The US Elephant in the Salvadoran Room

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Matt Eisenbrandt, author of Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Oscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice

As I’ve spoken to audiences about my new book, Assassination of a Saint, over the last few months, I’ve been interested to see that people are really knowledgeable about the geopolitical context in which the murder of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero occurred. People are very cognizant of the often detrimental role the US government has played in El Salvador. Many, however, incorrectly blame Ronald Reagan for Romero’s death.

In fact, Jimmy Carter was president at the time, and Reagan would not take office until the year after the 1980 assassination. Moreover, while we can be rightly critical of US policy that led to the development and flourishing of the death squads in El Salvador, I am not aware of any compelling evidence that US government officials had a direct hand in Romero’s murder.

The Carter administration had a complex and sometimes contradictory policy toward El Salvador. Carter famously emphasized human rights in his foreign policy, and his ambassador to El Salvador in March 1980, Robert White, believed that Romero was an indispensable figure for holding the country together and preventing a civil war. At the same time, Romero himself openly criticized Carter for considering aid to the Salvadoran military that was responsible for the repression the archbishop denounced in his Sunday homilies. In return, top US officials wanted the Vatican to tamp down Romero’s criticisms. The aid Romero decried was approved shortly after his death.

Even Reagan, with his catastrophic underwriting of the Salvadoran Armed Forces throughout the civil war and his administration’s attacks on those who reported the military’s role in massacres, had a hand in developments in the investigation of Romero’s assassination. Among other things, the US government financed a Salvadoran investigative unit that tracked down the getaway driver for the murder, leading to his secret testimony before a Salvadoran judge. The FBI supported the investigative unit, including on polygraphs like one given to the driver. The US government eventually put the driver in the witness protection program and arrested and sought to extradite one of Romero’s killers, Álvaro Saravia, to El Salvador.

As my book documents, there is plenty of criticism to go around. Even so, there are also many layers of complexity with regard to the US government and the Romero assassination.


Matt Eisenbrandt is a human-rights attorney who has devoted his career to finding legal means to prosecute war crimes. In the early 2000s, he served as the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Legal Director and a member of the trial team against one of Óscar Romero’s killers. He is an expert in the field of U.S. human-rights litigation and now works for the Canadian Centre for International Justice.