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A 5-Millimeter Hole

Most of his close advisors recommended that he not give that homily on March 23, 1980. They said that military officials would interpret it as call to revolt and that it would put his life in even more danger. Only the Jesuits Ellacuría and Estrada thought he should do it. Monsignor Óscar Romero decided finally that he had a moral obligation to utter those now-historic words: “Stop the repression!” What did Romero do after his most celebrated sermon? What did he do the next day, the day of his murder, after officiating his last mass? This account – adapted from a book the author is writing – reconstructs those final moments and the key characters surrounding Romero’s death.

 
 

The last house Óscar Arnulfo Romero lived in is now a visitor center; a museum displaying his personal documents, books, his recorder, the still blood-stained clothes, and the black and white photos taken by Eulalio Pérez García at the moment of his murder on March 24, 1980. These are the images that determined the collective memory of that afternoon, which began our long 12-year civil war and would leave us with nearly 100,000 dead.

One of those photos, taken seconds after Romero was shot in the chest, shows his face covered in blood as it pours from his nose and mouth. Romero looks serene, as if he were in the middle of a deep dream, which is contrasted by the anguish of the two nuns and an older man leaning down to help him.

Contrary to what it seems, the archbishop is not yet resting. He’s semiconsciously waging a quiet battle to survive the destruction of his vital organs. He’s choking. It will still take a few minutes for him to die. For now, he’s resisting the fatal overflow of his blood stream that has been breached by a tiny .22-caliber bullet. His defenses have been annihilated, but that body, that life, refuses to surrender. His organs make a final, desperate attempt to avoid catastrophe. They will not succeed. 

Minutes later, those terrified witnesses still present will come down from the state of shock to take the archbishop to a semitrailer, the only transportation available to transport him to the hospital. There are a few pictures of the scene. One shows a circle of death. Two women hold the middle part of his back, his left shoulder, neck and head. They’re crying. Painted on their faces is urgency, overwhelming despair. Screams smothered by adrenaline, the heart pumping at a high rate. In front of them, holding the right portion of the body that still has life is a woman who seems almost overtaken by the moment. The stretched nostrils betray nervousness. She is looking to one side, as if she were getting instructions to place the bishop in the vehicle. Amid it all, the monsignor’s head is thrown back. The eyes shut. The blood. The hands limp. The heavy body scattered under the tunic and the alb. The only thing to stop his fall are the arms of the women who hold onto him maternally. The monsignor dies in their arms. It is the Salvadoran version of Michelangelo’s Pieta.  

Photograph of the assassination of Monseñor Romero, March 24, 1980, in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, San Salvador.  From the archive of photographer Eulalio Pérez.
 
Photograph of the assassination of Monseñor Romero, March 24, 1980, in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital, San Salvador.  From the archive of photographer Eulalio Pérez.



The pictures on display here in this room have a strange effect. They’re portraits of a time that today seems so far away, a time before Romero’s cataclysmic death. They look like they were taken in another place. They show a torch being put out. The guiding light that Romero was for El Salvador during his time as archbishop. In the midst of so much simplicity, these pictures give the only context to the few days in which this place served as a home: between 1977 and 1980. Three intense years when El Salvador, the church, and the world seemed especially hectic. Three years of nights in which the streets of San Salvador were hunting grounds for the paramilitary groups known as the Death Squads. Thugs, torturers, murders from the country’s law enforcement agencies who were at the service of the military oligarchy. Three years in which bodies piled up in the streets. Three years of days and nights in which the clandestine houses, farmer organizations, universities and unions fomented a revolution. Three years of an archbishop challenged by the political, military and economic power; by the state’s terror. Three years of an archbishop misunderstood, abused and abandoned by the majority of the episcopal conference in his own church, by Pope John Paul II and by the conspiracies of Latin American archbishops and Roman cardinals. Those were the last three years that the archbishop lived in this house and in this world. 

The small house was built by Carmelite nuns after Romero, who had then just been named archbishop, declined to live in the archiepiscopal palace. While they were building it, he slept in a small room behind the chapel’s altar, which is on the other side of Calle Toluca that crosses through the complex. The place also includes a charity hospital where the nuns treat terminal cancer patients, as well as a living space for those nuns that run it. The house has a one-car garage, a reception hall for Romero’s library, a bedroom and bathroom, and the room where the pictures of his murder are on display.

