On the front lines of human rights

From El Salvador to Spokane, the UW Center for Human Rights seeks justice.

As she entered her office one Sunday in October 2015, Professor Angelina Snodgrass Godoy realized that someone had broken in. Her desktop computer and hard drive were gone, and her personal items had been moved.

What was particularly upsetting for the director of the UW Center for Human Rights was that the missing equipment contained precious documents relating to the center’s research on a brutal massacre in El Salvador—the subject of a lawsuit that had just been filed against the CIA.

Was it simply a crime of opportunity? Or had the CIA broken in? Was someone sending a message from El Salvador?

The center’s team of students had been digging into U.S. government records seeking details about a decades-old Salvadoran military action that wiped out over one hundred villagers. This massacre was something that the Salvadoran government had for years denied even occurred. But now the crime was coming to light and those who committed it could soon be held to account.


Godoy offers up the details as we sit in that very same office in Smith Hall. The walls radiate a sunny yellow, a contrast to the dark details she often encounters in her human rights work. At the time of the burglary, the center had started a suit accusing the CIA of illegally withholding documents that held information about war crimes perpetrated by the Salvadoran military in the 1980s.

Finding such records is at the core of the work of the Center for Human Rights, a state-mandated resource that connects departments and schools, faculty and students from all three UW campuses and unites them with a focus on welfare and justice for everyone.

“The reason I got involved in this team is because of Angelina’s Human Rights in Latin America class,” says student Mari Ramirez, who recently joined the center as a research intern. “It was really wonderful to see a class about what I care about.” Originally from Venezuela, Ramirez is well aware of shortages of food and medicine in a country where humanitarian workers are denied entry.

A detail from a mural in rural Arcatao, El Salvador depicting the 1980 massacre at the Rio Sumpul that left hundreds of civilians dead.

A few years after the center was founded, Godoy sent two students to the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., to search for details relating to atrocities in El Salvador. They met Emily Willard, an Archive employee who specialized in public records searches. “I was really interested in what they were doing,” says Willard, now a UW graduate student. Godoy already possessed government documents from El Salvador and she was hoping the students could authenticate them through the Archive.

Willard helped the students as they filed their FOIAs, and mentored them as they created a database for tracking their requests and the results. Back in Seattle, using what they had learned, the students started the Center for Human Rights’ own public records program. Godoy was not only deploying her team to seek information from the government for a specific project, she was giving them essential skills to be the next generation of human rights scholars and workers, Willard says. “The more I saw what was going on, the more I gained admiration for Angelina and her work.”

The center has expanded its El Salvador research to include a 1981 massacre. According to witness accounts, a U.S.-trained battalion tortured and executed almost 1,000 people. “It is considered the worst massacre in the contemporary history of the Americas,” Godoy says.

At first, the center’s team focused on Central America. More recently, it has expanded its efforts to investigate alleged human and civil rights violations here in the United States. That includes looking at rights and concerns unfolding in the context of increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement in our very own state. “Human rights violations don’t just happen at another time or in another country,” Godoy says. “It’s happening right now, and it’s happening here.”

This project, titled “Human Rights at Home” started 18 months ago after stories of unlawful stops and searches began circulating in the community, and even among UW students. “It’s all about immigrant rights,” Ramirez says of her latest research for the center. “Specifically, I’m working on a project where we requested email communications between Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and state government agencies here in Washington.”

Local law enforcement officers appear to be working with ICE to make it easier for federal agents to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, according to local civil rights organizations. These actions could violate Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order protecting rights for Washington immigrants.

Ramirez works independently. She uses a laptop and logs documents such as arrest reports and emails between agencies. She notes any probation, release or apparent collaboration. “I never thought of human rights as such a research-based effort,” she says. “But we definitely get really excited when we have even the tiniest finding.”

This type of research is incredibly valuable for the American Civil Liberties Union, says Enoka Herat, ’10, the police practices and immigrant rights council for the Washington ACLU office. “Our focus is to block Washington state agencies—everything from the Department of Licensing, local police departments and the State Patrol—from collaborating with immigration enforcement and deportation,” she says. “They have no legal authority to enforce federal immigration law.”

Some local agents seem to be targeting people who, based on race or name, appear to be non-citizens. Through public records requests, the UW center found that an Auburn police officer had picked up a man based on his appearance. “The officer assumed that person was wanted by ICE,” Herat says. Because the man was undocumented “that person was transported to ICE and detained and deported.”

If state agencies are going to do the work of federal immigration officers, and do it in secret, the human rights center clearly has a role in exposing what our government is doing and why it’s doing it, Godoy says. “This information is very new,” she says. “And it’s happening now, and it’s happening here. How do we know they’re following their own rules?”

In Spokane, Customs and Border Patrol officers appear to be performing random checks on Greyhound buses. Herat cites a recent case. “This was a domestic route, far from the border.” The lone Latino male on a bus was pulled aside for questioning. “When he tried to assert his right to remain silent, officers arrested him,” Herat says. It was helpful to have the UW center pursue a FOIA request because it showed that the Greyhound passenger’s was not an isolated case, but part of a pattern of how the border patrol was operating in Spokane.

