[Episcopal News Service] In the aftermath of a Nov. 14 attack on a human rights organization that has worked to find children separated from their families during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war and the abrupt closure in October of the country’s largest war-crime records depository, organizations engaged in social justice and human rights fear a systematic campaign is underway to eliminate the historical record of human rights violations perpetrated during the war.
“Although we don’t yet have all the information, it is difficult not [to] interpret the closing of Tutela Legal and the attack against Pro-Búsqueda as reactions to progress in presenting, and one day prosecuting, human rights cases abuses in El Salvador,” said Noah Bullock, the executive director of Foundation Cristosal, a human rights-based community-development organization that began in the Episcopal and Anglican churches headquartered in San Salvador, the small Central American country’s capital.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 14, gunmen entered the office of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos, the association for missing children. They detained three people, removed computers and other equipment, and destroyed files by dousing them with gasoline and setting them on fire.
The attack came three days after the Supreme Court heard testimony from survivors – children whose parents were assassinated by government soldiers during a raid in 1982. Pro-Búsqueda represented the survivors in court, where no one from the armed forces showed up.
“We regret that these types of violent activities against those of us who seek justice in this country continue. We do not want to return to our past in which these events were commonplace,” said Anglican-Episcopal Church of El Salvador Bishop Martín Barahona in response to the attack. “There is obviously a sector of society that seeks to destabilize the country by these means, and we do not yet know who they are.”
In October, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador abruptly closed its legal office, Tutela Legal, which housed an extensive collection of evidence and 50,000 documents related to human rights abuses committed during the country’s 1980-92 civil war.
Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, who served the Archdiocese of San Salvador from 1977 until his March 24, 1980, assassination, opened the legal office in his first year as archbishop. During his popular, weekly radio broadcast, Romero regularly read the names of those who’d been murdered, tortured or “disappeared;” many Salvadorans view his assassination as the tipping point toward war.
By official estimates, some 75,000 people were killed and countless others were disappeared and tortured during the war, which was fought between the U.S.-supported right-wing government and leftist guerillas.
Both the closing of the archdiocese’s legal office and the attack on Pro-Búsqueda come at a time when the country’s Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of its 1993 amnesty law, which has protected perpetrators of human rights abuses committed during the civil war from being prosecuted for their crimes. Last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the amnesty law could not protect those responsible for the massacre at El Mozote, where government soldiers killed some 800 people, half of them children, in December 1981.
El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales condemned the attack on Pro-Búsqueda, saying that such attacks had not happened since the early 1990s, post-war, as reported in the online newspaper El Faro.
“It is a worrying resurgence of such acts,” said Morales. Without doubt, he added, the attack was politically motivated and sought to “intimidate, frighten and instill fear” in an atmosphere of impunity.
One point in negotiation of the 1992 Peace Accords was the formation of a truth commission to investigate human rights violations that occurred during the civil war. In post-war El Salvador, grassroots human rights and social justice organizations have played a key role is protecting the historical memory and bringing these cases out of the shadows of history.
The organizations are demanding the archdiocese release its files back to the victims so that they can choose who represents them in their demands for justice. They also are demanding an investigation into the most recent attacks.
“Since the Peace Accords, El Salvador has been experimenting with a negotiated peace without justice,” Bullock said. “Attacks like the one against Pro-Búsqueda last week indicate that the elements of society involved in perpetrating those crimes continue to believe that they can operate above the law with impunity. The burning of human rights offices is not behavior conducive to building a peaceful and democratic society.”
In January, in advance of the Feb. 2 presidential primary, Foundation Cristosal will offer a weeklong course for North Americans to study the process of building peace and democracy in post-war El Salvador. Course participants will have the opportunity to speak with politicians, academics and community leaders about the state of peace and democracy, and also to serve as election observers.
— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.