Why have the lights been turned off at the Archbishopric’s Legal Protection Office?
By an arbitrary, authoritarian decision with no prior warning,
the archbishop of San Salvador closed the Legal Protection Office,
which housed the files documenting thousands of human rights violations
committed during the war years.
The victims of those times and their loved ones, human rights defenders
and Church groups were all indignant about the decision.
What interests are behind it?
What did José Luis Escobar Alas, the archbishop of San Salvador, close off when he locked the door of the Archbishopric’s Legal Protection Office and fired its workers on September 30? Among other things, he put an end to one of the most brilliant chapters of the Salvadoran Church’s history. The Legal Protection Office’s 31 years of existence were the legacy of Monsignor Romero and María Julia Hernández, two of the best children born to the Catholic Church in this country.
The backgroundIn his book Hablan de Monseñor Romero (They Talk about Monsignor Romero), Roberto Cuéllar notes that the forerunner of the Legal Protection Office, Christian Legal Aid, was established in 1975 under the private Jesuit school Externado San José. It was coordinated by Jesuit priest Segundo Montes, who was assassinated in 1989. “The initial idea was simple,” says Cuéllar, “to provide free legal assistance to people who couldn’t pay a lawyer and at the same time ensure that young students from the wealthy classes were immersed in reality.” They worked along these lines for a year and a half. But the assassination of Padre Rutilio Grande changed everything. Only Legal Aid dared represent the Catholic Church.
After overcoming his initial apprehension about the office given the inexperience of most of its members, Monsignor Romero ended up not only accepting responsibility for it, but also seeing such potential in it that in a few months Christian Legal Aid was renamed the Archbishopric’s Legal Aid.
After Monsignor Romero’s death in 1980 and the breaking up of the Archbishopric’s Legal Aid, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, Romero’s successor, moved by the cruelest manifestations of the repression, created the Archbishopric’s Legal Protection Office in 1982, at the height of the war, to defend human rights. It was founded by Ecclesiastical Decree and its aim was defined as “the search for justice and peace,” a task “not limited to a particular period but permanent,” confirms former director Ovidio Mauricio González who worked at this institution from 1989 until the day it closed. Rivera y Damas didn’t hesitate in accepting Monsignor Ricardo Urioste’s suggestion to put María Julia Hernández at the head of this initiative right from the start.
The Legal Protection PhD, recipient of several honorary doctorates and an untiring fighter in the defense of human rights, María Julia Hernández embodied the Legal Protection project. She was the one who had the vision to see that the archbishop should keep a file of his homilies. Her first work on Monsignor Romero’s team in the Archdiocese was thus to record and transcribe them.
Office is her legacy
Former Supreme Court justice Mirna Perla, herself a victim of torture and widow of Human Rights Commission President Herbert Anaya Sanabria, murdered by death squads in 1987, explains: “In the beginning people used to come to the monsignor to tell him their problems and he would take their complaints to the government and the oligarchy because of his friendship with them. But when the situation got so much worse and floods of parishioners were coming to his offices to tell him about their suffering, the monsignor chose to use the pulpit as a denunciation forum. María Julia began investigating the cases the monsignor denounced in his homilies.”
María Julia was the director of the Legal Protection Office for 25 years, until her death from a heart attack in 2007 at age 68. She is remembered as a woman of the people, courageous, honest and implacable. In the book María Julia Hernández en el Tiempo (María Julia Hernández in Time), edited by Claudia Herodier and presented by the Foreign Relations Ministry two years ago as part of the bicentennial celebrations of Salvadoran independence, Monsignor Urioste is quoted as stating: “I can bear witness that María Julia worked tirelessly, and succeeded in setting up several completely new procedures to deal with a range of complex situations. Faced with the fact that the judicial system wasn’t working, she decided that that the office would employ all legal challenges granted by law for the purpose of insisting before the different bodies, such as the Supreme Court of Justice, Peace Courts and Military Courts, and ended up using non-legal methods to investigate human rights violations in order to strengthen cases so they would be irrefutable in the corresponding courts.”
