Side story of slain Salvadoran archbishop: A family divided

AP News
Posted: May 22, 2015 2:16 AM
Side story of slain Salvadoran archbishop: A family divided

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Maria Luisa de Martinez is one of the staunchest defenders of the memory of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

She sits on the board of the foundation that bears his name. She's organized commemorative celebrations on the anniversaries of his birth and death. She lobbied for years for his beatification by the Roman Catholic Church.

De Martinez is also the sister of Roberto d'Aubuisson, the man widely believed to have ordered the cleric's 1980 assassination as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. And there's no doubt in her mind about her brother's guilt.

"Unfortunately, yes, I'm convinced. Because of the way he used to talk about the priests, the Jesuits and Monsignor Romero," Martinez told The Associated Press ahead of Saturday's beatification of Romero, the first step toward canonization and sainthood.

Maria Luisa and Roberto d'Aubuisson were born into the same conservative family, educated in Catholic schools and raised by a mother who lectured them about the evils of international communism. Ultimately they chose paths that could not have been more divergent. Albeit an extreme example, theirs is the story of countless families who found themselves split by El Salvador's long and bloody civil war.

Maria Luisa, who today goes by her married name, de Martinez, called herself a "normal girl" who grew up in a traditional and devoutly Catholic environment. She studied at a school run by nuns, taught catechism and twice made visits to a Mayan community in neighboring Guatemala that opened her eyes to entrenched poverty.

De Martinez became a novice, or nun in training, though she never took up the habit. She studied liberation theology, met Romero as a member of grassroots ecclesiastical groups and dedicated herself to working to defend poor Salvadorans.

It was potentially dangerous work at the time, in the middle of the Cold War, when authorities viewed such groups as sympathetic to leftist revolutionary movements — or worse — and targeted them for harassment and violence.

"My family was against it," de Martinez said. "They warned me that I could run into problems."

She began avoiding them, tired of defending her choices.

By contrast Roberto, five years her senior, opted for a career in the military. He trained at the United States' School of the Americas, rose to the rank of army major and, according to a U.N. truth commission's findings years later, commanded right-wing death and torture squads as El Salvador slid toward civil war. Supporters lionized d'Aubuisson as the man who defeated communism in El Salvador, while critics considered him a bloodthirsty vigilante. In the early 1980s, the U.S. ambassador called him "a pathological killer."

The siblings' disgust for each other was mutual.

In 1979 de Martinez learned that her brother belonged to a paramilitary group called ORDEN, or "order," whose mission was to identify and eliminate supposed communists in rural communities.

"I don't want to have anything to do with you," she told him.

"That's when we distanced ourselves from each other completely," she said.

Romero was killed March 24, 1980, at a cancer hospital chapel by a sniper's bullet believed to have been fired from a car outside. The assassination came a day after he made a bold and public demand that soldiers stop repressing civilians. Nobody was ever prosecuted for the killing, and the gunman has not been identified.

De Martinez became a devotee of the slain archbishop and in 1999 helped launch the Monsignor Romero Foundation, where she remains on the board of directors. She is still estranged from her family.

D'Aubuisson founded the conservative Arena political party in 1981 and ran unsuccessfully for president three years later. He always denied being behind Romero's assassination, and died of cancer in 1992, a year before the U.N. truth commission officially named him as the mastermind.

"How could a member of my family be involved in such terrible acts?" de Martinez said. "It's a feeling of ... total rejection of the things he did."

Now 66, de Martinez has said she forgives her brother. Though she never confronted him directly about Romero's killing, she visited him at his death bed and begged him to ask forgiveness. By then he was unable to speak.

"He didn't say a thing, just tears streaming down his face," de Martinez said.

More than two decades later, she said she's still not sure if he wept out of anger at her, or repentance.


Associated Press writer Marcos Aleman in San Salvador and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.