MEXICO CITY — The Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador has abruptly closed its important human rights and legal aid office, which for years, and sometimes at great risk, denounced and investigated the most egregious atrocities surrounding that country’s civil war.
The surprise decision became known Tuesday, when employees showed up for work at the Tutela Legal office in the Central American nation’s capital, San Salvador, and found padlocks on the doors and guards who denied them entry.
Many in the international human rights community expressed alarm Wednesday and called for the preservation of Tutela Legal’s extensive archive, considered a treasure-trove for investigators as well as a valuable repository of evidence in still-unresolved criminal cases.
For some, it was especially ominous that the closure came just after El Salvador’s judiciary agreed to hear challenges to an amnesty law that, if overturned, might reopen several prominent human rights cases.
“It is a strange coincidence,” Tutela’s director, Ovidio Mauricio Gonzalez, said by telephone from San Salvador. “Just as they are talking about the amnesty, they close Tutela Legal, they close access to the archive, and abandon it to its fate.”
The amnesty law, passed in 1993, protected numerous government officials, military officers and guerrilla leaders from prosecution for acts committed during the 1980-92 civil war. Late last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the law cannot be used to protect those who ordered and carried out the single largest massacre in the war: the December 1981 slaughter of hundreds of peasants, including children, at El Mozote in northeastern El Salvador.
Last month, the Salvadoran Supreme Court in a major shift agreed to hear arguments that the amnesty was unconstitutional.
Tutela Legal said its shutdown was ordered by Jose Luis Escobar Alas, the archbishop of San Salvador. Employees said they were told that, with the war long over, the office was no longer necessary.
Supporters vehemently rejected that reasoning, noting that in addition to its archive, the organization also continued to do important legal work for the poor.
“I am worried about the bad signal this sends,” President Mauricio Funes said in a news conference, adding he did not know the reasons behind the closing.
“The Catholic Church, and especially the archbishop of San Salvador, are not determined to accompany the just causes of the people,” Funes, the country’s first president from the left, added in unusually harsh terms.
Ana Marcia Aguiluz, Central America director of the Center for Justice and International Law, called the closure “a very worrisome and unfortunate decision.”
“Tutela Legal is fundamental to the pursuit of justice, not only in the past,” Aguiluz said. “Thousands of victims still long for justice. It has more reason than ever to exist.”
Tutela Legal was founded before the war by the then-archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero. In addition to counseling the poor and oppressed, 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. Another crucial case was the military’s 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests (one of them the rector of San Salvador’s University of Central America, or UCA), as well as their housekeeper and her daughter.
It was also Tutela Legal that pushed for investigation of the El Mozote massacre. For years, the Salvadoran government and army, and the Reagan administration that backed them, strenuously denied that a massacre had taken place. Tutela Legal investigators traveled the country, even at the height of war, to find survivors and piece together witness accounts.
“They were incredibly well trusted by Salvadorans,” said David Holiday, who was the Central America representative for Human Rights Watch in the 1990s and is now with the Open Society Foundations. “Singularly … because of them … we had a very good estimate of what was going on in the war.”
In addition to its historical role on behalf of justice, Tutela Legal had more recently turned its attention to the violence, insecurity and social inequities that continue to beset the tiny Central American nation, said Jeannette Aguilar, head of UCA’s public-opinion institute. Tutela’s work has recently included studies of gang violence, abuses tied to the expanded role of the military in policing, and reconciliation projects in the still-polarized country.
“The violation of civil, social and cultural rights is our daily bread here,” Aguilar said.
Members of the Tutela Legal staff were examining alternatives Wednesday. There were suggestions that the office reopen as an independent human rights organization, without the auspices of the church. Gonzalez and some of his employees met with Pope Francis’ San Salvador representative to plead their case.