Educating in human rightsUrioste goes on to say that “María Julia had recourse to the three human rights protection systems accepted by El Salvador (the United Nations system, the Organization of American States system and the Geneva system with its International Humanitarian Law.) She set up her own means for protecting victims, finally even inventing an ID card, under the archbishop of San Salvador’s authority, for returnees given that the corresponding authorities didn’t want to accept responsibility for reissuing proper documentation for the thousands of displaced people and refugees who, in the rush to save their lives, had fled with only the clothes on their backs and without any sort of identity document and now wanted to return to the country.
“Observing that our people had no knowledge of anything to do with their rights, María Julia got the idea to establish an educational plan that would cover International Humanitarian Law and the Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador, to supply them with basic tools to guide themselves in this context.” In addition to dedicating itself to open cases and investigating new ones, her office started to put together parish-level human rights education teams.
The bullets that killed themMaría Silvia Guillén, executive director of the Foundation for Studies on the Application of the Law (FESPAD) recalls: “In 1989, when they assassinated the Jesuits, María Julia, on arriving at the crime scene, saw the shells of the fired bullets scattered on the ground, so she picked them up and put them in her purse. Later she explained: ‘I was sure the authorities would lose this evidence.’ She turned it over to the Prosecutor General’s office, filing the charge herself. She had protected this evidence without thinking about what it might cost her. She was a brave and consistent woman. Thanks to her the Legal Protection Office had a lot of national and international power.”
In war and in peaceMonsignor Urioste recounts that “after the Peace Accords, Monsignor Rivera y Damas said to her: ‘Look, María Julia, Legal Protection is no longer needed because the Peace Accords have been signed, the Army will go back to its barracks, and the guerrillas have given up their weapons, so...’ ‘Monsignor!,’ she interrupted, ‘how can you say that? This work will always be needed because unfortunately, there will always be human rights violations.’ Rivera y Damas listened to her and the Legal protection Office carried on.
More than fifty thousand filesOnce in the postwar period, the office represented emblematic human rights cases, such as the victims of lead contamination by the Record Batteries factory and the 300 police officers purged without due process under the Francisco Flores government.
It has also taken cases such as Monsignor Romero’s assassination and the Mozote massacre to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where it has succeeded in getting verdicts in favor of the victims. It has trained hundreds of human rights commission promoters and members in parishes throughout the country.
In recent years it developed initiatives in the area of preventing violence among young people, recognizing as human rights violations the stigmatizing, aggression and harassment they suffer. The weekly Tutela Legal Report, which for years was the basis on which Monsignor Rivera y Damas made his denunciations, was de rigeur for consultations right up to the day the office was closed. By that time it had amassed approximately 50,000 files, including many on the 227 massacres during the war in which soldiers and paramilitaries killed more than 10,000 Salvadorans.
With no prior warning Ovidio Mauricio González has this to say about the closure of the Legal Protection Office: “We had no idea our office could be closed. We’d managed to get funding with the archbishop’s backing to submit projects. We had his backing to open bank accounts in the name of the Archdiocese for depositing these funds and he never prevented us from doing so, or placed any conditions on us. We’d only heard rumors that some of the new priests didn’t like the work the office was doing. They said working to prevent violence wasn’t our job. At the time we had projects with Caritas Bilbao-Asturias, Adveniat and National Caritas funded by Caritas Norway. In no case had there been any complaint about the execution of these projects.
“The archbishop never said to us, ‘Such and such is wrong’ or ‘If you continue with this I’ll have to fire you.’ There was never any evaluation of our work that made us think this might happen. We were 12 colleagues on the staff and others would work with us on specific jobs for a fee.
“On Monday, September 30, we went to the chapel, as usual, to start the week with prayers. Afterward, Father Carlos Chavarría asked those of us from the office to go to the auditorium. Once there, one of our colleagues mentioned that his key wouldn’t open the door because the lock had been changed. We’d already noticed two private security guards when we came in, which wasn’t normal. Before, there was only a guard at the gate to the archbishopric, but not inside.”
Later, they called the staff in one by one to tell them they’d been dismissed. When the group started to question the procedure they were using, one of the guards in the corridor blocked the exit. “That’s when we realized the archbishop had dissolved the Legal Protection Office,” says González.