On the adjacent wall from the photo exhibition is a glass cabinet where a gray shirt hangs. It has a large, dry bloodstain and a dark, millimeter-sized dot on the left pocket: the trace left by the tiny bullet just before it penetrated his flesh and disintegrated into his body. And destroyed it. Next to the shirt there is also the white alb that Monsignor Romero put on top of his shirt that day. On the white cloth, the large bloodstain that covered his back and the little hole surrounded by dry blood above the chest are much more visible.  

The vestments that Monseñor Romero used for his last mass are now kept in the bedroom of his small house on the grounds of the Divine Providence Hospital. Today the house is a museum. The blood stains and bullet hole are visible on the left side of the gray shirt. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera.
 
The vestments that Monseñor Romero used for his last mass are now kept in the bedroom of his small house on the grounds of the Divine Providence Hospital. Today the house is a museum. The blood stains and bullet hole are visible on the left side of the gray shirt. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera.

On a corner are some of Romero’s personal documents spread over a desk, such as his driver’s license and ID. They are covered by glass. This is not a house anymore. It is a museum. The objects are not how this place’s sole inhabitant left them. They were reorganized by museum curators for visitors. They’re original objects. Those objects, once everyday things, are now relics of a martyr. They are tangible survivors (although they can’t be touched by visitors) of a life and a death that are today considered canonical by the Catholic Church.

Amid these objects is a whip for self-flagellation. The Carmelites that oversee the house museum refer to this object as a “discipline” and say that Romero used it every Friday to lash himself. He also fasted on Fridays. He did it, the nuns say, not to forget the suffering of others. Was the monsignor punishing himself? Was it out of charitable solidarity or out of guilt?

In the home’s only room, behind a rope line that today blocks off passage from visitors, there is a bed and a desk. There sits the Bigston recorder that he used for his diary. Most nights he would sit here to narrate what he had done during the day and the people that he had been with, along with his personal reflections. The last recording is from March 20, four days before his death. That day he went to administrative meetings and he received a visit from representatives of the leftist organization Popular Leagues of February 28 (LP-28), although he couldn’t attend the meeting. There is nothing else. We don’t even have his own record of the last days of his life. But it is possible to reconstruct important passages. 

At 4 p.m. on March 22, as had become custom for every Saturday, a group of people he trusted closely gathered to discuss the Sunday homily. Now receiving frequent death threats, Romero embraced the fact that each sermon could be his last. And that’s how he prepared for each one.

In the past six months, El Salvador had lived through a coup d’état, two massive resignations in the government and 5,000 murders at the hands of national security forces, the paramilitary groups and guerrilla organizations. The army’s strongest wing had absolute control over the security apparatus. The paramilitary structures known as the Death Squadrons, operating under the protection of high-ranking officials, were increasingly conducting nighttime murders and disappearances. Romero, who had made his Sunday homilies the only trustworthy source of news and the most complete report of human rights violations, was a meticulous chronicler of the meteoric process that took the country to war. This had given validation to public criticism and a boycott from the extreme right that also included a portion of his own church. El Salvador had never been in so much turmoil. And yet El Salvador was always in turmoil. 

Romero wasn’t just a nuisance for the traditional Salvadoran powers, but also for the American administration of Jimmy Carter, which had to juggle to maintain support for El Salvador’s government dominated by a repressive military apparatus. Meanwhile, Carter’s official foreign policy stances were focused on the defense of human rights.

Romero had also become a thorn in the side of Pope John Paul II, who, given his Polish origins and his ignorance regarding Latin America, believed the conservative bishops that accused Romero of having leftist inclinations and of opening the door to communism, which the Polish pope had dedicated his life to combating. That’s how Romero began the last week of March 1980. 

