One bright sunny March morning in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was saying mass at a church hospital in San Salvador when a bullet from a sniper rifle ripped through his heart.
Romero started life and ministry as a conservative. But after his friend Father Rutilio Grande was assassinated to discourage other faith leaders from supporting Salvadoran peasants, Romero underwent a political and theological conversion. Picking up where Grande left off, Romero embraced a “theology of liberation,” a perspective that espouses God’s preference for the poor and oppressed. His visibility as archbishop elevated his voice and the credibility of his critique of the conditions faced by peasants in El Salvador.
A month before his assassination, Archbishop Romero wrote President Jimmy Carter requesting a halt to US military assistance to the right-wing Salvadoran government and its allied paramilitary death squads. Over 250,000 people attended Romero’s funeral, echoing his demands for justice. Tragically, they were swimming against the historical current. A campaign of terror and murder, often orchestrated or at the very least condoned by the United States, continued across the country.
In the wake of Romero’s murder, Elliott Abrams, the newly appointed assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, said, “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto D’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool.” In fact, two US embassy cables said precisely that, naming D’Aubuisson as the one who ordered his personal bodyguard to carry out Romero’s assassination. In denying the evidence, Abrams helped him get away with murder. With Abrams’s support, US military assistance to the Salvadoran government was dramatically increased that year.
This month, President Biden nominated Elliott Abrams to join the State Department Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Abrams’s history is not secret: in 2019, Representative Ilhan Omar grilled him before Congress. Abrams served for twelve years as part of the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. During that time, seventy-five thousand Salvadorians were killed. Abrams called US policy in El Salvador a “fabulous achievement.” Recounting the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, Omar asked, ‘“Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?”
In the village of El Mozote, the army’s Atlácatl Battalion herded women and children into a church convent and opened fire with US-supplied M16 automatic rifles before burning the building down. They committed other atrocities as well, and by the end over nine hundred people were murdered. Of them, 140 were children, their average age six. One survivor recalled seeing a dead mother and her dead baby lying in bed. On the walls, scrawled in blood, were the words: “Un nino muerto, un guerrillero menos”: “One dead child is one less guerrilla.”
Elliott Abrams’s Global Footprint
The harm Abrams inflicted during his tenure isn’t restricted to El Salvador. In Haiti, he helped prop up dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who is estimated to have killed as many as sixty thousand of his political opponents while in power. Abrams also defended the Guatemalan Montt regime, which oversaw the mass murder, rape, and torture of scores of indigenous Ixil Mayan people in the 1980s. General Efraín Ríos Montt was tried and convicted in 2013 for genocide.
In the Middle East, Abrams has proved a staunch supporter of Israel. Throughout his career, Abrams has used his platform to portray illegal Israeli settlements as natural and innocuous, to smear criticism of Israel by human rights groups as antisemitism, and to welcome Evangelist Zionist support for the state of Israel, despite that movement’s belief in a biblical injunction to bring about Armageddon. Abrams has long denied the oppression of Palestinians, and mocked the use of the term “apartheid.” Following Israel’s election in 2022 of a far-right extremist government, Abrams dismissed the concerns of American Jewish leaders as “hysterics” of a “privileged” group.
Far from a peace-oriented diplomat, Abrams did everything he could to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal, including encouraging Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. Abrams was a major cheerleader of the disastrous US invasion of Iraq, including having written a letter in 1998 to President Clinton, encouraging him to depose Saddam Hussein.
Abrams also championed the US overthrow of Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. As in Iraq, the US intervention encouraged by Abrams has not resulted in better conditions for the country. Instead, divisions have increased, and fighting has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. As Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) interior minister Fathi Bashagha said, “Every day we are burying young people who should be helping us build Libya.”
Steps have been taken over the past couple of decades to repair some of the damage done by Abrams and company in Latin America. In December 2011, the El Salvadoran government apologized for the El Mozote massacre. In 2018, Oscar Romero was elevated to the status of saint. Romero “left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the gospel,” said Pope Francis.
Justice is long overdue for Romero, the other Salvadorian faith leaders who were murdered in the 1980s, the children murdered in El Mazote, the Ixil Mayan women raped by death squads in Guatemala, and the people of Haiti, Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere. Making sure that Abrams does not receive another appointment to another administration is the absolute least the United States government could do.