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What's behind attack on Salvadoran human rights group?

By Mariano Castillo and Merlin Delcid, CNN
updated 1:44 PM EST, Sat November 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Attackers stole computers and burned files at a human rights organization
  • The group's mission is to find children who disappeared during civil war
  • Another human rights office was closed recently
  • Some wonder if there is a connection with a debate over amnesty law

San Salvador, El Salvador (CNN) -- In recent weeks, the offices of one human rights group in El Salvador was attacked and another shuttered.

These events, some fear, may be connected to a recent Supreme Court decision to review the validity of an amnesty law that has been in the books since the end of the country's civil war.

If the court were to overturn the amnesty law, military officers and others could face charges for atrocities committed during the 1980-1992 civil war.

In the wake of the review, two human rights groups who possess and handle civil war-era documents have suffered severe setbacks.

This week, three armed men attacked the offices of the Pro-Search Association of Disappeared Children, a group dedicated to locating the children who disappeared during the war.

In the predawn attack, the gunmen tied up a driver, a guard and an employee who were at the office, according to an account on the organization's website.

The intruders seemed to know what they were looking for, as they stole computers with sensitive data and DNA samples used in their investigations. Then, they torched the rest of the files.

"First of all, I think this is sabotage" said Ester Alvarenga, the group's director.

The stolen or destroyed items included documents and files of parents looking for their children, she said. The destruction of the files could put some judicial actions at risk, she added.

The group has solved 387 cases of about 925 investigations of children who disappeared during the civil war. Many ended up being adopted abroad.

"I don't think a political motive can be ruled out," David Morales, a prosecutor in the human rights division, said.

The attack on the Pro-Seach Association follows the closure of another important human rights office.

The Tutela Legal is an organization started by the Catholic church during the civil war to investigate massacres and other human rights violations during that period.

The church suddenly announced that it was closing the Tutela Legal, a move that followed the announcement of the Supreme Court review of the amnesty law.

The reason for the closure, ostensibly, is that "irregularities" were discovered among the office's personnel. But like with the attack against the Pro-Seach Association, observers wonder if there is a connection.

Amid concerns that the group's 50,000 civil war-era files could become inaccessible, the prosecutor's office ordered that the documents be guarded in place.

"We are going to inventory all of the files and they will remain under guard here, as they could help us with investigations that are ongoing," said Julio Arriaza, of the prosecutor's office.

The government is welcome to verify that the files are still there, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar said, but it cannot remove them.

The Washington Office on Latin America, a US-based non-governmental organization, is among the groups concerned about connections between the debate for amnesty and the recent setbacks.

"It is crucial that the civil war-era files of human rights defenders are preserved," WOLA said in a statement. "We urge the Salvadoran government ... to investigate and punish those responsible. We also urge the government to take steps to protect the various sources of data on human rights violations throughout the country."

Journalist Merlin Delcid reported from San Salvador. Mariano Castillo reported and wrote the story in Atlanta.

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