Among the assistants at the reunion on Saturday, May 22 were two laypeople: Romero’s secretary, Doris Osegueda, and Roberto Cuéllar, the lawyer in charge of the Office of Legal Aid. The rest were all priests: the rector of the Jesuit Central American University, Ignacio Ellacuría; the regional head of the Society of Jesus in Central America, Francisco Estrada; Romero’s private secretary, Ricardo Urioste; the vicar of Chalatenango, Fabián Amaya; Romero’s assistant secretary, Rafael Urrutia; and Mariano Brito, the chancellor for Romero.

Just like the archbishop, the majority of assistants had been condemned to death by secret paramilitary groups. The threats were arriving via phone calls, letters marked with swastikas, announcements in the newspaper or advertisements on radio and TV. 

The archbishop took the floor. He explained to them that during the week he had received a letter signed by various military members in which they asked him to intercede on their behalf. They did not want to obey the orders to kill, they wrote. But they also didn’t want to be identified. Romero decided that during the sermon he would call on all soldiers to disobey the orders to kill. 

An intense discussion ensued.

Amaya and Brito—less inclined to confrontations—suggested “prudence and calm.” Because of the delicate situation the country was experiencing, the call to the soldiers would be heard as an incitement that could anger military officials enough to expedite the kill orders and further endanger the archbishop, his collaborators, and the Salvadoran church in general. Urioste, worried about the life of Monsignor Romero, called for caution. The Jesuits Ellacuría and Estrada, on the other hand, who had a long record of confrontation with the military, thought the archbishop should actually harden his message. They asked that among his complaints he include the military raids of the Central American University campus that took place the afternoon of that same Saturday. In the raids, one student was killed and a few more were disappeared.

A long debate raged until Cuéllar, the lawyer, intervened to make note that calling soldiers to disobey the orders of their superiors would be a crime—an invitation to military insubordination. That’s where the discussion ended, at 8 p.m. without any conclusions.

Romero asked Cuéllar to join him for dinner. They crossed the street and walked a few meters to the chapel’s café.

Romero then said something that, 35 years later, Cuéllar would remember as: “Beto, get ready for a legal battle. It is a moral and ethical call against an unjust and immoral law. Brothers are killing brothers. Poor people are killing poor people.” The archbishop was defiant.

Urrutia, who years later would be the co-postulator for Romero’s canonization, says that every Saturday after dinner, the archbishop would retire to his room and he would kneel down to meditate and pray. “He knelt down in front of the crucifix he had in front of his bed, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. He did not sleep on Saturdays. He stayed in a permanent prayer,” Urrutia says. That Saturday, Romero again stayed awake while praying.

On Sunday, March 23, Romero left early from the Sacred Heart Basilica, just a few blocks away from the cathedral. There, because the cathedral had been the site of protests by the Popular League of February 28 for a few days, he would celebrate the Sunday mass. He had five visitors from religious communities in the United States who were visiting El Salvador to conduct a report on human rights violations and to express their support for the archbishop. By midmorning, the basilica was already full of people, though the streets were empty. The presence of military tanks stationed throughout the city with soldiers armed with assault rifles was a permanent reminder that San Salvador belonged to the armed forces. 

The transmission for YSAX, the archbishop’s radio station, had finally been repaired after the last bombing had kept the station silenced for weeks. That Sunday, Romero broadcasted live again. YSAX had suffered 10 bombings in the last year alone. The attackers’ goal was to make sure the archbishop’s messages didn’t spread to the rest of the country. Romero’s sermons acted as counterbalance to state propaganda. They were also the most reputable and complete reports of the country’s deteriorating security situation: massacres, disappearances, kidnappings, murders, claims against repression, reports on the grave situation that whole communities lived through, reports on the political climate, and of attacks against religious followers.

The homilies were also heard over the airwaves of other countries, like in the case of the San José, Costa Rica-based Continental Radio News station, which also suffered a dynamite attack a few days earlier, although no one was hurt. 

During the week, the archbishop’s office received an outpouring of supportive messages from Washington. While some came from Christian groups, others were from people who wanted to show their solidarity, including an ex-ambassador from the U.S. There were warm-hearted reactions to the public letter that Romero had sent weeks before to President Carter, asking him to suspend the military aid to El Salvador that was being discussed in the U.S. Congress. 