The archbishop’s reasonsWhen González refused to sign a pre-written sworn statement expressing his satisfaction with the severance pay he was given, they gave him another one that said the closure was due to having “ceased the temporary purposes for which this office was set up,” ignoring the fact that its purposes had never been defined as “temporary.”
Forty-eight hours after the lockout, Archbishop Escobar Alas changed his tune. He alleged in a communiqué that the office wasn’t closing, but was being “readapted” to modern times to fulfill its role better.
On the fourth day, the archbishop, who is the country’s highest ecclesiastical authority, proffered yet another explanation. He assured the on-line newspaper El Faro that closure of the Legal Protection Office was due to acts of corruption, irregularities and distortion of the institution’s purpose. He even threatened some former employees with prosecution.
The victims complainIt wasn’t long before completely opposing reactions were being expressed, as often happens in our country. In less than 24 hours a group of victims of human rights violations, many of them with files in the Legal Protection Office, started a protest outside the Archbishopric accompanied by human rights defenders.
Public demonstrations intensified through October. Repeated rallies outside the Cathedral criticized the archbishop for his decision and for not consulting the victims, other human rights organizations, the clergy or the Church’s own human rights organizations. They also criticized his lack of transparency in arguing the reasons for the closure.
As well as the names of those responsible, the office’s files contain the names of witnesses, putting these people in a very vulnerable position. One placard showing Monsignor Romero saying “Since that March 24 I hadn’t ever felt this pain in my chest again,” expressed the indignation and pain of thousands of victims who had entrusted their stories to the Legal Protection Office.
Survivors and family members of the Río Sumpul massacre went to the front of the San Salvador Archdiocese building to deliver a letter to the archbishop, but he didn’t receive them, and their letter went unanswered.
Protests and repudiationsAlthough the clergy has not organized a reaction in opposition to the archbishop’s decision, and rumors that a group of priests is meeting to channel their disagreement with this and other decisions taken by the archbishop without consultation have not been verified, several men and women of the cloth have accompanied the victims in their activities, some actively taking part in organizations such as the Monsignor Romero Concertation and the Ecumenical Coordination of the Church of the Poor, which are key actors in the movement resisting and rejecting the closure. At the Sunday Mass in the capital’s parish, a priest offered up prayers that “Monsignor Escobar Alas reconsider his decision to close the Legal Protection Office.”
Most of the national human rights groups have accompanied the victims’ activities and coordinated among themselves to support them. Among other actions, different human rights organizations, grassroots communities, trade unions, women’s organizations and youth groups held a press conference and signed a public declaration of repudiation.
Heads rolled due An open letter signed by a variety of grassroots organizations was also sent to the Nunciature. It referred to the “successful results” of the work by the current team at the Legal Protection Office, highlighting as major achievements the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rulings, the Monsignor Romero case and the Mozote massacre case. The letter ends: “In the absence of real technical evaluations that justify the massive and unexpected dismissal, no other option remains than to believe that the heads of personnel were chopped off based on subjective criteria.”
to subjective criteria?
The victims have also received international support from organizations such as the Center for Justice and International Law, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Permanent Committee of Human Rights, the Washington Office on Latin America, Amnesty International and the Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Christian Service in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America.
President Funes and the President Mauricio Funes stood in solidarity with the victims and those dismissed from the Legal Protection Office. He confessed he was “concerned” about the “negative signal sent by the Catholic Church, above all the Archdiocese of San Salvador, which has decided not to accompany the just causes of this people, such as the operation of such an important office for human rights defense and enforcement.”
Two days later, the human rights ombudsman, who had previously worked at the Legal Protection Office, issued precautionary measures for Archbishop Escobar Alas, who “as responsible for the San Salvador Archdiocese must ensure the preservation of the Archbishopric’s historical Legal Protection Office archives as well as adopt administrative measures for that entity to facilitate and guarantee cooperation with the courts of justice and the Prosecutor General’s Office under the necessary security criteria.”
It was in the light of these statements and the victims’ acts of repudiation that the archbishop changed his tone, proposing that he reopen a new legal support office for victims of human rights violations, adding that a Documentation and Archives Center had already opened. Subsequently he set up an ad hoc commission with the participation of Monsignor Jesús Delgado and the priests Jaime Paredes, Luis Cotto and José María Tojeira.
