The Oficina de Tutela Legal del Arzobispado (Office of Legal Guardians of the Archdiocese) emerged in San Salvador, in 1978 in the Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, as an organization predicated on defending human rights. Tutela Legal continued the work of its predecessor organization, Socorro Juridico Arzobispado, by disseminating information of human rights abuse. Although conflict in El Salvador is not historically limited to the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), Tutela Legal operated during and after this conflict which remains the country’s most traumatic in its post-1945 history.
In the 1970s, El Salvador was steeped in the political climate of the Cold War and became a staging ground for the West’s attack on communist subversion in Central America. The political left, including union members, teachers, doctors and priests challenged the military government’s corruption and suppression of dissent. In addition, landless peasant struggle was articulated through cooperatives, demands for land reform, and organizing against military repression. In turn, the military government enforced the rights of the landowning classes through paramilitary assault on the educated urban and landless peasant, primarily mestizo, populations. Archbishop Oscar Romero, a leading proponent of equal rights and liberation theology, and Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas founded Tutela Legal in order to record and disseminate the atrocities occurring during the Civil War. Romero’s commitment to speaking out against poverty, assassination and torture became the weathervane for Tutela Legal during the conflict and up to the present day. Due to the founders’ religious affiliation with the Catholic Church, the office of Tutela Legal was located in the chancery offices of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, providing a perceived sense of immunity from outside violence.
Tutela Legal’s operations consisted of investigations into human rights violations, promotion of international human rights law and dissemination to the national and international media of the atrocities committed. Also, the organization consistently challenged the courts for protection of refugees and the affirmation of legal rights to those who had been targeted. These activities, which became increasingly dangerous due to the military government’s attack on the organization, brought terminal implications to Archbishop Romero, culminating in his assassination in 1980. Despite Romero’s murder, Tutela Legal continued on by collecting evidence of human rights abuses and oral testimonies from victims. A considerable task to the organization’s compliment was their observation of the leftist guerillas, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Though the paramilitary squads committed the overwhelming majority of documented atrocities, as reported by Tutela Legal and confirmed by the 1993 Salvadoran Truth Commission, this two sided observation demonstrated the organization’s commitment to upholding human rights in spite of politics.
Between 1982 and 2007, Maria Julia Hernandez led Tutela Legal as the Executive Director. Hernandez played an active role in advocating on behalf of the disappeared and disenfranchised by addressing the United States Congress and the European Union with incriminating evidence gathered by Tutela Legal. Although Tutela Legal was widely denounced by the Salvadoran courts, the military government and the U.S. Embassy as a leftist organization, international bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations acknowledged the organization as a credible source. The information gathered by Tutela Legal was used by the Salvadoran Truth Commission, formed from the 1993 National Counsel for the Defense of Human Rights, to address the atrocities committed during the Civil War. However, due to the Law of National Reconciliation, which states that no person can be held accountable for human rights violations during the Civil War aside from those responsible for Romero’s murder, Tutela Legal remains a committed challenger of this amnesty to the present day.
These records consist of photocopied case files in Spanish documenting killings, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, and other human rights abuses in El Salvador, 1975-1993. Original folders marked “Presentado A La Comision De La Verdad” were presented to the Truth Commission by Tutela Legal in 1993. Case files with multiple forms are extended into multiple files denoted by letters following the file number (i.e. #8A, #8B). The case files include numbered fields 1-4 with biographical information about the victim including name, age, occupation, hometown, marital status, names of family members, oldest and youngest ages of siblings and children, nationality, location of capture, time and date of capture, names of witnesses, who the captors were, and a detailed description of the circumstances surrounding the capture. Also included is the name of the petitioner, relation to the captured, additional contact location, presenter of petition, age, occupation, relation to the captured, type of housing, location of residence, ID #, location and date of the petition, other institutions that received petitions, and the signature or fingerprint of the petitioner
Additional forms include official Tutela Legal summaries with constitutional disclaimers A-D, responses from the national police of El Salvador, letters to the President about disappearances, documents of other petitions, petitions advocating on behalf of the disappeared, condolence letters from Archbishop Romero’s widow, letters to the FMLN political party relating to disappearance, newspaper clippings, and Tutela Legal’s checklist.
Photocopies of the records of the Oficina de Tutela Legal del Arzobispado, San Salvador 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 Tutela Legal 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, and 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
University of Manitoba