On Sunday, March 23, Romero officiated what would be his last Sunday mass. Aware that the ceremony would be aired over the radio, Romero denounced the university raid and later uttered the words that would determine his fate:

“I would like to make a special call to the army men and to the bases of the national guard, the police and the military central command: Brothers, you’re from our same country, you kill our fellow farmers and, before the order to kill that a man gives, the law of God should prevail to say: ‘Thou shall not kill.’ No soldier is obligated to obey an order that goes against God’s will. No one has to follow an immoral law. It’s time now to become aware of and obey your conscience before sinful orders. The church – which defends the rights of God, the law of God, and human dignity – cannot remain quiet amid such abomination. We want the government to take seriously the fact that reforms mean nothing if they are dyed in blood. In the name of God and, well, in the name of a long-suffering country, whose cries reach heaven on each day more tumultuous than the last, I ask you, I beg you…I order you! In the name of God: Stop the repression!”

There are still recordings saved from the sermon. In them you can hear the generous applause that followed the archbishop’s words. Absent from the recording are the reactions of the crowds inside and outside the cathedral. Within the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the country’s armed forces, and in the circles of the Salvadoran right, there was grinding of teeth. Throughout the country, fears regarding the archbishop’s fate grew. 

Mario Inclán, a lawyer from Sonsonate, attentively listened to the Sunday mass over his car radio. When the sermon came to a close, he said to his wife: “The monsignor just signed his death sentence.” Inclán didn’t have a way to know then that the next day, at 6:30 p.m., he would be a witness to the archbishop’s murder.

After the homily, Romero consecrated and gave the Holy Communion. Robert White, the new American ambassador in El Salvador, was among those waiting in line that day to receive the host.

International press agencies, from San Salvador and San José, sent out wires describing the sermon. From the central offices in New York, the editors of the wire service United Press International (UPI) tracked down Eulalio Pérez, their photographer in El Salvador, and demanded photos from the mass. Pérez, who only did sporadic work for the press agency, made his living as a lab worker in the photography department of the El Diario de Hoy newspaper. He didn’t have photographs from the mass because he had spent the whole weekend working from the newspaper’s lab. UPI urgently requested new photos of Romero. Pérez said he would have them by the next day. 

After the mass, Romero held a meeting in the church with other priests and with journalists. At 1 p.m., he left to go to the house of his friend and driver, Salvador Barraza, where he went every Sunday after mass to get away from it all and take a break from his clerical obligations. Barraza saw him cry that day. “We were all baffled. All of a sudden, he started to talk about his close friends who were priests and laypeople,” Barraza would later tell the priest Jesús Delgado. “It was like no other lunch we had at our house. It was a sad and upsetting lunch for all of us.”

Around midafternoon, he left for a church on Calle Real where he celebrated mass and performed a few confirmations. Upon returning to the chapel, he met with the Carmelite nuns. Mother Luz offered up a toast to YSAX’s return to the airwaves and they clinked their wine glasses. At about 10 p.m., the archbishop went to sleep.

At 6 a.m. on the morning of Monday, March 24, the phone at the Divine Providence rang. It was the first of about seven or eight calls that the Carmelite nuns would receive that day from callers worried about Romero’s safety. That morning’s issue of La Prensa Gráfica didn’t mention anything about the prior day’s homily, but within the inside pages, between the obituaries, there was an invitation to the mass commemorating the first anniversary of Sara Meardi de Pinto’s death, which would be officiated by Monsignor Romero at 7 p.m. in the Divine Providence chapel. The first call alerted the nuns to the ad and warned them about their worries regarding the archbishop. The death threats against Romero had intensified and they feared an attack could come at any moment. It wasn’t a good idea to go and announce the pastoral agenda in the newspapers. The sisters asked him to cancel his participation in the event and have another priest carry it out in his place. “I already made a commitment to Jorge and I can’t let him down,” the archbishop responded. “If my time has not come, then nothing is going to happen.”

Notice published in La Prensa Gráfica, Monday, March 24, 1980, the day Monseñor Romero was assassinated. Photo: Archivo El Faro. 
 
Notice published in La Prensa Gráfica, Monday, March 24, 1980, the day Monseñor Romero was assassinated. Photo: Archivo El Faro. 

