Friday, October 4, 2013

El Salvador Moves to Protect Legal Center's Records After Surprise Closure

The Salvadoran government has taken measures to safeguard the archives of a historic human rights and legal office after the Catholic Church announced its closure on Monday, but the reasoning behind the decision remains suspiciously unclear.  

Tutela Legal was created in 1977 by Archbishop Oscar Romero to provide legal counsel to the poor. When the Salvadoran Civil War broke out two years later, it began to focus on human rights violations linked to the armed conflict. As the L.A. Times reports, “it became the driving force behind investigations of the most emblematic atrocities of the period, including the 1980 slaying of Romero, shot by gunmen linked to the military as he said Mass.” The office also spearheaded inquiries into the 1981 El Mozote massacre and the military's 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests.

According to news site El Faro, which broke the story, there was no indication of an impending closure in the months leading up to the announcement, although the hiring of a new administrator to closely monitor the staff’s work raised some eyebrows.  Upon arriving for work on Monday, employees at the legal center found the building closed, with locks on the doors and private guards who prevented them from entering. When Tutela Legal staff asked the Archdiocese of San Salvador about this, they were told that the office had been permanently shuttered, as it “no longer had a reason to exist.”  

The news triggered alarm among local and international human rights groups, many of which speculated that the closure was linked to the Constitutional Court’s decision to admit a challenge to the country’s controversial 1993 Amnesty Law. Ovidio Mauricio Gonzalez, Tutela’s director, described the timing of the move as suspicious. “Just as they are talking about the amnesty, they close Tutela Legal, they close access to the archive, and abandon it to its fate,” he said.

Tutela Legal’s archives hold detailed information about Civil War-era rights abuses, which could prove invaluable to investigations if the Amnesty Law is overturned in the future. As such, human rights advocates argue that the records must be secured. As (now former) Tutela Legal investigator Jose Lazo told El Faro: “That archive does not belong to the Church; it belongs to the people. In it lies the blood of victims.”

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes also voiced concern about the office’s closure, saying he was disappointed that Tutela Legal had “decided not to accompany the just causes of the people.”

This pressure from political and civil society actors appears to have had some impact. Yesterday El Faro reported that the Archdiocese walked back its initial remarks about the office, releasing a statement clarifying that it did, in fact, believe it had a reason to exist. However, according to Church officials, the closure of Tutela Legal was necessary in order to revitalize its work of “sheltering, supporting and advocating for victims in modern times.”

Meanwhile, La Prensa Grafica reports that the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman’s office has called on the Church to authorize investigators to check on the legal center’s archives, to make sure its records have not been tampered with. If the request is not granted in five days’ time, Ombudsman David Morales warned, he would seek a court order for the inspection.


News Briefs
  • Last night, a Brazilian electoral court ruled that environmentalist presidential candidate Marina Silva failed to gather the necessary signatures in time to register her new party, the Sustainability Network. Folha de São Paulo calls the ruling a “major blow” to Silva’s presidential aspirations, but O Globo reports that she can still run in next year’s elections by signing on to another existing opposition party, like the Popular Socialist Party (PPS) or the center-right National Ecological Party (PEN). Silva told reporters early this morning that she intends to announce her next move later this afternoon.
  • As another round of peace talks between FARC rebels and the Colombian government gets underway in Havana, the guerrilla group’s negotiating team told the press that there has been “modest progress” made at the negotiating table. The rebels say they have made preliminary agreements on a range of issues, in a document spanning some 25 pages. Semana reports that on Monday, Colombian television aired the first-ever interview with FARC negotiators Ivan Marquez and Pablo Catatumbo that the rebels granted to a Colombian news network. In it, the two voiced sharp criticism of former President Alvaro Uribe, who Marquez blasted for “being incapable of winning the war and now not wanting to make peace.”
  • El Colombiano and the AP report that Uribe’s former police general Mauricio Santoyo, who is imprisoned in the U.S. for links to paramilitary groups, will be investigated for links to the forced disappearance of two human rights activists in Medellin in October 2000.
  • It seems Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has not given up on his bid to reform the Inter-American human rights system. Correa arrived in Bolivia yesterday to meet with President Evo Morales, with whom he discussed the possibility of leaving the Inter-American Court of Human Rights if it is not reformed by 2014. “If nothing changes, it will reflect seriously on our continued participation in the human rights system that has obvious contradictions,” Correa told reporters after the meeting. The two nations would become the second and third countries in the region to abandon the Inter-American human rights system, after Venezuela’s withdrawal became final last month.  Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had been slated to attend the meeting as well, but canceled at the last minute due to health reasons, which he described as a “viral cold.”
  • Ecuador’s National Assembly has voted to support a controversial decision by President Correa to authorize oil drilling in the Yasuni Amazon reserve. While Correa’s Alianza Pais backed the measre in a 108 to 25 vote, El Comercio notes that it forbids drilling in the park’s so-called “intangible zone,” an area set aside to protect the park’s biodiversity and the land claims of local indigenous communities. Even so, resistance to drilling in Yasuni remains strong, and The Guardian reports that some 680,000 people have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the issue.
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has given his tacit approval to the development of the locally unpopular Minas Conga copper and gold project in the northern Cajamarca province, telling reporters that it “isn’t a state problem,” and that its development is in the hands of the company that owns it. In December 2011, Humala declared a state of emergency in Cajamarca to suppress mass demonstrations against the mining initiative.
  • The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has issued new warnings of a rise in northbound cocaine traffic through the Caribbean. The Miami Herald reports that the DEA claims 14 percent of cocaine bound for the U.S. was sent through the Caribbean in the first half of 2013, compared to 7 percent in the same period last year.
  • Tuesday marked the 45th anniversary of Mexico’s Tlatelolco massacre, in which at least 25 students were killed by state security forces responding to a demonstration in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square. El Proceso reports that a rally held to commemorate the massacre saw clashes break out between police and protesters, in which some 20 people were arrested. Local human rights groups like Centro Prodh and the Mexican League of Human Rights Defenders (Limedh) have called for an investigation into allegations of police abuse at Tuesday’s rally. According to Animal Politico, authorities have charged 10 of the protesters with “insulting authority, small-scale drug dealing and attacks on the public peace.”
  • La Nacion reports that Argentine prosecutors have asked for a six-year prison sentence for former President  Fernando de la Rua, who is accused of bribing a group of senators to vote in favor of a labor reform bill in 2000. The BBC notes that over 300 witnesses are expected to testify in the case, including President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who opposed the measure and is not implicated in the case.