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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 18:52 GMT
Requiem for Romero

By Maurice Walsh
Presenter, BBC Radio 4

Reporter Maurice Walsh interviews Sister Isobel Luz
Sister Isobel Luz, 83, witnessed the shooting of Oscar Romero
Twenty-five years ago today, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot dead while saying Mass in a small chapel at a cancer hospice in San Salvador, El Salvador.

A BBC Radio 4 documentary returns to the scene of the crime to assess the evidence and consider the legacy of Central America's most celebrated modern martyr.

Oscar Arnulfo Romero's assassination focused the attention of the world on the scale of repression in the small Central American republic.

And at his funeral a few days later, people around the globe saw on their own television screens the kind of political terror that had been unleashed to stop growing demands for change in one of the most unequal societies in Latin America.

Tens of thousands of mourners who had gathered for Romero's funeral Mass in front of the cathedral in San Salvador were filmed fleeing in terror as army gunners on the rooftops around the square opened fire.

Thursday 24 March 2005
Radio 4, 2000 GMT
Forty people were killed. One person who was there told us he remembered the piles of shoes left behind by those who escaped with their lives.

The roots of the violence lay in El Salvador's history. For the 50 years before Romero's death, the country had been run by an alliance between wealthy coffee planters and the military: politics was left to the officers, business to the oligarchy.

The arrangement lasted until the 1970s when the pressure of population and a growing middle class produced a coherent challenge - not least from activists within the Catholic Church.

'Bloodless coup'

Leaflets were circulated by one of the first right-wing death squads urging "Be a patriot - kill a priest."

Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero
Archbishop Romero was 62 when he was shot dead
When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero was regarded as a conservative. But he began to take a stand when a radical priest who was his close friend was murdered by paramilitaries.

Romero refused to recognise the government and publicised the human rights abuses on his trips abroad. As the situation worsened in El Salvador and left-wing guerrillas gathered strength, junior military officers decided that they would have to act quickly to prevent all-out war.

In October 1979, they staged a bloodless coup, invited civilians from the opposition to join the government and promised free elections, an end to human rights abuses and land reforms.

National broadcasts

In Washington, President Jimmy Carter - fearful of being accused of "losing" El Salvador to communism - hoped that this new junta would prevent a left-wing takeover. Initially, even Romero hoped the junta might bring progress.

But over the next few months the reformist officers were outmanoeuvred by hardliners. Instead of easing, military repression worsened.

Romero had become the strongest voice against government lawlessness. His sermons from the cathedral - in which he documented murder and disappearances - were broadcast all over the country at 8am every Sunday.

In February 1980, Romero wrote to President Carter to ask him to reconsider his offer of aid to the junta. Carter refused. In his sermon on Sunday, March 23rd, Romero spoke directly to Salvadoran soldiers saying they were killing their own people.

"No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God", Romero declared, before pleading for an end to repression. The next day he was killed.

Moral courage

During our visit to El Salvador we secured a rare interview with the judge who tried to investigate Romero's assassination before he was attacked by a death squad and had to go into exile.

A UN Truth Commission - established under the peace agreement which ended the civil war in El Salvador in 1992 - concluded that the death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson had ordered Archbishop Romero's killing.

None of D'Aubuisson's associates has ever been brought to justice for the crime.

Today, the party that Mr D'Aubuisson founded, ARENA, has ruled El Salvador for sixteen years after winning four presidential elections in a row.

President Tony Saca told us he revered Archbishop Romero's memory - but ARENA refuses to accept that D'Aubuisson killed the Archbishop.

For many Romero is a martyr, a beacon of moral courage.

Exploring his life and death, this programme revisits a particularly murky chapter in the US role in Latin America and a crime which remains unresolved in El Salvador.

'Requiem for Romero': BBC Radio 4, Thursday 24 March, 2005 at 2000 GMT, and repeated on Sunday 13 March, 2005 at 1700 GMT.

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