It was still early in the morning when Romero went to his office to check on some pending matters before leaving for a beach house with Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, one of the first clergymen in El Salvador’s Opus Dei, so they could have a meeting of spiritual reflection with other priests. Sáenz Lacalle, a Spanish priest that would many years later be the archbishop of San Salvador, had called Romero the night before to remind him about the spiritual retreat. Uninterested in the trivialities of mortal life, Lacalle didn’t mention the Sunday homily during their call nor did he mention it in the few hours they were together at the beach. But he noticed a particular dismay, even amid the constant anxiety of Romero’s life during the last three years. “I called the monsignor over the phone the prior day and I told him that we had a meeting. So, he told me, ‘Yes, I want to go because I’m very overwhelmed’ or something like that. I noted in the words that he was tense, like he was worried, like there was some issue,” Sáenz Lacalle recalls. 

Their friendship, which could be traced back to the days in which Romero was a priest in San Miguel, remained strong because the two men didn’t speak about worldly matters. The space between them was inhabited by matters of the spirit, of reflection and prayer. Romero didn’t need to tell him he was overwhelmed. The whole country knew that.

In March of 1980, the army had intensified its operations against popular organizations, while the paramilitary groups kept forcefully disappearing people with total impunity. The second Revolutionary Government Junta had failed and a large portion of the cabinet resigned at the beginning of the month, following the assassination of Democratic Christian leader Mario Zamora. When Sáenz Lacalle telephoned him to invite him to the beach, Romero had just given the most dangerous of his sermons at the cathedral. “It’s not like that day he had been an erupting volcano, he was already carrying that load,” Sáenz Lacalle says. 

During the first few months as archbishop, Romero had found a balance between his spiritually conservative life and his political life dedicated to defending the poor and marginalized. He consulted with the Jesuits regarding his sermons, which were his political domain. But ever since he was a priest in San Miguel, his spiritual retreats came under the tutelage of the pastor from Opus Dei. 

March 24 was the perfect day to go to the beach. Warm and clear. A light breeze swayed the few clouds in the sky. They met other priest friends at the entrance to the beach house, but they couldn’t find anyone to let them in the front door. They went around and hopped over the wall to the beach. “We were all priest friends,” Sáenz Lacalle remembers. “One gave a lecture and then later there was a chat. There we were in the house, and then came the guard in a rush. No one had told him that all these priests were coming. We went for a walk on the beach before lunch. Monsignor was in a hurry to get back because he had to give mass.” The last mass of his life.

They returned to San Salvador a little after lunch. Romero went to visit a specialist about a problem with his ears. Afterwards, he asked Barraza to take him to Santa Tecla for confession with the Jesuit Segundo Azcue. “He didn’t have to go, but that day, all of a sudden, he told me he wanted to confess,” Barraza told the writer María López Vigil. Romero returned home a little before 5 p.m. and prepared for the memorial mass. 

Jorge Pinto and his wife got to the chapel an hour later. The archbishop was already there. “He was praying, kneeled down, with the breviary in his hands and concentrated in such a way that he likely didn’t notice we were there,” Pinto wrote in his memoir. Minutes before the service started, some guests began to arrive. 

To the left side of the altar were the nuns. Among them was Mother Luz Isabel Cueva, a Mexican nun that had been treating the sick in the Divine Providence Hospital for years and was very close with Romero. In the right wing were the sick patients from the hospital. The guests for the memorial mass were seated in the benches in the main nave. There were 20 people in all.

Mario Inclán, the lawyer, took his father to the mass. They came late. After seeing so few people, he decided to stay. They sat in the third row. The photographer Elalio Pérez got there even later, but just on time to take the photos that the press agency had requested. He had also seen the ad for the mass in the newspaper and told his agency. He entered the chapel at 6:20 p.m. and he stayed back, in the second row of the right column. He took out his equipment and started taking photos. There were 10 minutes left before the shooting. 