In fact, FOIA research by the center documented the detention of nine people in bus searches in Washington between January and May of 2017. According to the ACLU, 25 more people were detained during the rest of 2017. The ACLU has written the transport company asking that Greyhound stop this practice because it violates passengers’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. “Even non-citizens have constitutional rights,” says Herat, including those against being singled out because of race.


The center was created in 2009, but it has roots in the 1970s when Helen Jackson, the wife of Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, took on the cause of Soviet refuseniks and their families. She co-founded a Congressional-wives watchdog group to draw support for prisoners of conscience. The Henry M. Jackson Foundation, with the support of Scoop and Helen’s children, Peter Jackson and Anna Marie Laurence, decided to endow a chair at the UW to honor Helen Jackson and her work.

Godoy was a junior faculty member at the time, but her credentials were impressive: She had written a book on violence, community and law in Latin America, and she had earned a handful of fellowships for her work in Central America. The Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation and Amnesty International had all backed her research. She had also graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and earned her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Still, it was a surprise to her to be named to the position. “It hadn’t even dawned on me that I would be a candidate,” she says.

While an endowed chair in human rights at the UW was new, faculty had been working in the field for decades. At the time of the Helen H. Jackson endowment, more than 60 faculty members across all three campuses were human rights experts in disciplines that included law, the environment, political science, philosophy and medicine. Law professor Anita Ramasastry, for example, has expertise in business and human rights. Rob Crawford, a UW Tacoma professor, focused on the U.S. government’s use of torture and kidnapping in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay prison. And sociologist Katherine Beckett studied racial disparity, policing and penal practices. Today she leads a Center for Human Rights project exploring alternatives to mass incarceration.

The Helen Jackson chair provided an impetus to centralize the research and knowledge from all three campuses. Godoy and her colleagues decided to explore whether the state legislature might create a center. They looked to Peter Jackson for advice. “I worked as kind of a volunteer, an outside ally to sort of help navigate the legislation,” Jackson says.

They made their pitch to lawmakers, emphasizing the University’s location in a key Pacific Rim city in a region of business and innovation as well as its proximity to the world’s largest philanthropic foundation (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). It only made sense to have a world-class center for human rights,” Jackson says. “I think that argument made sense to lawmakers.”

State Senator Paull Shin, ’72, ’80, championed their cause. Shin was orphaned on the streets of Seoul, Korea, at the age of 4 and had to beg for food. The senator brought a personal understanding of the need for human rights work as well as the bipartisan support of his colleagues. While the state lawmakers helped the center come to life, because of the economy in 2009, they couldn’t offer funding. But they did give it a mission.

The state initiative that created the center states that it should focus on rights against violence, immigrant rights, the rights of Native American and ethnic and religious minorities, as well as human rights and the environment, trade and labor. Simply put, the initiative required the center to direct its energies toward real-world concerns—working “hand-in-hand with non-academic partners on the front lines of human rights,” Godoy says.


While the source of the center’s 2015 break in may never come to light, many of the human rights projects from that time forward have shown significant progress. “There have been some exciting developments in the work in El Salvador,” Godoy says. At the beginning of the summer, the CIA turned over 139 documents to settle the U.S. District Court suit that had been filed by the UW center in 2015.

The center has also expanded its El Salvador research to include a 1981 massacre in and around the village of El Mozote, where, according to witness accounts, a U.S.-trained battalion tortured and executed almost 1,000 people. More than half of the victims were children under 12. “It is considered the worst massacre in the contemporary history of the Americas,” Godoy says.

The UW human rights center has been gathering evidence that contains details of the massacre. “The victims and their families have been denied the right to truth,” Godoy says. At the very least the center’s research confirms the memories of those who witnessed the attacks. But it may also be useful for bringing war criminals to justice, even after all these years.

Working with declassified documents from U.S. government archives, the center can contribute to the public record about events in Central America and help clarify U.S. investment and involvement.

A provincial court has reopened a decades-old trial and brought to light more details of El Mozote. Eighteen former military commanders are under indictment. Late this summer, survivors of the massacre were scheduled to testify about the torture and executions they witnessed and escaped.

But there’s more to do. This coming year, the center will pursue more research into war crimes in El Salvador. And students will travel to Central America to share their findings with victims and their advocates. Another set of students will deepen their research on immigrant rights here in Washington. And the center is now looking into whether federal agents are unlawfully turning away asylum seekers.

Godoy can see many more areas and issues deserving of the center’s resources “if only we had the funding to do it,” she says. The center currently relies on small family endowments to pay undergraduate and graduate students to work on human rights projects. It also depends on individual gifts and foundation grants.

Though the Center for Human Rights was created with just a few resources and remains small—a director, two staff members, a group of faculty associates and some students—it has already made a difference. “That’s the way we measure our success,” Godoy says. “We must be contributing to real-world improvements in human rights.”