Letter from Latin America by Gerald MacCarthy
QUITE coincidentally I have met two people in the last few weeks who have been able to tell me something more of the circumstances surrounding the death last year of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador and also more of what is happening in El Salvador.
The first was Jorge Pinto, the editor of the San Salvador daily 'El Independiente' who is now an exile in Mexico, having been granted political asylum at the end of January by the Mexican government after his newspaper plant was blown up and he tied for his life with his wife and baby child to the Mexican embassy in San Salvador.
He told me with a wry smile that freedom of the press was guaranteed in El Salvador. and pointed out to me the article in the Constitution where this is clearly stated.
Armed men had come to the building, he said, and given everyone 25 seconds to leave while they planted charges to blow up the presses.
And who were they? "It is well known that when they are on a mission that might compromise them." he said, "the armed forces do not undertake it in uniform."
"Yes I do blame • President Duarte," he said, "and hold him direct!) responsible."
Jorge Pinto's mother was the person for whom Archbishop Romero was saying Mass on the anniversary of her death, when he was killed. What did he have to say of reports that I had heard that the armed forces were implicated in the death of the Archbishop? "There is no doubt at all in my mind about it, for two reasons," he said.
"The first is that there are eyewitnesses living in the vicinity of the hospital where Archbishop Romero had an apartment and where the Mass was held, who say that they can identify two men seen hanging about the hospital in a Volkswagen car for about two weeks previous to the murder, and that they have also seen these men in military uniform. They are just toe terrified to say anything.
"The second is that the place is quiet and not normally visited by the army. This is how it was when the Mass for my mother started. But after the start of the Mass and before the shooting, there were tanks, army personnel and police on the perimeter road of the hospital itself as well as on access roads to it, "They were noticed by latecomers to the Mass. The remained after the shooting and I can see no other reason except that they were there to cover the retreat of the murderers".
Mr Pinto is no revolutionary: all he wants is his newspaper back and the chance to get on with his life. as he has said to me many times since I first met him.
Tomas Castillo is an intense and articulate young man of 30, who was the late Archbishop Romero's private secretary. He confirmed what Jorge Pinto had already told me, both that there were witnesses afraid to come forward and that the army presence at the scene of the killing was strong evidence of their involvement. He now works in El Salvador for CONIP, the National Co-ordinating Body of The Church of the People.
It is not a breakaway Church, simply a group of clergy and laity committed to the revolutionary cause in the country, which the hierarchy is not, because it believes that in this way it is best serving the interests of the majority.
Tomas Castillo told me that he was very worried that the crisis of authority in both Church and State in El Salvador was so little understood abroad. "People think that Jose Duarte is leading the country," he said "but he doesn't control the army which is run by Col. Gutierrez, so he has no real power.
"Something similar is true of the Church: the fact that Mgr Rivera y Damas has not been officially appointed yet to the see of San Salvador. after more than a year since the death of Archbishop Romero, means that the Church in the country has been without a proper leader for all that time, which is very confusing for the people."
Mgr Rivera y Damas has to spend five days a week in his own diocese elsewhere in El Salvador and can only give two days to his work in the Archdiocese. And also, said Sr Castillo, the people were further confused by conflicting opinions within the hierarchy itself.
Mgr Rivera y Damas wanted to pursue a middle road, to stop the influx of American arms and to get both sides to the conference table.
But most bishops in the country were firmly against the revolution, which they saw as Communist infiltration. and unfortunately the people had lost confidence in them for this reason.
But they don't despair of the Church, said Sr. Castillo, because the majority of the clergy now support them.