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.
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