By Paul Jeffrey
Marina Dolores Ortiz spent 17 years worrying she had lost her family. Yet she kept on searching, not knowing that her mother was simultaneously looking for her. When they finally came together, it was an emotional moment.
“My mother and grandmother and aunts kept hugging me and touching me. We were all crying. I wanted to talk, to ask questions and hear stories, but the others wouldn’t stop hugging me,” Ms. Ortiz told Response. “I asked about my father, and they told me how he’d been taken away by the army and never seen again. I cried then for him, and for the years I’d searched for all of them. But I also felt complete, that I now had a mother and a family, that when people ask me about my family I now have an answer.”
The civil war in El Salvador, in which the U.S. government backed a murderous government in its war against a revolutionary uprising, left 75,000 people dead. Today, 13 years after the 1992 accords that ended the conflict, one of the war’s most horrible practices continues to haunt families throughout the tiny Central American country.
Hundreds of children who were forcibly taken from their parents during the conflict are searching for their parents, often while their parents search equally in vain for their kidnaped children.
Some of the lost children of El Salvador, like the 22-year old Ms. Ortiz, have found their families and are today reconstructing their lives, thanks to the help of the Searching for Disappeared Boys and Girls Association, known in El Salvador simply as Pro-Busqueda. The group attempts to track down and reunite children and parents torn apart by the war, most of them families whose children were kidnaped by government soldiers and given or sold into adoption.
Pro-Busqueda helped Ms. Ortiz find her mother, but not all endings are happy. The organization has so far failed to find two children of Teresa de Jesús Dubon and Moises Guardado.
Rather than living out their waning years accompanied by grandchildren and great grandchildren, the solitude of the couple–aged 70 and 80 years old, respectfully–reflects the country’s voracious appetite for death and disappearance. Of their four children, one died of an illness which would have been successfully diagnosed and treated were it not for the fact that the family lives in Huisisilapa, a typical rural village with little access to health care. Another child died as a combatant in the civil war. And two daughters, Delmi and Blanca Lidia, ages 22 and 12 respectively, were taken away by soldiers in 1981 during an attack by the army on the village where the family lived in northern Chalatenango province. A neighbor who survived the attack heard the soldiers discussing whether or not to kill Delmi and Blanca Lidia on the spot. According to the survivor, the soldiers finally decided to take them captive.
Ms. Dubon and Mr. Guardado fled soon after to a refugee camp in Honduras. When they returned to El Salvador at war’s end in 1992, they searched high and low, finding only rumors that led nowhere. Investigators from Pro-Busqueda have also been unable to track their daughters down. After 24 years, Ms. Dubon says she’s all but given up hope of every seeing them alive. What little hope she has centers on at least learning their fate. “I’m getting old. I may not see my daughters again, but before I die I’d like to know what happened to them,” she said.
That right to know what happened during the war remains a contentious issue in El Salvador today, and Pro-Busqueda is at the heart of the struggle. The group was founded in 1994 when mothers who had presented the cases of their disappeared children to a United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission grew frustrated that the commission’s report sparked no progress in finding their sons and daughters. In the rush to get the war behind them, the country’s elite didn’t want to hear about the anguish of people like Ms. Ortiz, Ms. Dubon, and Mr. Guardado.
“The victims continue wanting to know what happened despite the official rhetoric of forgive and forget,” said Azucena Mejía, the coordinator of Pro-Busqueda’s investigation unit. “People have a right to know the truth, and youth have a right to know their origins.”
At the end of 2004, the group had investigated and documented 743 cases, of which it had resolved 292. Of those, 166 cases have produced a re-encounter between parents and children. In another 38 cases, the children had been killed, and in 88 cases relatives have been located but for a variety of reasons have not been reintroduced. That left 451 cases that Pro-Busqueda continues to investigate, and every month more requests arrive for help.
At times the search goes beyond the country’s borders. Pro-Busqueda has tracked down children who were kidnaped by the military and ended up being adopted by families in Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, the United States, and other countries. Mejía said that most adoptive families, although initially cautious, respond openly to the news that their adopted child was not abandoned as they had been told. In several cases, children have returned temporarily from abroad to be reunited with their birth families, discovering their roots–as painful as that may be.
In all re-encounters, given the highly emotional nature of the meeting, counselors from Pro-Busqueda provide accompaniment to the families.
Mejía said about 10 percent of families contacted don’t want to cooperate, and ultimately the search goes no further without their cooperation.
In most cases, however, people are not only open to knowing the truth, they’re thirsting for it.
According to Ms. Ortiz, a law student who joined the staff of Pro-Busqueda after being reunited with her own family, there’s an inner doubt that motivates many to seek the truth, as uncomfortable as that may be.
“We’ve always had an emptiness in our lives, and when we find our families this emptiness is filled. There are some youth, including those outside the country, who say they don’t want to know their family. They think they’re well off, but there’s always this doubt that lingers inside them. They dream about their family. And so they call us up and tell us they want to know the truth. We give them an opportunity to discover the truth, and afterward they say they’ve found inner peace, that their emptiness is filled. What we do in Pro-Busqueda is help youth fill that hole in their life, move beyond that pain to be reunited with their family in peace,” she said.
“A fear of the truth”
Finding the truth is seldom easy. Many of the records of military operations in which children were taken as “spoils of war” were subsequently destroyed, eliminating any paper trail that would help investigators–but which could also identify military officials involved in trafficking children. The Salvadoran Red Cross, which at times collaborated with military officials in kidnaping children, claims to have lost all of its records from those years, though its versions of how the information was lost are contradictory.
