The (Non-governmental) Comision de Derechos Humanos de El Salvador (Human Rights Commission of El Salvador or CDHES) began in El Salvador in May 1978 with the intent of documenting human rights violations in an increasingly hostile environment. At the onset of state-sanctioned violence in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1990), CDHES was inspired by Archbishop Oscar Romero to denounce human rights abuse in the country. CDHES, a secular organization, demonstrated its efforts through its advocacy of the disenfranchised. CDHES was predicated on five primary objectives: (1) to promote the observance and respect for human rights; (2) to defend victims of human rights violations and bring to justice those responsible for abuses; (3) to denounce the human rights violations to the national and international communities; (4) to promote and coordinate activities aimed at preventing human rights abuses; (5) to inform the Salvadoran people about their fundamental rights, and to monitor the implementation of international human rights treaties and accords signed by the Salvadoran government.


Of the few human rights organizations in El Salvador operating in the late 1970s and 1980s, CDHES has a history of being one of the most heavily targeted by military repression. Two of its founding presidents were assassinated in the streets, Marienella Garcia Villas in 1983 and Herbert Anaya Sanabria in 1987, by unknown assailants. Press Secretary Mary Magdalene Henriquez and Ramon Valladares were “disappeared” and murdered in 1980, and former Director of the Commission, Carlos Eduardo Vides, was disappeared in December 1981. In attempts to discredit the organization, the Salvadoran military-government and the US Embassy labeled CDHES a front group for the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). As a counter-measure, state supporters formed their own Human Rights Commission of El Salvador that largely produced blanket statements to incriminate the FMLN guerillas. This tactic was used to discredit the work of organizations such as CDHES. Thus, the non-governmental title of the CDHES is emphasized in order to separate itself from the state’s front organization. In 1993 an amnesty law was passed by Salvadoran President Christiani, preventing any human rights abusers from being prosecuted.


The CDHES records include reproductions of case files, photographs and audio visual materials. The case files, in Spanish language, document killings, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, and other human rights abuses in El Salvador (1974-1992). The case files are organized by the method of human rights violation: abuse of power, assassination, disappeared, threatened, captured and or liberated, bombing, tortured, death squad, political exile, released, injured in war, childhood maltreatment, massacre, medical negligence, spied on, various/other, cutting of the throat, prosecuted, political prisoner, political refugee, conscripted, repression and abduction.   The case files are a standardized form with the following fields: name of the violated, age, marital status, place of birth, address of residence, occupation, location of work, mother’s name, father’s name, spouse’s name, names of the oldest and youngest children, facts of the violation, responsible group, legal status, witnesses to the violation, observations, other institutions petitioned and name of the petitioner. Additional forms attached to the case files include: formal accounts from the eye witness to the abuse, petitions to other institutions (i.e. Amnesty International, Supreme Court, etc.), photograph of the violated, newspaper articles, letters for support of the victims, and photocopies of identification documents.


Reproductions of video tapes and audio cassettes contain oral testimonies of human rights violations, press conferences, marches, exhumations and memorials. Photographs included in the collection are proof sheets of deceased persons.


Copies of the records of the CDHES came to the archives as a gift on November 24, 1997. Curator of the Archives Bruce P. Montgomery and Library Instructor Yolanda Maloney of University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries traveled to San Salvador to arrange the photocopying of the records in order to bring back a copy of these records for preservation.


The CDHES records have multiple uses for various fields of study and legal causes. Scholars can utilize this collection for such fields as Latin American studies, peace and justice studies, gender and human rights in the Archives. The originating purpose for these records was to record and bear witness to the atrocities committed during the civil war period. Thus, in post-conflict El Salvador, these records stand as primary evidence for legal forums.


Graham P. Stinnett
Archival Intern
University of Manitoba