“No basis for trust” Luis Cotto grew up in the ecclesiastical base communities and Tojeira, a former provincial of the Jesuits of Central America, was historically close to the victims, but plaintiffs with open cases in the Legal Protection Office said in a press release that “nobody decides who represents us and follows our cases, only us, the plaintiffs. Regarding the commission, we weren’t consulted and aren’t represented... We have no basis for trust.”
Santiago Portillo, a member of the ecclesiastical base communities, who filed a charge with Legal Aid in August 1981 when his son, Mario Humberto Orellana, was disappeared, has this to say about the Commission appointed by the archbishop: “They’ve accompanied the people in the past, but we’ve been seeing changes in them. If a priest protests, the hierarchy gets rid of him. It’s hard to be brave.”
Subsequently, at the request of human rights organizations, the presidency’s Culture Secretariat started a process to recognize the Legal Protection Office’s archive as a Cultural Asset under the Special Law to Protect Cultural Heritage.
The UCA speaks outNot until October 17 did the board of directors of the Central American University (UCA) speak out, issuing a press release on the closure of the Legal Protection Office. Among other things, it stated: “The remarkable echo that this decision, not consulted with the collective of the people of God, has awakened in wide circles of the Churches and the citizenry, as well as internationally, would recommend a profound reconsideration. Errors or deficiencies in a Church institution often suggest the entity’s correction rather than its elimination.
“Far from losing credibility, the Church grows when an authority is capable of rethinking, reappraising and, depending on the case, changing an important decision. In any event, we feel it is Christian and ecclesiastically valuable to open this
entire, extremely painful issue to extensive consultation with so many people who don’t want our church to abandon the victims of the war and their families, or give an opportunity for thinking it has abandoned them, and to continue working hard to defend people’s human rights and dignity, especially that of the most vulnerable, impoverished and victimized.”
The victims demonstrating outside the Archbishopric had been hoping for more from the UCA than words, as good as
they were. They were hoping, for example, that Father José María Tojeira or Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the UCA’s Institute of Human Rights , might come down and join them.
Was this to do with the Three days after the closure of the Legal Protection Office, Armando Calderón Sol, leader of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), its second candidate to win the presidency (1994 to 1999) and currently a member of ARENA’s political commission, congratulated the archbishop for “taking a positive step to the benefit of El Salvador’s democratic institutionality by closing the Legal Protection Offices.” In the same statement he commented that “the amnesty law has completely fulfilled its purpose and repealing it would be taking a step backwards.”
repeal of the amnesty law?
These two statements aroused suspicion among the victims, their allies and friends that the closure of the Legal Protection Office is linked to admission by the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench of a challenge against the Amnesty Law on the grounds of unconstitutionality. That ruling of admission was issued only a week before the office was closed.
Complicity and complacency? “Possible annulment of the Amnesty Law would enable cases to be brought against the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity committed during the recent armed conflict, those whose names appear repeatedly in the files of the Legal Protection Office of the Archbishopric” read a letter addressed to the Papal Nuncio, adding that “these reasons allow us to accuse the archbishop of complicity with and complacency towards sectors with great power.”
It’s not the first time Archbishop Escobar Alas has been linked to those responsible for cases recorded by the Legal Protection Office. Plaintiff and former Supreme Court justice Mirna Perla recalls that in the case of Record Batteries, whose former owner, Miguel Lacayo, was President Francisco Flores’ minister of the economy, then-President Flores went at least twice to speak to the archbishop. The same employees saw him there.” In other words, the archbishop doesn’t meet with the Sumpul massacre survivors but he does meet with former President Flores, now ARENA’s electoral campaign adviser.
To damage the FMLN? El Diario Latino, a rightwing digital newspaper, offered another version the closure of Legal Protection, which was quickly picked up and reproduced by like-minded digital pages and social networks. According to an anonymous source, “accounts and testimonies relating to investigations into a large number of crimes by Mayo Sibrián, known as ‘the butcher of paracentral,’ allegedly with the consent of his then-boss, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, are still in the Legal Protection offices.” The newspaper accused the office’s staff of removing these files in order to maintain impunity for the case.
