Salvadoran archbishop orders church human rights office closed

October 1, 2013

Human rights workers, officials and advocates in El Salvador urged Catholic Church leaders on Tuesday to secure the records of the San Salvador Archdiocese’s human rights office the day after El Salvador Archbishop José Luis Escobar Sul ordered the office closed, according to Salvadoran news reports.

Since its founding in 1982, the human rights office, called Tutela Legal in Spanish, has been instrumental in investigating cases of human rights violations, including the murder on March 24, 1980 of Archbishop Óscar Romero and the El Mozote massacres in December 1981, where more than 800 men, women and children were slaughtered by an elite U.S.-trained anti-insurgency battalion.

El Salvador daily El Mundo said Tutela Legal possesses 80 percent of the documentation of human rights abuses in the country.

Other reports in Salvadoran newspapers did not mention the archbishop’s official reason for closing the office, and an official notification has not yet been made.

Human Rights Prosecutor David Morales, a government official, asked the church to ensure that historical records are properly preserved and protected.

“It has contributed to saving tens of thousands of lives and protecting thousands of people,” Morales told El Mundo, referring to Tutela Legal.

Tutela Legal Assistant Director Wilfredo Medrano told the online newspaper La Página that he lamented the decision to close the office and fire its 13 employees.

“The archbishop has made an irresponsible decision for Salvadoran society. He closed [the office] with locks, put up security doors and hired private security as if we were delinquents. … We have ended up like villains after working to defend and promote human rights in this country. The legacy of Archbishop Romero has been destroyed,” Medrano said.

Medrano added that church officials told him Tutela Legal “no longer had a reason for being” and therefore was being closed.

Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the Salvadoran-based Human Rights Institute of the Central American University, told El Mundo that the country’s attorney general should take charge of Tutela Legal’s files.

“I’ve heard the argument for closing, that it no longer had a reason for being, something that is completely false in a country where human rights continue to be violated,” Cuéllar said.

The church’s move comes shortly after the country’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to 1993’s Amnesty Law, which protects many of those accused of rights abuses committed during the decade-long civil war. It also comes a month after a report was released by the U.N. Truth Commission, established by the 1992 U.N.-brokered peace agreement that ended the war, which claimed some 75,000 lives.

The Truth Commission found that of the 7,000 human rights violations studied, 95 percent was attributed to the government or death squads linked to the government, and 5 percent was attributed to leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.

Recently government officials have come under pressure to reverse amnesty. The San José, Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights recommended that amnesty be lifted in a ruling last December, finding the Salvadoran Army guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the El Mozote massacre case.

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