head of the Latin American bureau, wrote in a memorandum to Michael Armacost, under secretary of state for political affairs. This was based on information from a source who had “demonstrated his reliability,” Abrams wrote. It was obviously the National Guard lieutenant.

Abrams and the State Department had come around, partially. In effect, they now accepted that D’Aubuisson was, as former Ambassador Robert White had said, a “pathological killer.” But the cables were stamped Secret; the views were privately held. No American official publicly condemned D’Aubuisson, and he continued to operate openly in El Salvador, eventually plotting the killing of the Jesuit priests as he had of Archbishop Romero. (D’Aubuisson died of throat cancer the year before the documents’ release, at the age of 48.)

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