Closure of Tutela Legal alarms human rights community

In late September, Tutela Legal, one of El Salvador’s leading human rights organizations, was suddenly closed, leading to grave concerns in the human rights community. Tutela Legal was founded within the Archbishopric of San Salvador in 1982, continuing work begun under Msgr. Oscar Romero. For decades it has been dedicated to receiving and researching complaints of rights violations against everyday Salvadorans. Its archives contain irreplaceable information about the massacres at El Mozote, Río Sumpul, and elsewhere, as well as the murder of Romero himself.

In the wake of Tutela’s abrupt closure, there is grave concern about the preservation of that information—reportedly some 50,000 cases. There is also concern about the victims in the cases of El Mozote, Río Sumpul, and others, who are suddenly without legal representation, precisely at a time when, after decades, their cases are creaking forward in the judicial system. Justice advocates lack access to Tutela’s unique archive, precisely at a time when serious investigation drawing on original data is desperately needed.

The abrupt circumstances of Tutela Legal’s closure and the secrecy surrounding its motives suggest that the decision may have been related to recent news about openings for justice in El Salvador. When employees showed up for work on Monday, September 30, they were surprised to find that the locks had been changed and newly-hired private security guards limited their access to the building. They were told only that the Archbishop had ordered the closure because the organization “no longer had a reason for being”—a curious assessment, given that this is the very organization that led the push for justice in the case of El Mozote, a notorious wartime massacre into which the Attorney General’s office indicated just weeks earlier that it would finally open an investigation.

Salvadorans protest the closure of Tutela Legal
Salvadorans protest the closure of Tutela Legal

The former employees of Tutela Legal have organized to insist upon the importance of continuing the organization’s commitment to justice. Their voices have been joined by a broad chorus of Salvadoran civil society organizations, including youth groups, faith organizations, victims’ groups, and human rights organizations. Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales has also taken steps to ensure protection for Tutela Legal’s files. Internationally, nineteen different Latin American human rights organizations issued a statement denouncing the closure, as did a coalition of 35 different peace, solidarity, and faith-based groups. Organizations ranging from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs to the Center for Justice and Accountability have also added their voices. For a full list of the statements of support, see the website created by Tutela’s former employees.

In response, the Archbishop has made some limited and contradictory public statements, available here. Among other things, he has said that Tutela Legal’s files will be made into an archive that will bear the name of Archbishop Rivera Damas. While the commitment to create an archive is welcome, more assurances are needed to ensure that they are preserved in their entirety, and made available to victims and rights advocates.

The state of Tutela Legal’s files and broader legacy remains unsure. On the evening of October 18, in a highly irregular act, personnel from the Attorney General’s office conducted a raid on the building. Though ostensibly undertaken to secure files related to open legal cases, the raid was conducted without the participation of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. In its aftermath, it is imperative that the authorities in El Salvador take steps to immediately secure Tutela Legal’s archives in their entirety, and to ensure that access to them be provided for any person or institution who needs them for legal or educational purposes.

Guaranteeing these archives’ integrity and availability is an important step in the ongoing process of ensuring truth and justice for crimes against humanity committed during the war.