This accusation is extremely serious given that Sánchez Cerén is currently El Salvador’s Vice President and the FMLN’s presidential candidate. It feeds into the analysis of particularly suspicious people, who doubt that admission of the challenge against the Amnesty Law at the height of the electoral campaign is an act of good faith, particularly as it was ruled admissable by a Constitutional Bench that has just declared the Supreme Court president, who is backed by the FSLN, unconstitutional and is constently battling with the FMLN .
Who is the author of an accusation of this magnitude? Although the Diario Latino text isn’t signed, the general manager of this digital newspaper, which usurped the name of an old independent newspaper now called CoLatino, is journalist Eduardo Vásquez Becker, who is on the recently disclosed list of Legislative Assembly advisers as a “section analyst” on behalf of ARENA with a $1,500 monthly salary. This lessens this version’s credibility.
“I never saw one of these cases” Former Legal protection director Ovidio González insists he’s unaware of these cases. “I don’t know where they got these names from. I never saw one of these cases.”
FESPAD director María Silvia Guillén seconds that response. “I’m completely sure that there’s no file in in the Legal Protection Office that directly or indirectly implicates the FMLN candidate. This sort of comment worries me because it could lead to a false file being put together to implicate him. We don’t know what’s going on in there. There’s too much secrecy.”
Office and files sealedA raid on the Legal Protection Office ordered by the Prosecutor General’s Office the afternoon of October 18 complicated matters even further and was like rubbing salt in to the victims’ wounds. Prosecutor General Luis Martínez explained to El Faro that the operation was associated “with the decision to investigate massacres that took place in the Salvadoran civil war and thus with the need to preserve important information about the reports of human rights violations.”
The Prosecutor General’s Office says it is investigating 34 massacres. Julio Arriaza, the attorney in charge of the operation, told the media he had notified the archbishop beforehand. David Morales, the human rights ombudsperson, immediately called Martínez, “but I got no willingness to cooperate or help.
“Nor did that office want to give any more information on the reasons for the raid. We sent verifiers from my office to accompany the process. The chief attorney in charge was asked to let them enter, in compliance with the Public Prosecutor’s law, but he refused to authorize it. Our observers tried to persuade Monsignor Urrutia, chancellor of the Archbishopric, to ensure that our people would be allowed in, but Urrutia refused to talk directly with the verifiers and refused his support to help us get inside.”
That night the attorney sealed the office the files were in with yellow tape and permanently posted police officers for their “safekeeping.”
What are they hiding? Then came the most suspicious thing. María Silvia Guillén, who was part of the group waiting outside the gate of Legal Protection to see what was happening during the operation recalls: “At half past eight the gate of the Archbishopric opened and out came the police cars, the cars of the priests accompanying them and the car of the Prosecutor General’s Office. They closed the gate of the Archbishopric and it looked like it was all over. Five minutes later they opened the door again, allowing a luxury SUV with its license plates covered to leave at top speed. It leads you to wonder: the Prosecutor General’s Office didn’t have to hide why it was inside, nor did the Police or the Church. Who else was there and didn’t want us to know it?”
Ombudsman Morales says the car with its plates covered isn’t the only report of irregularities associated with the Legal Protection Office filed with his office. “The mothers who survived the Sumpul massacre reported something similar. They say that when they went to the Archbishopric to ask for their files shortly after the closure of the office, the authorities didn’t even open the door to them. They left and claim they were followed by an unmarked car.”
The ombudsman issued precautionary measures so the attorney general “would take action to ensure preservation of the Legal Protection Office’s historical files and give instructions to allow verification of the process by the Ombudsperson’s Office.”
In cahoots? In his Sunday press conference, the archbishop expressed his surprise upon learning about the raid. He added that he was ready to give his life to protect the files, saying that nobody will be able to remove them from the premises. But his word had lost its credibility with the victims and human rights defenders. It is rumored that he is in cahoots with the prosecutor general. Many think he or his assistants were the ones who called the Prosecutor General’s Office. Once again, the lack of transparency leaves many questions unanswered.
María Silvia Guillén thinks that “if they’re going to investigate the massacres, all well and good. But in the context of Legal Protection’s closure this seems very strange, unbelievable.”