Mejía’s staff has developed good relationships with former lower-ranking military personnel who often provide invaluable leads, such as nurses in military hospitals who treated children before they were passed on. An association of injured army veterans has used its network to provide key information.
Higher-ranking military officials have been more reluctant to cooperate, however. That’s not surprising, given that in some cases they sold the children for a profit or simply used them as domestic servants in their homes.
“They usually tell us to go away and not to contact them again. Or they threaten us. When we show up on their doorstep they’re afraid and they express it as aggression. One official told one of our investigators last year that he was going to cut off her breasts if she didn’t leave him alone,” Mejía told Response. “But we continue talking. If they want to take us to court, that’s fine with us. We tell them we’ll ask the judge for a DNA test. We continue talking, and some eventually begin to open up to us.”
But not all. Although more than a decade has passed since the war’s end, many in power don’t want to discuss what happened.
“Truth has been persecuted more than anything else in El Salvador,” said Jon Cortina, a Jesuit priest who heads Pro-Busqueda. “There’s a fear of the truth. Because the truth implies judgement, it implies pointing out who is guilty of crime, who is a killer or who is corrupt. We have to continue speaking the truth, to contribute to the country’s historic memory, so that these crimes don’t continue, so that there’s some kind of justice.”
Activists seeking the truth about El Salvador’s bloody past have been forced to take their search outside the country. A blanket 1993 amnesty prevents bringing charges against human rights violators inside the country, though activists argue that in the case of actions considered “crimes against humanity,” international law supersedes any local amnesties.
In a 2004 trial in Fresno, California, a former Salvadoran military official–who now lives in the U.S.–was found guilty in a civil action for his involvement in the 1980 assassination of the country’s top Catholic leader, Archbishop Oscar Romero. San Salvador isn’t Fresno, however, and no one expects the assassins of Monseñor Romero to appear before Salvadoran courts any time soon.
Pro-Busqueda also went outside the country searching for justice, and in March the Inter American Human Rights Court in San Jose, Costa Rica, ruled that the government of El Salvador violated the rights of Ernestina and Erlinda Serrano, who were kidnaped by government soldiers during a 1982 military sweep through Chalatenango. While the ruling didn’t consider the actual kidnaping, because El Salvador didn’t ratify the appropriate international treaty until 1995, the court declared that the government had violated international law after that date by not assisting the family to uncover the truth about what happened to the two girls.
The court ordered the state to pay material damages, but Fr. Cortina says more important than the money is the court’s order that the government “publicly recognize its responsibility” in the disappearance, declare an annual day of remembering children who disappeared during the war, fully investigate this and similar cases and punish those responsible (despite the 1993 amnesty), and form an official government commission to investigate this and similar cases.
Although Pro-Busqueda had hoped for even more from the court, Fr. Cortina said the decision “has opened a small crack that begins to break through the wall of lies, falsehoods, secrets, favoritism, and impunity” that has blocked Salvadorans’ full access to the truth.
Fr. Cortina, who was not at home in 1989 when six fellow priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were killed by a military squad, reports the government is having the most trouble with the order to publicly recognize its responsibility. “Asking for forgiveness isn’t part of their world. They prefer to talk about forgiving and forgetting. Otherwise, they claim it will open old wounds. That’s absurd, inhuman, and certainly not Christian. I can never forget the Jesuits who were killed. Nor can a mother forget a child who was yanked from her arms,” he said.
“I never lost hope”
With assistance from the University of California at Berkeley, Pro-Busqueda has pioneered the use of DNA to aid in confirming relationships. It was DNA evidence that confirmed to Paula Alvarado that after 25 years she had finally found her daughter Patricia, who’d been staying with Ms. Alvarado’s mother in Sonsonante when her mother was killed by government soldiers in 1980.
Since that time, Ms. Alvarado had searched every corner of the country for her daughter, who had been adopted by an abusive couple in the capital but had her doubts and was quietly searching on her own. Ms. Alvarado finally approached Pro-Busqueda, and the organization’s intrepid investigators tracked down her daughter in December 2004. They performed a DNA test before the two women were introduced. It was a positive match.
Ms. Alvarado’s daughter Patricia had long suspected that she’d been adopted, but her adoptive parents denied that and ordered her to stop talking with the people from Pro-Busqueda.
“I always had this doubt about whether I’d had another mother who loved me and cared for me, and when the people at Pro-Busqueda told me that they had possibly found her, I was a bit afraid. What if it’s not true? I didn’t want to be deceived and lose hope,” she said.
“Yet after they did the DNA test, I couldn’t wait. When they finally called me at work to tell me the news, I started screaming like a crazy woman. I started crying and couldn’t talk. My coworkers started crying with me,” she said.
Within days, the two women met face to face.
“We talked about everything. About how she’d been lost. About what we’d each been doing to find the other. I told her I knew that one day we would find each other. I felt that she was out there, and I never lost hope,” Ms. Alvarado said.
Since then they’ve met several times, over the vehement objections of Patricia’s adoptive mother, who despite the DNA evidence and the fact that Alvarado and her daughter look a lot alike, continues to insist that she is Patricia’s mother and that Alvarado and Pro-Busqueda are charlatans. Denial remains in vogue in El Salvador, but for the two women reunited after so long, sitting on the step of Alvarado’s simple home and telling stories from the lost years is an undescribable joy.
“We’re still getting to know each other. It’s been 25 years, and we’re trying to be patient. Yet the most important thing is that we’re once again mother and daughter,” said Patricia.