Romero read from the Gospel of John: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” It was a short mass and the homily was brief. As he was giving it, a Volkswagen Passat crossed in front of the chapel, turned around in the parking lot and parked in an exit position, just in front of the chapel’s main door. Only Romero could have noticed it, because the few church assistants had their backs to the door. Outside, however, a few people saw the car. It seemed like it had mechanical problems because the driver struggled with the gear stick. In the back seat, another man was waiting. Exactly 31 meters and 10 centimeters (102 feet) from them, Romero pontificated at the altar. He looked towards the door. We’ll never know if he saw the bearded man that, from the back window of the Passat, pulled out a rifle and aimed it in his direction. 

Sketch drawn from recollections of witnesses of the alleged assassin, who shot Monseñor Romero from outside the Divine Providence chapel. Photo from El Faro's archive.  
 
Sketch drawn from recollections of witnesses of the alleged assassin, who shot Monseñor Romero from outside the Divine Providence chapel. Photo from El Faro's archive.  

Óscar Arnulfo Romero then spoke his final words: 

May this blood and body sacrificed by men also feed us, to give our body and blood to the suffering and the pain, like Christ. Not just for the sake of it, but to offer justice and peace to our country. We unite then, intimately, in faith and in hope to this moment of prayer for Miss Sarita and for us.

Boom. 

The bullet traveled directly through Romero’s chest, but its crack seemed to echo off all the walls of the chapel, amplifying its sound. There is a recording of the sermon in which you can hear the gunshot. The noise is crushing. It’s not a boom. It’s a BOOOOOOOOM. And that’s how the witnesses remember it.  

Pinto wrote in his memoirs that “the shot sounded like a bomb.” That’s also how others would remember it three decades later, including the lawyer Inclán, as well as the photographer Pérez and Mother Luz. It’s true that memories can deceive and that the peculiarity of the recording, which only Inclán heard afterwards, or the trauma itself can amplify the memory of the sound. But this is how each one retained the sound in their memories. 

Mother Luz:

When the homily ended, the monsignor came to the center of the altar to lay out the altar bread and he stopped looking towards the entrance. There was a bang, like a bomb, I don’t know why. I saw a white cloud cover his face. The monsignor grabbed onto the tablecloth and pulled on it, and the pyx tipped over and the communion bread spilled out without being consecrated. That’s when the monsignor fell face up at the feet of Christ. 

The lawyer Mario Inclán:

The moment the shot was fired, it was like a flash. The monsignor went backwards. We all ducked to the floor. We heard two more shots and then we heard a car that was driving off. The nuns from the right naves ran over to help the monsignor.

Mother Luz was the second person to get up after the shot. She saw Eulalio Pérez standing up, with his eyes behind his camera’s lens and with his finger clicking the shutter. The nun ran over to help Romero, who was lying motionless. Blood began to pour out of his nose and mouth. More nuns rushed over to help, but there wasn’t much they could do. Mother Luz ran to the phone and called a doctor. Those people surrounding the bloody archbishop on the altar decided they couldn’t wait for doctors or ambulances. If there was any chance at saving his life, they’d have to take him immediately to a hospital. Colonel Antonio Núñez, in attendance at the mass, offered to take him in his car.

Pedro Lemus, a 13-year-old sacristy assistant, was eating dinner in the hospital next to the chapel when he heard the gunshot. He leaned out one of the windows and was able to see that “a red car with a convertible top was getting away at full speed” down Calle Toluca, according to what he would later tell a police detective. He was the first witness to give details regarding the car. He heard screams and ran into the street. He left with Rosa Hernández, a volunteer that heard the shot when she was cooking for the hospital patients. Hernández is the woman seen on the far right of this Salvadoran version of Pieta. She’s the one bearing the majority of Romero’s weight. She fled to Costa Rica a few months later after receiving anonymous threats to keep everything she saw to herself. Pedro Lemus, the boy, is not in the photograph. But he wasn’t far from the scene, because afterwards he said he also saw when they lifted Monsignor Romero, still bleeding, into Colonel Núñez’s car. 

Napoléon Martínez, a watchmaker and friend of Pinto’s family, was just arriving to the mass when he found himself having to try to save the wounded priest. The tardy watchmaker (who disappeared days later and was never heard from again) helped take Romero to Colonel Núñez’s car. They agreed right there to take him to the National Policlinic, which was then the country’s best hospital. The colonel was so nervous while driving that he went down the wrong streets. 

