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J. Doe v. Alvaro Rafael Saravia et al.

Court United States District Court Eastern District of California, United States
Case number CIV-F-03-6249 OWW LJO
Decision title Judgment
Decision date 24 November 2004
  • J. Doe
  • Alvaro Rafael Saravia
Categories Crimes against humanity
Keywords Crimes against humanity; extrajudicial killing
Other countries involved
  • El Salvador
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On 24 March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was killed in the Chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador. The killing was planned and coordinated by officers of the Salvadoran military, including Alvaro Rafael Saravia. As a result of the influence of these persons, no one was convicted for the killing of Archbishop Romero.

In 2003, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a suit on behalf of relatives of Archbishop Romero against Alvaro Rafael Saravia, who went into hiding after he was served with the complaint.

In November 2004, the U.S. District Court Eastern District of California found Saravialiable for the assassination of Archbishop Romero and awarded a total of $10,000,000.00 in damages.

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Procedural history

On 12 September 2003, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed a suit in the U.S. against Alvaro Rafael Saravia, a former captain in the Salvadoran Air Force, for his role in the assassination of Archbishop Romero in a church in El Salvador in 1980. The suit was filed on behalf of a relative of the Archbishop, whose name has been withheld for security reasons. The complaint was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). Saravia was served with the complaint at his home address, but failed to respond and has since gone underground. The complaint alleged that Saravia procured weapons and other material used in the assassination, that he arranged that his personal driver transported the assassin, and that he paid the assassin for his services. 

On 24 August and on 2 and 3 September 2004, evidentiary hearings were held in the course in which the plaintiffs supported their claims by providing evidence.

On 3 September 2004, Alvaro Rafael Saravia was found guilty of extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity.

On 24 November 2004, the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law were filed.

Court Documents:

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Related developments

Alvaro Rafael Saravia remains on the Department of Homeland Security’s wanted list.

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Core legal questions

Can Alvaro Rafael Saravia be held liable for committing an extrajudicial killing and a crime against humanity?

Can the Court exercise jurisdiction over an extrajudicial killing and crime against humanity under the ATCA and the TVPA?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (Title 28 U.S. Code, Chapter 85, Section 1350):

  • Section 2(a) - Establishment of civil action - Liability
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Court's holding and analysis

In the Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law, the District Court declared that Saravia ordered his driver to transport the killer to the church and to bring him back to the place where a short meeting was held (paras. 35-43).

In addition, the Court declared as a fact that there were attempts to carry out a serious investigation into Archbishop Romero’s assassination, but that the efforts to conduct the investigation were obstructed by the National Police and governmental officials who were charged with assisting in the investigation (para. 55).

Furthermore, the Court held that it had jurisdiction over the claims because extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity meet the ‘specific, universal and obligatory standard’ required to be subject of the ATCA (para. 199). The plaintiffs had a standing to bring claims because the 10-years limitation period was equitably tolled (para. 221).

In respect of liability, the Court found Saravia liable under the TVPA and ATCA ‘as a direct participant, conspirator, accomplice, and aider and abettor’ (paras. 224-228) for the assassination of Archbishop Romero constituting an extrajudicial killing (para. 251) and a crime against humanity (paras. 263-265).

In the judgment delivered on 24 November 2004, the Court awarded a total of $10,000,000.00 in damages, comprised of $5,000,000.00 in punitive damages and $5,000,000.00 in compensatory damages (p. 1).

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Further analysis

Americas Watch, El Salvador's Decade of Terror: Human Rights Since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, New Haven: Yale University Press 1991.

M. Eisenbrandt, ‘Justice Through Litigation: The Center for Justice and Accountability’, Gonzaga Journal of International Law, 2006-2007, Vol. 10, pp. 33-54.

L. McGivern, ‘Justice Denied: Impunity During and After the Salvadoran Civil War’, Intersections online, 2009, Vol. 10(1), pp. 169-179.

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

'Doe v. Saravia' - Case Summary’, The Center for Justice & Accountability.

W. Branigin, ‘Suit Filed in '80 Death Of Salvadoran Bishop’, The Washington Post, 17 September 2003.

H. Chiang, ‘Modesto man accused in '80 slaying of bishop’, San Francisco Chronicle, 17 September 2003.

A. Buncombe, ‘The archbishop, the death squad and the 24-year wait for justice’, Independent UK, 24 August 2004.

M. Arax, ‘El Salvador Slaying Case to Open in Fresno’, Los Angeles Times, 24 August 2004.

T. Hendricks, ‘Fresno suit hearing recalls Salvadoran cleric's slaying in '80’, San Francisco Chronicle, 25 August 2004.

R. M. Tum, ‘Justice Comes for the Archbishop’, The New York Times, 31 August 2004.

Judge finds Modesto man liable for 1980 Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, Orders him to pay $10 million in damages’, The Center for Justice & Accountability, 3 September 2004.

T. Hendricks, ‘Ex-Salvadoran officer ruled liable in killing of archbishop in 1980’, San Francisco Chronicle, 4 September 2004.

The Associated Press, ‘Man Is Found Liable in Killing of Salvadoran Archbishop’, The New York Times, 4 September 2004.

K. Hurley, ‘$10m for an archbishop's murder’,, 5
September 2004.

A. Buncombe, ‘US court orders man behind death-squad killing of El Salvador's archbishop to pay $10m in damages’, Independent Co UK, 5 September 2004.

F. Acosta, ‘New winds of justice for El Salvador’, The Tidings, 1 October 2004.

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Social media links

A. Guillermoprieto, ‘Remembering Romero: The Murder that Ruptured El Salvador’, The New York Review of Books, 22 April 2010.