Maria Julia Hernandez, a celebrated human rights activist who spoke up for victims during El Salvador’s protracted civil war and tended to their families in the years that followed, died Friday of a heart attack. She was 68.
As director of Tutela Legal, a human rights group sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, Hernandez had traveled the Central American country gathering evidence and interviewing survivors of alleged massacres during the bloody conflict that ended with a United Nations-brokered peace accord in 1992.
“Our deep challenge and pledge, our reason for being, are the victims, who were mostly the poor of El Salvador,” she said of her work during a 2004 speech.
Seeking to expose abuses by so-called death squads was dangerous work. Thousands of people were threatened or killed by soldiers, police and right-wing paramilitary groups battling leftist guerrillas. Critics of government security forces were quickly labeled rebel sympathizers.
Before embarking on an investigation, Hernandez always said this prayer, colleague David Morales recalled: “Well, God, I’ll either see you today or you’ll give me more time to keep fighting.,”
Hernandez and her co-workers roamed El Salvador, photographing the dead and keeping a tally that far exceeded government estimates. U.S. Embassy officials in San Salvador in the mid-1980s criticized her efforts to bring international attention to the conflict, suggesting quietly that she might be sympathetic to guerrillas.
“Maybe it’s better I don’t have a family,” Hernandez, who was single and had no children, told The Times in 1984. During the war, people would come to her offices and thumb through books of photographs to find missing relatives and friends.
Hernandez began her work 25 years ago at Tutela Legal (Legal Guardians), an office created by Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero, who was among a group of priests targeted by Salvadoran officials for their outspoken support of the poor and criticism of military abuses, was shot to death in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.
That year also marked a surge in U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government, prompted by fears in the Reagan administration of a communist takeover in the region.
Hernandez and others had long argued that those armaments were used by government-sponsored death squads that roamed the country killing civilians suspected of aiding the guerrillas.
Tens of thousands of people died during the civil war, many buried in unmarked graves with no explanation or notice issued to surviving family members. Hundreds of thousands of others went into exile, including to California.
Hernandez, a lawyer, had said that she believed her mission was to help families learn the fate of missing loved ones and to bring their killers to justice. She was convinced that a majority of the killings during the civil war were done by government forces, a finding dismissed by officials who considered her office partisan and left-wing.
After the peace accords were signed in Mexico City in 1992, she tried to pursue legal action in the December 1981 killings of civilians by soldiers at El Mozote and three other villages northeast of San Salvador. Salvadoran and U.S. officials said that the deaths came in a three-day battle with armed guerrilla forces, despite contradictory reports from the villages.
Forensic anthropologists later concurred that hundreds of unarmed civilians, including women and children, had been killed; many were tortured first. Salvadoran defense officials have said it would be impossible to identify the responsible soldiers.
Hernandez’s death Friday coincided with the burial of Romero exactly 27 years earlier, said Silvia Guillen of the Fundacion para el Estudio para la Aplicacion del Derecho, a human rights foundation.
“Her death is a huge loss for those of us who work in human rights,” she said, “and it leaves us with the continuing responsibility.”
Times staff writer Enriquez reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador.