Stolen children: Crime and immunity in El Salvador

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In March 2015 a US immigration court ruled that Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, can be deported from the United States to El Salvador, because “he participated in or concealed torture and murder by his troops” during the 1980 – 1992 war.  He is likely to appeal the ruling.

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According to a UN commission of inquiry, over 75,000 people were killed during the war, more than 90% by the Salvadoran army and allied paramilitary forces, and 1000s of children disappeared. Some have been found in mass graves, but the vast majority simply vanished.

However, even if Vides Casanova returns to El Salvador, he could still avoid prosecution there. The country’s 1993 Amnesty Act guarantees immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of human rights crimes during the 12 years of military repression.  As long as this law remains in force, it denies any possibility of justice for victims and their families.

In the last fifteen years, similar laws shielding war criminals from prosecution have been overturned in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Guatemala, and partially in Chile. But in El Salvador, a succession of governments have failed to repeal the amnesty law. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has demanded several times that it be repealed, and Amnesty International continues to urge the same.

As it has always done, the Salvadoran military apparatus refuses to open its records, and no government has yet been willing to force it to do so. Lack of public access to these records not only shields perpetrators from justice, it also complicates greatly the work of Pro-Búsqueda (‘for the search’), a small Salvadoran grassroots organization run by the families of children who disappeared during the war.  Many of the children, it turns out, were kidnapped by soldiers and given or sold into adoption, primarily in North America and Europe.  Since 1993, Pro-Búsqueda’s mission has been to find them, and where possible to reunite them with their families of origin.

Ester Alvarenga, coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda explains why access to military records is so vital: “The soldiers who took children know perfectly well what they did with them, and who they gave them to. All our investigations show how the children were taken; you can follow their tracks to a certain point, but only the army can say what comes after. Some soldiers never gave the children to a public or private institution but adopted these children themselves. These are the most difficult ones to trace.”

On April 14, 2015, Amnesty International issued this statement: “The Amnesty Law of El Salvador is not in conformity with international law, and is an affront to the thousands of victims of human rights abuses and their families. It is time to repeal it and allow all cases of torture, rape, killings and enforced disappearances committed during the conflict of the 1980s to be investigated, and all those suspected of being criminally responsible to be brought to justice.”

More detail on the Vides Casanova case here.

For the Pro-Búsqueda story, including the use of DNA analysis to connect disappeared children with their families of origin, see Bold Scientists. Read an excerpt here. Scroll down to chapter 5, Stolen children.

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Margarita Zamora, stolen children and DNA

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Good news: Margarita Zamora of Pro-Búsqueda nominated for a prestigious Tulip Human Rights Award.  Voting has begun.

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Margarita Zamora and other searching relatives,
at the Monument to Memory and Truth, San Salvador.

During the 1980s-90s military repression in El Salvador, Margarita Zamora lost her mother and six brothers, two of them killed.  She still searches for her mother and four brothers, aged 9 months to 8 years when they disappeared during a ‘scorched earth’ military assault in the Chalatenango region. She also searches tirelessly, year after year, for thousands of other missing children.

Margarita coordinates the Research Unit of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda in El Salvador. A citizens’ organization, Pro-Búsqueda (For the Search) strives to identify, locate and reunite with their birth families thousands of children forcibly disappeared during the war. Many of them were kidnapped by soldiers and given or sold into adoption, either with military families in El Salvador or in North America and Europe.

With Pro-Búsqueda since 2003, Margarita has conducted more than 1,000 interviews with family members and witnesses, and gathered more than 500 DNA samples for a genetic database that can match children and relatives. Her extraordinary skill in engaging people throughout El Salvador has been key to solving 60 cases to date.

But obstacles remain.  Margarita explains, “The army holds important details – dates, names and places – which would help us solve many more cases as families are often too traumatized to remember. We have been asking the military for years to release their files. They always say yes, but these are just words.”

The work is also dangerous. At dawn on Thursday November 14, 2013, three armed men broke into Pro-Búsqueda’s office in central San Salvador, beat and handcuffed the security guard, an employee and a member of the board, poured gasoline over file cabinets in three offices, set them on fire, then stole several computers. Clearly the intent wasn’t vandalism but the destruction and theft of vital records and testimonies essential to human rights investigations. Pro-Búsqueda has changed its address, but not its mission to find the stolen children, to defend public memory that some would bury, and ultimately to bring perpetrators to justice.

The Human Rights Tulip is an award of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for courageous human rights defenders who promote and support human rights in innovative ways.  Each of the international nominees deserves acclaim. Based on my own inspiring encounters with Pro-Búsqueda people in writing Bold Scientists, I’ve cast my vote for Margarita Zamora. Please consider doing the same.

For more on Margarita Zamora, and to vote: http://www.humanrightstulip.nl/candidates-and-voting/margarita-zamora-tobar.

Stolen children: a gripping story of war, loss and reconciliation, science and human rights, in Bold Scientists. Read an excerpt here. (Scroll down to Chapter 5, Stolen children.)