Óscar Romero Asked Jimmy Carter Not to Supply El Salvador’s Junta. Carter Didn’t Listen.

On this day in 1980, El Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero was murdered by US-backed assassins. Only weeks before, he had written to US President Jimmy Carter to withhold support from El Salvador’s military dictatorship. We reprint the letter here in full.

Óscar Romero in 1979. (Chip HIRES / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

San Salvador
February 17, 1980
His Excellency
The President of the United States
Mr. Jimmy Carter

Dear Mr. President:

In the last few days, news has appeared in the national press that worries me greatly. According to the reports, your government is studying the possibility of economic and military support and assistance to the present government junta.

Because you are a Christian and because you have shown that you want to defend human rights, I venture to set forth for you my pastoral point of view concerning this news and to make a specific request of you.

I am very concerned by the news that the government of the United States is planning to further El Salvador’s arms race by sending military equipment and advisors to “train three Salvadoran battalions in logistics, communications and intelligence.” If this information from the papers is correct, instead of promoting greater justice and peace in EI Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.

The present government junta and, especially, the armed forces and security forces unfortunately have not demonstrated their capacity to resolve in practice the nation’s serious political and structural problems. For the most part, they have resorted to repressive violence, producing a total of deaths and injuries much greater than under the previous military regime, whose systematic violation of human rights was denounced by the Inter-American Committee on Human Rights.

The brutal form in which the security forces recently evicted and murdered the occupiers of the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Party, even though the junta and the party apparently did not authorize the operation, is an indication that the junta and the Christian Democrats do not govern the country, but that political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who only know how to repress the people and promote the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.

If it is true that last November “a group of six Americans were in EI Salvador . . . providing $200,000 in gasmasks and flak jackets and instructing about their use against demonstrators,” you should be informed that it is evident since then that the security forces, with better personal protection and efficiency, have repressed the people even more violently using deadly weapons.

For this reason, given that as a Salvadoran and as archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, I have an obligation to see that faith and justice reign in my country, I ask you, if you truly want to defend human rights:

  • to prohibit the giving of this military aid to the Salvadoran government;
  • Guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly with military, economic, diplomatic or other pressures to determine the destiny of the Salvadoran people.

In these moments we are living through a grave economic and political crisis in our country, but it is certain that it is increasingly the people who are awakening and organizing and have begun to prepare themselves to manage and be responsible for the future of El Salvador, as only they are capable of overcoming the crisis.

It would be unjust and deplorable if the intrusion of foreign powers were to frustrate the Salvadoran people, were to repress them and block their autonomous decisions about the economic and political path that our country ought to follow. It would violate a right which we Latin American bishops meeting in Puebla publicly recognized when we said: “The legitimate self-determination of our people that permits them to organize according to their own genius and the march of their history and to cooperate in a new international order” (Puebla, 505).

I hope that your religious sentiments and your feelings for the defense of human rights will move you to accept my petition, avoiding by this action worse bloodshed in this suffering country.


Oscar A. Romero