Martínez later told Jorge Pinto that, when he was getting to the chapel, he saw a number of patrolmen abetting the murderers in their escape. I have found no other testimony that confirms his version of the story. Amado Garay, the killer’s driver who gave various testimonies on the details of the killing, never mentioned this claim either. It’s possible that Martínez was referring to a second car connected to the conspirators because there was a second car.

Photograph of the transfer of Monseñor Romero's body, March 24, 1980. From the archive of photographer Eulalio Pérez.
 
Photograph of the transfer of Monseñor Romero's body, March 24, 1980. From the archive of photographer Eulalio Pérez.

In the chapel, the nuns surrounded the photographer from UPI. They scolded him. Was that just a camera? Or was it the gun used to shoot Romero? Was he really a photographer or a murderer? Eulalio Pérez showed his press credentials but the nuns weren’t persuaded. Someone had shot the monsignor from the back of the chapel and that is right where he was standing with his camera in hand. They held him for a few hours. Then they apprehended him, via citizen’s arrest, to the archbishop’s residence where a number of priests questioned him. As a show of good faith, Eulalio Pérez asked them to come to El Diario de Hoy’s photo lab so that he could show them the negatives and he promised to give them all of the photographs. That’s what they did. Those are the photos that are now displayed at the house museum. The only photos of the murder. 

In charge of the investigation was Luis Ibáñez Retana, the deputy inspector, who began the investigation at the crime scene at 9:30 p.m. that same day. He was accompanied by Sergeant Julio Morales and two detectives from the police force. He went to the Divine Providence chapel where he tried to speak with some of the Carmelite nuns who were still present. But they didn’t want to talk to him. He then went to the Policlinic Hospital where he found the victim and a lot of people waiting to see what would happen.

Inside, next to the body that had been declared dead, Judge Atilio Ramírez Amaya began his own investigations. Some of the young lawyers from the Archbishop’s Office of Legal Aid helped the forensic specialists take the victim’s body and place a metal sheet behind his back so that they could triangulate the bullet’s trajectory. They had to repeat the proceeding a few times because the person in charge of the X-ray couldn’t get the image focused. A few people lifted up Romero’s core so that others could reposition the metal sheet. Again, placing the body slowly over the sheet. They had to repeat the process about five times. “Every time they lifted Romero’s core, a stream of blood came from the wound,” recalls Florentín Meléndez, one of the lawyers from the Office of Legal Aid. A stream of blood came from the wound. By the time the X-ray was all set, all of the assistants had their hands covered in blood. 

Around midnight, Judge Amaya asked the lawyers from the Office of Legal Aid to help him walk through the crime scene. They didn’t see even one car on the road. “I’ve never seen San Salvador so desolate,” Florentín Meléndez would tell me three decades later. Meléndez also had to seek exile after the crime because the threats against him included shooting up his house. 

In their first report concerning the murder, Detective Ibáñez Retana wrote to his superiors that same night about the crime: “I won’t fail to mention that, due to the lack of cooperation from the nuns and the general public, more information could not be gathered related to the death of said priest.” Detective Ibáñez didn’t give up. He came back the next day. 

In Washington, on the morning of March 25, President Jimmy Carter was informed of the murder. He wrote in his diary: “I was distressed to hear that Archbishop (Oscar) Romero in El Salvador had been assassinated. He's one of the finest human rights activists in the world, very effective using his influence as a churchman to bring about reforms in his own country.” It’s the only mention of Romero in his diary.

The diary logs in the days prior and following give a comprehensive illustration of Carter’s priorities in 1980: the internal election race in his party, where he was neck-and-neck with Kennedy, as well as the crisis involving American prisoners in Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The President of the United States had his mind far from El Salvador.

Four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the White House, in Room H-308 of the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress passed a new military aid package for El Salvador that same afternoon. It was the same aid that Romero had asked Carter not to pass in the letter made public by his February 17 sermon.

From the archive of photographer Eulalio Pérez, the only professional photographer present on the day of the assassination.
 
From the archive of photographer Eulalio Pérez, the only professional photographer present on the day of the assassination.

 

 

*translated by Michael Krumholtz

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