In Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, the central character is a priest. Both saint and scoundrel, the priest represents the collusion with colonialism and power that the Catholic Church fostered and represented in Latin America. At the same time, the priest is just a man; a man with compassion and an understanding of the plight of the people who no longer want the Church in their country after a revolution that hoped to overthrow the very forces the Church was part of. Greene’s priest embodies the contradictions—the evil and the good—the Catholic religion and its institutions represent in Latin America. He is the people of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and the whole of the continent. In other words, he is the Church hierarchy often aligned with the most reactionary elements of Latin American society—a part of a colonial legacy that murdered, raped and enslaved millions in the name of Crown and Church. At the same time, Greene’s priest is part of a society that struggles to free itself from the bonds of colonialism and repression—a struggle perhaps best represented in the writings and actions of Father Gustavo Gutierrez, the priest most identified with liberation theology.
Another non-fictional priest now revered as a revolutionary hero was both part of the Church hierarchy and a village priest. His political perspective slowly shifted from a priest who told his listeners to look toward heaven for their eternal reward to a priest who spoke out against the extraordinarily repressive and murderous government of El Salvador. The reason for his metamorphosis was simple: he could no longer watch people of his flock get gunned down by military men and death squads (often one and the same) who worked for the El Salvadoran oligarchy. This man’s name was Oscar Romero. He was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet while saying Mass. Days later, at his funeral, several mourners were murdered by other snipers as they mourned his death.
Although the civil war arguably sparked by Romero’s death ended in a peace agreement that included the establishment of Truth Commissions designed to investigate and publicize the foulest deeds of the conflict and their perpetrators in the name of reconciliation, no one was ever so named and convicted in the murder of Romero until recently. Even then, this pursuit of justice was not the result of any El Salvadoran investigation, but of a human rights legal team based in the United States.
It is that investigation which is the subject of a new book by one of the team’s members, Matt Eisenbrandt. Titled The Plot to Murder Óscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice, this book is a passionate and detailed chronicle of the work of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA.) After providing the essential historical context that the crime of Romero’s murder occurred in, the author spends the rest of the text detailing the ins and outs of the investigation itself. It is a story of subterfuge, interference from intelligence agencies, individual spies, freelance assassins and the legal system itself. There is no clear resolution, but there is a feeling by the book’s end that at least some of the guilty are seeking some sort of contrition.
Like many others involved in the social justice struggles around Central America in the 1980s, I recall when I first heard the news of Bishop Romero’s assassination. The aspects of the aftermath that remain with me the most though are the remarks and actions of the US government after the murder. Those immediate responses challenging the accepted understanding that it was a death squad that killed Romero would pale in the years following the assassination as Ronald Reagan’s White House (and Congress) stepped up military aid to the regime while also supporting the country’s most reactionary elements. As the war and repression amped upward, the revolutionary forces of the Farabundo Marti Liberacion National (FMLN) grew in size and garnered international support. Indeed, various Salvadorans associated with this organization were occasionally allowed to travel in the US came to the town I lived in to raise funds and encourage citizens in the belly of the beast to support the FMLN. On occasion, some of these revolutionaries would crash at my house; the conversations and debates were always invigorating and revealing.
If there is a flaw in this book, it is that at its core its politics are decidedly liberal. There is a philosophical thread that underpins the investigation: that the existing courts of law are able to deal with crimes that go beyond individuals actually perpetrating a crime to the system that required those crimes to be committed. This is revealed in the simple fact that only one man has ever been found responsible for Romero’s murder despite the common knowledge that it was a conspiracy of money and murderers that is actually responsible. This means there is no means to convict an entire system built on murder and repression even though each individual conviction is a further indictment of that system.
Assassination of a Saint is an important book. It is important because it shows the shortcomings of a human rights definition that equates leftist insurgents struggling to free people from oppression with those who are the oppressor, but mostly it is important because it tells the story of a group of individuals dedicated to seeking justice for one of the most blatant and arrogant crimes of the Salvadoran right wing. That story is a hopeful one. It is also a warning that any similar pursuit that targets the wealthy and powerful is never guaranteed to achieve the justice their victims richly deserve.