President Barack Obama, center, with Monsignor Jose Escobar, right, and...

President Barack Obama, center, with Monsignor Jose Escobar, right, and President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes, left, during a tour of the National Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday. In the background is a portrait of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

This year, the anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the fearless defender of the oppressed in El Salvador, brings an unusual reminder of that tragic event: Near the end of a Latin American tour, President Barack Obama paid his respects at the archbishop's tomb in San Salvador and said: "Romero is an inspiration."

That homage Tuesday could have been much more powerful if the president had uttered a few words of regret about the role of the United States in so many of the tragedies in El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

Many Salvadoran soldiers implicated in atrocities against civilians had been trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, which began in Panama and moved in 1984 to Ft. Benning, Ga. In training Latin American troops, a 1996 report said, it used manuals that condoned executions, extortion and physical abuse. One graduate was Roberto D'Aubuisson, identified by the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador as a key figure in Romero's assassination.

It's possible to see Obama's visit in a positive light, affirming today's more peaceful El Salvador. But for those who are working to close the school (now even more opaquely named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but known in Latin America as La Escuela de Asesinos, School of Assassins), it was disappointing.

"There was no acknowledgment of any wrongdoing on [the United States'] part; nor did he apologize," said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who has been trying for years to close the school. "Giving that apology would have meant so much to the people of El Salvador, the poor who make up the majority. He should have done what Bishop Romero had asked of everyone, to use our voices for peace and justice."

In fact, it was using his own voice that got Romero killed. When he became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, he was hardly an outspoken defender of the disadvantaged. What turned him around was the murder of a friend, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and advocate for the poor. From then on, Romero spoke out fearlessly against the oppression of his people.

In his soaring final homily, Romero directly addressed Salvadoran soldiers: "In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you, in the name of God: Stop the repression!" The next day, March 24, 1980, as Romero celebrated Mass, he was murdered.

But his final words echoed three years later, when Bourgeois and two others staged a protest against the training of Salvadoran soldiers then at Benning, before the School of the Americas moved there. Dressed as military officers one night, the three conspirators scaled a tall tree near the Salvadorans' barracks, carrying a portable stereo with a tape of Romero's homily.

"We just said, 'Bishop Romero, this is for you,' and pressed the button, and his voice just boomed into the barracks," Bourgeois recalled. "It was for us a very sacred moment. They didn't quite see it that way."

All three were sentenced to 18 months in prison. Bourgeois served the full sentence, because he lost his time off for good behavior. "I went on a work strike," he said. "I said, 'When those responsible for the death of Romero do their time, I'll work.' "

But no one has served time for that murder.

For Romero, for six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter, for four American churchwomen -- all victims of that repression -- Bourgeois leads a protest outside Benning every November. Next month, he'll lead a hunger strike at the White House, offering Obama another chance to say the right words and do the right thing: Close the school.