A prosectur general Attorney Martínez’s background gives him little credibility among the victims, since he was an official in each of the four ARENA governments between 1989 and 2009. Under Alfredo Cristiani (1989 to 1994) he was a legal adviser to the Financial System Reorganization and Consolidation Fund, the agency that took charge of re-privatizing banking. Under Armando Calderón Sol (1994 to 1999) he was a legal adviser to the Interior Ministry, a director in the National Administration of Water and Sewage Systems and chief director of the National Institute of Public Employee Pensions, representing the Interior Ministry. Under the government of Francisco Flores (1999 to 2004) he was again a legal adviser at the Interior Ministry, and during the Antonio Saca administration (2004 to 2009) he held three posts simultaneously: member of the Special Commission for Development of the Gulf of Fonseca, ad honorem legal adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture, and director of the Salvadoran Agrarian Transformation Institute (ISTA) board at the time it was run by Miguel Tomás López (1999 to 2007). This past July López was convicted for acts of corruption committed while at the ISTA.
with no credibility
With this background it’s easy to see why the victims don’t trust the prosecutor general.
More salt in the victims’ woundsAfter these events, the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench accepted a suit of unconstitutionality filed by the Catholic Church that would annul the process started by the Presidency’s Secretariat of Culture to take over the files. According to the Church, accepting the files as part of the national heritage would expose them “to free access and consultation by the public,” thus risking the victims’ personal information. The Court ordered measures disqualifying the secretary from continuing with the process until a ruling on the appeal was handed down.
It’s odd that this bench responded so quickly to an appeal from the Church, invoking the victims, when the victims themselves, supported by human rights organizations, were the ones who asked for the Culture Secretariat’s intervention. Furthermore, it’s illogical to think that the process started by the Secretariat would involve making the files public. The bench’s attitude appears aimed at ensuring that the Church not lose its power to safeguard the files.
Who will safeguard the archive? During 31 years of the Legal Protection Office’s existence, nobody dreamed it wasn’t a safe place for the archive. It seemed to the victims that their files were safeguarded in a sanctuary. Few even thought about the possibility of a fire.
In recent years, only some 500 of the 5,000 files could be put on computer files. Between the high costs of data entry, the huge amount of work and the difficulty of getting it done, it was impossible to finish the work that could have guaranteed the victims a copy of the archive, independent of the archbishop’s statement that “the archive is Church property.”
Because the office was headed up by the unquestionable figure of María Julia Hernández and after her death by the shadow of her memory, it never occurred to anybody that “ownership” of the files containing valuable information on the victims and witnesses might be at stake one day.
Because of all this, the dilemma of defining what might be the safest place for those files is so difficult. For the victims, the Catholic Church ceased being a safe place once Legal Protection was closed. Some suggested that the Human the Culture Secretariat take possession of them and keep them in the national archive, but there’s no way of knowing that guarantees offered by the current government will last beyond its term. Others have suggested they be held by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office. The problem there is that the current human rights ombudsman is the second in the history of this office who enjoys the victims’ full trust; the rest wouldn’t have won it. In spite of everything, still others are arguing that the files should remain in the Archbishopric, but supervised by other entities and above all with the guarantee that the victims, plaintiffs or families would have access to them.
The Legal Protection team that was fired is currently involved in cloning itself into another organization: the “María Julia Hernández Legal Protection Office.” They can see themselves starting over, putting together their own files based on the plaintiffs who have asked them to follow up their cases, such as the Association of Victims of Mozote or those affected by Record Batteries. They are realistic enough not to propose rescuing the files from their old office.
The requests made by victims and human rights organizations to the Culture Secretariat and Legislative Assembly to get the files declared “cultural heritage” have been generally agreed to, but don’t fully resolve the problem.
What was verifiedWhat remains in evidence with the closure of the Legal Protection Office is the impunity that still reigns in El Salvador. We verified that institutionality, be it of the Church or the State, offers no guarantees to those who have already paid many times over for not remaining silent, for fighting for their rights and those of all people.
In these times, when we’ve made progress on transitioning to a new State, further from the oligarchy’s claws, the Legal Protection case has come along to show us the limitations of the process and the great distance we still have ahead to create a different, better El Salvador.
Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and the envío correspondent in El Salvador.