By Tomás Andréu
In 1977 El Salvador was heading for a civil war and violations of human rights were the order of the day. Because of these events and thanks to Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, Tutela Legal (Legal Protection Office), to provide legal support to victims, was founded. The effort became part of the Salvadoran Catholic Church in 1982. This year, however, the organization was shut down on Sept. 30 by the archbishop José Luis Escobar, president of Salvadoran Episcopal Conference leaving more than 50,000 cases in uncertainty.
“Tutela Legal had no reason to exist,” was the surprising explanation which more than 10 employees of the institution obtained from Mons. Escobar, who affirmed that he had encountered “irregularities” in the organization management. His reasoning was objected and people criticized him severely. International and national human rights organizations gave their views on the matter and urged to defend the memory of the victims.
Escobar said that the files belong to the Church. They contain cases of violations of human rights like the massacre of El Mozote, La Guacamaya (Morazán province) and El Sumpul (Chalatenango province), the murder of six Jesuits and two of their collaborators in 1989 as well as a lot of other proceedings which arrived at Tutela Legal after the signing of the Peace Accords between the guerilla and the government in 1992.
The closure of Tutela Legal occurs at the same time that the Constitutional Court of the Supreme Court of Justice reviews whether the 1993 General Amnesty Law, which impedes judging war crimes, is unconstitutional.
Professor Margarita Pascasio de López disappeared one day after leaving her work place in San Salvador in 1982. The only known fact about her whereabouts is that she was captured and detained in then military facilities. Her daughter Nora López Pascasio turned to Tutela Legal and reported the disappearance. The case is still open. On Oct. 6 she returned to the office of Tutela Legal which used to be located in the Metropolitan Cathedral.
“We hope that he [Mons. Escobar] has not destroyed the files because this man identifies himself with the right,” said Lopéz Pascasio to Latinamerica Press. “He made it up that employees were working badly. He is a distractor. He has to hand in the files.”
She fears that the files about the case of her mother like a lot of others could disappear. Ever since she lost her mother she has dedicated herself to finding her and to seeing that justice is done to her, which is why she joined the organization SOS Justice.
“No forgiveness, no oblivion. I want justice,” exclaimed Lopéz Pascasio.
It have been the new generations which summoned people via social networks to demonstrate peacefully under the slogan “Embracing memory to get justice which belongs to us” ever since people knew about the closure of Tutela Legal. The protest which took place on Oct. 6 aimed at forming a human chain of women, men and children in order to embrace the Cathedral.
“There is a lot of violence against our people. This embrace shows that people are protecting these files documenting severe violations of human rights. They are not just papers they are memory. Peace will not come until all these crimes have been recognized,” Ramiro Navas told Latinamerica Press. He belongs to the organization Oveja Negra (Black Ship) which affirms being “worried about national reality because the country needs changes pushed forward by Salvadoran people.”
Public pressure made Mons. Escobar talk about new facilities which would not only keep watch about what happened at war. For this reason he formed a commission consisting of Mons. Jesús Delgado and the priests Jaime Paredes, Luis Coto and José María Tojeira who enjoy good reputation in the Salvadoran society and will create the Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas Documentation and Archive Center, as was announced on Oct. 13 after the closure of Tutela Legal.
Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas was the one who continued the work done by Mons. Romero after the latter had being shot in the chest by a killer hired by Salvadoran extreme right in 1980.
Before the Catholic high official talked about the commission, lawyer investigator of former Tutela Legal Wilfredo Medrano told Latinamerica Press that “in the Archdiocese social work [health, sustainable agriculture, housing] has been eliminated. We don’t know what kind of institution he is going to establish. What we did was for the benefit of dispossessed people who did not have the financial resources to pay a lawyer.”
President Mauricio Funes also expressed his concern about “the message that is being send out, the bad signal that the Catholic Church and in particular the Archbishop of San Salvador are not willing to attend the just causes of this people like an office [should] that plays an important role for the defense and validity of human rights.”
The Culture Secretary of the Presidency tried to enforce that the archives of the closed Tutela Legal were declared cultural heritage but the Constitutional Court impeded this on Nov. 1 after the lawyer of the Church, Mario Machado, sought the support of members of the court arguing that the religious organization was private and that the documents were the property of the Church and should not be made public. The court also ordered that “no other state authority will execute or dictate orders which permit entry and access to the historic documental archive”. The Church was ordered to adopt “special measures to protect the information in the offices (…) while the situation concerning protection and handling of the mentioned archives is being solved.”
Children of war
During the armed conflict thousands of children were snatched from their families or their homes. The Salvadoran army did business with this suffering by handing over these little ones to families in the USA and Europe. In other cases they kept or executed them. In 1994, the priest Jon Cortina — already deceased — together with family members of these disappeared children founded the Asociación Pro Búsqueda (Pro Search Association) in the district of Chalatenango. Its mission is to reunite those little ones — now adults — with their biological parents or surviving family members of the warlike conflict. The founding of the association was triggered by the discontent which the 1993 Amnesty Law provoked by not tackling the issue of forced disappearances of Salvadoran children at war.
If the closure of Tutela Legal already appalled the Salvadoran people the theft and the fire on Nov. 14 in the office of Pro Búsqueda gave rise to a wave of national and international condemnation. Armed men entered the building in the early morning, tied up the employees and the security guard, stole files and computers, sprinkled gasoline and set the offices on fire.
Ester Alvarenga, spokeswoman of the association did not want to venture wild guesses but assured to the press that it was not a normal crime. There was a deliberate intention.
On Nov. 18 a special hearing which investigates the fate of nine children was suspended for the second time. The case dates back to 1982 when the army raided in the district of Chalatenango. The operation did not only cause hundreds of deaths but was also responsible for the disappearance of 53 children, 20 of which, according to Pro Búsqueda, have been recovered.
Pro Búsqueda assures that around 2,000 children disappeared at war. The institution, since its inception until the present, has resolved 387 cases of more than 1,000 claims received.
About the author: Latinamerica Press
Latinamerica Press is a product of Comunicaciones Aliadas, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Lima, Peru, specializing in the production of information and analysis about events across Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on rights, while strengthening the communications skills of local social leaders.