Neris Gonzalez would journey 25km every week from her rural village in San Vicente, El Salvador to the nearest town in order to phone Archbishop Oscar Romero. Gonzalez, a 23-year-old community leader, would recount the latest murders, disappearances and mutilations committed by security forces in her district to the Archbishop.
This was 1978, a time of increasing repression and human rights violations in El Salvador in the run-up to the coup d’état in October 1979 and subsequent 12-year civil war.
Archbishop Romero founded the Human Rights Office, originally known as Socorro Juridico (Legal Relief) in 1977, in order to document these abuses from across the country. It was one of the only places people could go to report state-sponsored crimes.
Every Sunday until his assassination in March 1980, Romero would broadcast a homily from the grand cathedral in the capital San Salvador which included the latest denunciations. Communities in every tiny village and hard luck neighbourhood could be found huddled over battery-operated radios listening to his homilies which disseminated the horrors being inflicted upon civilians.
Since then, the Archbishop’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Office, known as Tutela Legal since 1982, has documented more than 50,000 cases of human rights abuses – before, during and after the civil war which ended in 1992. It holds the most comprehensive archive of El Salvador’s bloody history and its lawyers continue to represent survivors of notorious massacres including El Mozote and Rio Sumpul.
End of an era
On September 30 the staff arrived at work to find the locks changed and armed guards on the doors. They were allowed 10 minutes to clear their desks chaperoned by the security guards.
The current Archbishop, José Luis Escobar Alas, had closed Tutela Legal and issued a statement saying its work was “no longer relevant”. Two days later Escobar Alas said it was a normal part of restructuring and modernisation and a more relevant organisation would open in due course.
The closure triggered national and international condemnation from faith, human rights and solidarity groups, with large protests outside the Archdiocese. The biggest concern is about the safety and preservation of the huge paper archive without which any future legal action against perpetrators, who have enjoyed full impunity until now, could prove impossible.
The disbanding of Tutela at this moment in El Salvador history cannot be a coincidence.
– Patty Blum, legal advisor
The timing of the closure has caused widespread suspicion.
Ten days earlier the Supreme Court accepted a case challenging the constitutionality of the amnesty law brought by several human rights organisations.
The highly controversial amnesty law passed by the military-allied Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) government in 1993 absolved all those guilty of human rights atrocities. It meant the death squads, paramilitaries, security forces, and Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) leftist guerrillas responsible for the 80,000 deaths and 8,000 disappeared have never been held to account.
The surprise decision by the usually conservative Supreme Court Constitutional Chamber renewed hope of the amnesty law being repealed and the possibility of finally prosecuting those responsible for thousands of crimes forensically investigated and documented by Tutela Legal.
This court ruling came soon after the FMLN government’s attorney general re-opened the investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre in which at least 800 civilians were killed by the army. This decision was a direct response to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which in October 2012 ruled the amnesty illegal.
Tutela Legal began gathering testimonies and investigating the El Mozote massacre almost immediately. They first lodged the case with the IACHR in 1990, sticking with it for 22 years before last year’s ruling.
In the past 15 years Tutela Legal’s work has proven crucial in cases brought against senior military figures living in the United States.
Patty Blum, senior legal advisor to the San Francisco based Centre for Justice and Accountability, told Al Jazeera: “We owe a debt to Tutela Legal for their scrupulous documentation of the abuses occurring during the Salvadoran conflict. We made use, in multiple ways, of their materials in the civil cases we brought in the US and Spain against top commanders of the Salvadoran military for crimes, including the murder of Archbishop Romero and the 1989 assassinations of six Jesuits priests.”
She added: “The disbanding of Tutela at this moment in El Salvador history cannot be a coincidence.”
Tutela Legal was also active in new cases, such as the 2007 Red car battery factory lead-poisoning case, and ran education programmes and human rights training across El Salvador.
CAFOD, the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales, is among dozens of groups demanding a U-turn by the Archbishop and guarantees about the archives.
Clare Dixon, CAFOD’s head of Latin America, told Al Jazeera: “Whilst the civil war may be over, El Salvador is a desperately polarised society and there are still huge issues of justice and peace and human rights violations. Tutela’s forensic research and legal accompaniment is still vital as communities find themselves at the mercy of abusive practices by mining and extractive industries, gang violence and organised crime.”
Oscar Romero’s libertarian theology and work with the country’s most oppressed people continued after his murder with Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas until 1994. But since then the Catholic Church hierarchy in El Salvador has reverted back to its conservative roots, with many social and education programmes closed by Parish priests, Bethany Loberg from NGO Share-El Salvador told Al Jazeera.
Escobar Alas, appointed Archbishop in 2008, is a well-known religious and political conservative, widely reported as a member of the right-wing group Opus Dei.
A Salvadorian walks by a poster with portraits of El Salvador’s last civil war (1980-1992) victims [EPA]
In August 2011 he said: “I cannot imagine if all the cases were opened. When will we live in peace, I do not think this generation want to spend their lives discussing the past, especially as there are abundant cases committed by both sides … Possibly the Amnesty Law is the most appropriate mechanism to maintain peace.”
Escobar Alas caused controversy last December after ordering the removal of a symbolic peace mural that adorned the San Salvador Cathedral without consulting anyone, not even the government or revered the artist, Fernando Llort.
His most recent communique on Tutela Legal cast a shadow over the reputation of staff with nebulous accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
In response to the closure President Maurico Funes has said: “I am concerned by the bad sign and message this sends. With this decision the Archbishop is not accompanying the just causes of people.”
Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales, a former Tutela Legal employee who helped take the Romero murder to the IACHR, has threatened legal action against the Archdiocese unless his team are given access to the archives.
Opposition party Arena, current favourites to win next year’s general election, have remained silent on the closure and did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The Tutela Legal cases include Neris Gonzalez. In December 1979 she was subjected to two weeks of horrific torture by National Guard officers who left her for dead on a dump.
Gonzalez told Al Jazeera: “This arbitrary closure is a disrespectful hijacking of the historical memories from us victims. I feel re-victimised by the Archbishop’s abusive act but there must be others behind it.”