María Julia Hernández, the founding director of Tutela Legal, died today of a heart condition at the age of 68. Tutela Legal is the human rights office of the Archbishop of San Salvador. She studied philosophy and law at the University of Central America in San Salvador. She worked with Archbishop Oscar Romero during his three years at the head of El Salvador's Catholic church from 1977-1980. From that time forward, Tutela Legal and María Julia Hernández have been some of the most credible and consistent voices regarding the protection of human rights in El Salvador.
From a 2003 forum:
Tutela Legal was organized during 1978 as part of the efforts by the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, and his successor, Arturo Rivera y Damas, to create commissions and organizations to defend human rights. Hernandez said that in the late 1970s and 1980s, human rights activists in El Salvador knew they needed to have strong, scientific evidence as the basis to denounce abuses. At the time, gathering this kind of information was particularly dangerous because many people who worked for these groups, reported violations, or tried to take legal action were either threatened, assaulted, or murdered by death squads.
Tutela Legal went to sites of supposed human rights violations and collected evidence as well as relied on testimony from survivors. Hernandez pointed out that since El Salvador was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions (international agreements that outlawed torture and established human rights precedents), Tutela Legal had a framework of standards and law for carrying out its investigations.
Another important innovation described by Hernandez was Tutela Legal's monitoring of El Salvador's main guerilla force, the FMLN. Hernandez said that Romero and Rivera y Damas urged human rights groups to also focus on the guerillas, not just on the army.
Tutela Legal became a credible source of information and human rights abuse evidence for delegations from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations. Hernandez noted, however, that judges in El Salvador refused to bring up human rights abuse cases throughout the 80s. U.S. embassy staff claimed Tutela Legal's evidence was not conclusive. Hernandez said Salvadoran and American officials in the 1980's insisted that cases like El Mozote were a result of conflict between government forces and guerillas, not massacres. The government of El Salvador considered Tutela Legal as a partisan, left-wing group.
Hernandez said the evidence Tutela Legal compiled during the war indicated that the government security forces and death squads were committing the majority of the abuses. The 1993 Truth Commission confirmed Tutela Legal's findings. According to the commission, 85 percent of the human rights abuses during the war were committed by government forces, 7 percent by the FMLN, and the rest are unresolved.