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Burning History in San Salvador

At the crack of dawn on Thursday, Nov. 14, three armed men broke into the offices of Pro-Búsqueda, a non-profit in San Salvador that reunites families with children who went missing during El Salvador’s 1979-1992 civil war.

They beat up the guards, poured gasoline on the organization’s archive, and used torches to set hundreds of documents aflame. On their way out, they took computers with them.

The attack on Pro-Búsqueda was not a random crime. Pro-Búsqueda (“Search”) was founded in 1994 to investigate the nearly 1,200 cases of children separated or taken from their parents during the war. Since then, it has used DNA testing and detective work to identify 175 “disappeared” youths. Many had been adopted by families in the United States or Europe, and they’ve now been united with their families in El Salvador. But more than 800 complaints of missing children remain unresolved. Evidence for these cases was among the documentation destroyed by the gunmen.

Why?

On September 20, Salvadoran courts announced a review of the 1993 blanket amnesty law that has kept hundreds of military and government officials, including those responsible for the 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests, out of jail. Should the law be overturned, much of the evidence needed to prosecute these individuals would come from the archives of grassroots human rights organizations like Pro-Búsqueda.

Another organization with valuable evidence, Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic Church, was abruptly shut down by the Archbishop of San Salvador on September 30. That day, employees of Tutela Legal arrived for work to find their office doors padlocked and guards stationed in the hall. They were told to gather their things. Founded in 1977 by Bishop Oscar Romero, Tutela Legal is one of only a handful of groups that provided support and legal counsel to El Salvador’s civilian population during the war. Despite hundreds who still depend on legal assistance from Tutela Legal, and despite 50,000 open cases, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas decided that the organization no longer had a reason to exist.

This kind of sabotage is all too familiar for those who lived through the “anti-subversive” strategies of the regime in power during El Salvador’s civil war. Books were burned; student protests were attacked; anyone who threatened the oligarchy’s power could be hunted down by death squads or shot by the army’s elite, US-trained battalions. But after three decades of peace and increasing dialogue about human rights in El Salvador, this sudden resort to fear tactics — no doubt intended to intimidate those challenging the amnesty law — is troubling, to say the least.

It’s troubling for the thousands of victims of human rights abuses who, 30 years after the civil war, have yet to see their husbands’ torturers, their sisters’ rapists, and their children’s assassins brought to justice. Not a single case of wartime violence has been tried by the Salvadoran courts.

It’s troubling for the researchers and students who depend on the archives of organizations like Pro-Búsqueda and Tutela Legal to understand Salvadoran history. My research this summer on the 1981 El Mozote massacre would simply not have been possible without the access to archives and personal assistance of these two human rights groups.

But most of all, the two recent assaults on human rights and historical memory are troubling for El Salvador.

El Salvador is a country where history only became a major at the national university after the civil war. El Salvador is a country where the self-help sections of bookstores are three times larger than their history sections. “El Salvador is a country,” I was told over and over again by Salvadorans this summer, “that has no history.”

These men and women meant that El Salvador is a country in which the study of history has never been considered particularly important. Often, history has been suppressed. Left-wing human rights groups formed during the civil war were pioneers in their efforts to preserve documents, recordings, and other artifacts of history; they were pioneers in their determination to teach it and learn from its mistakes. Now these organizations and their historical archives are in grave danger.

The fate of Tutela’s archive — which contains nearly 80% of the entire country’s documents related to human rights abuses during the war — is still unknown. Tens of thousands of documents have not been seen in over a month. The padlocks remain on the door. Coincidentally, 80% is also the percentage of crucial documentation believed to have been destroyed in the attack on Pro-Búsqueda.

The crime against Pro-Búsqueda must be investigated and those responsible must be held accountable. Tutela Legal’s archive must be protected. The United States and the international human rights community should exert pressure on Salvadoran authorities to ensure that these steps are enforced. Despite protests in San Salvador following Tutela’s abrupt closure and statements by President Mauricio Funes denouncing the Pro-Búsqueda break-in, no decisive action has been taken.

We should be worried about what is happening in El Salvador. Eliminating 80% of a historical archive is not just burning paper. It’s burning history.

Sarah Maslin is a senior at Yale University and the editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine. She spent this past summer conducting interviews and archival research in El Salvador for a history thesis on memory politics and the El Mozote massacre.

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