A jubilant El Salvador celebrated the beatification of Oscar Arnulfo Romero today, remembering the archbishop who championed the poor, defied a military dictatorship, and paid for it with his life in 1980 when he was murdered by a right-wing death squad.
The celebration was a rare moment of joy in the impoverished country, which has recently experienced an explosion of criminal violence as a truce between powerful gangs has fallen apart and resulted in a murder rate spiking to the highest level in a decade. As panic over the sudden security crisis has spread, many Salvadorans now cling to Romero's message of peace and reconciliation as a source of hope.
Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Plaza Salvador del Mundo in the capital city of San Salvador on Saturday to witness the ceremony, making it the biggest public event in the small Central American nation's recent history.
Several thousand of pilgrims spent the entire Friday night singing and dancing on the plaza, using blankets and makeshift tents to brave hours of downpour. "I don't mind the rain," 43-year-old José Freddy Viera, a welder from the nearby city of Soyapango, told VICE News. "I see it as the tears of Romero, a sign he still cares about out country 35 years after he died."
Many celebrate the beatification — the next-to-last step in the Catholic Church's sainthood process — as the ultimate recognition of a man whose legacy, over time, has become that of a larger-than-life symbol of the fight for social justice and human rights, and against inequality and oppression.
In the late 1970s, as El Salvador was ruled by an oppressive military junta embroiled in an increasingly bloody conflict with leftist guerrillas, Romero preached peace, deploring the impoverished nation's steep inequality and sharply reprimanding US President Jimmy Carter's support for the regime.
'I've experienced the war, and I'm telling you that things are worse now than they were back then. Even after 35 years, we're still not practicing what he preached.'
Romero's words and actions gained the enmity of the extreme right and the military, including death squad leader Roberto d'Aubuisson, under whose orders Romero was shot to death on March 24, 1980 while celebrating mass in a small church near the Divine Providence hospital in the capital. Another 70,000 people lost their lives in the next 12 years of a brutal civil war characterized by massacres, forced disappearances, and torture.
The chapel where Romero was killed is now a sanctuary for the archbishop's followers. Across the street, a small store sells t-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, and religious items with the archbishop's smiling image. Romero's nearby former residence is now a museum.
"If Monseñor Romero saw El Salvador today… he would look away," 69-year old Telmira Rodríguez told VICE News on Thursday, as she was browsing through books with her idol's most famous quotes. "I've experienced the war, and I'm telling you that things are worse now than they were back then. Even after 35 years, we're still not practicing what he preached."
Like many other Salvadorans, Rodríguez is shocked by the recent surge in violence. March was the country's deadliest month in a decade, with 481 people reported killed. Another 78 people were murdered last weekend, and the country is on pace for more than 500 homicides in May.
Authorities link most of the killings to the maras, street gangs with members numbering in the tens of thousands, who specialize in extortion and drug trafficking. In 2012, the two largest gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, agreed to a truce brokered by the Catholic Church and independent mediators, and quietly backed by then President Mauricio Funes. The ceasefire, however, has fallen apart and the old rivals are once again at war.
A police anti-gang unit prepares to enter the Apopa barrio in San Salvador. (Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen)
The maras are active in large swaths of the countryside, as well as many of the barrios surrounding the capital. They often target the inhabitants of rival territories indiscriminately.
"It's very hard for us to leave our barrio," José Luis Escoto, a 21-year-old student from Colonia Montreal, a neighborhood in the north of San Salvador controlled by a MS-13 clica. "I recently bought a motorcycle so I no longer have to take the bus to go to school. It's too dangerous; you're an easy target for the rival gang."
Civilians and rival gang members are not the only targets. The gangs have killed more than 20 policemen and several soldiers already this year. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has responded by relocating dozens of convicted gang leaders to maximum security prisons, and organizing four new elite police and military units meant to deal with the gangs more quickly and decisively.
But many Salvadorans, especially those living in the barrios, say the heavy-handed response of the government does more harm than good. Last Wednesday, VICE News joined an anti-gang unit of the police on a patrol in Apopa, a barrio controlled by the MS-13 and reputedly one of the most dangerous in the city. But as the 50 or so heavily armed and masked police officers undertook a house-to-house search, the atmosphere was relaxed, almost friendly.
Police on patrol in San Salvador's Apopa barrio. (Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen)
"The police don't show the press how they really operate," Gerardo Méndez, a Spanish priest working in the MS-13-controlled Mejicanos neighborhood, told VICE News. "Here they often come in the middle of the night. They kick in doors, throw people to the ground. Most of the reports of human rights violations we get here are about the authorities."
With violence exploding to levels unheard of since the civil war, many fear El Salvador will once again become embroiled in another war, albeit one of an altogether different kind. "Things are complicated now," 48-year-old Enoch Aceledón Herrera told VICE News. "There's so much inequality now, it causes people to want things the easy way and kill for it."
Herrera is member of a parish located near the chapel where Romero was murdered. He says he knew the archbishop personally, and, like many others in the country, he hopes the beatification can lead Salvadorans to reflect on their current predicament.
"He was a remarkable man who surrendered his life for peace when there was death everywhere," Herrera said. "I believe that, if we follow his example, we can solve our problems. His beatification is a moment of life in a time of death."
Follow Jan-Albert Hootsen on Twitter: @Jayhootsen