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Searching For El Salvador's Disappeared Children

During the country's civil war in the 1980s, countless children were abducted and sold off into adoption. Some in Europe are now joining the hunt to know their origins.

Children who disappeared during the war, where are you?
Children who disappeared during the war, where are you?
Tobias Käufer

SAN SALVADOR — In the offices of the human rights organization Pro Búsqueda, there are grey filing cabinets crammed with records detailing the fates of hundreds of missing Salvadoran children, dating mostly from the gruesome years of the country’s civil war — 1980 to 1991.

“We’ve collected all the information, including witness statements, in this archive,” says Mirla Carbajal, director of Pro Búsqueda, which is investigating dubious “adoptions” during that period.

During those 11 years, thousands of children disappeared from El Salvador. Carbajal and her colleagues believe some of them now live in Germany and that they have no idea of their early background. Pro Búsqueda is actively looking for these children.

Over Carbajal’s desk in her office in El Salvador’s capital hangs a black and white poster depicting a soldier. In his left hand he carries a weapon, and in his right arm he is carrying off a crying child. “Where are the children who disappeared?” the poster reads in white letters underneath the photograph.

“The picture describes our work,” says Carbajal, who says many children were violently removed from their parents — who sometimes were killed — by soldiers during the war. More than 2,000 adoption visas were issued to Europeans alone during the war years. This is an above average number that Carbajal explains this way: “It’s always when a society is particularly vulnerable that child traffickers come in from abroad to try their luck. And of course couples desperate for a baby are prepared to pay any price, particularly when the adoption procedure can be organized faster, more easily and less bureaucratically.”

Disaster breeds exploitation

In Haiti after the earthquake, in Thailand after the tsunami, or in El Salvador during the civil war, the usual government control mechanisms were not functioning. Often, the police, justice officials and state prosecution are affected by the crisis as much as everyone else and can’t perform their typical duties. That’s when child traffickers from rich countries move in.

Handwritten labels on the drawers in the Pro Búsqueda offices are organized by year, starting in 1980. That was the year of the fatal attack on Archbishop Óscar Romero, when the bloody conflict began. Romero condemned all violence and called for the parties to talk to one another. Today, the “Bishop of the Poor” is considered a saint not only in El Salvador but in all of Latin America, although the Church has been dragging its feet in making that official. Pope Francis apparently intends to change that.

For 11 long years, left-wing guerilla groups and the military junta’s right-wing death squads brutally fought. The war, during which 90,000 people were killed, finally ended with a peace agreement. The military killed randomly — people they suspected of being guerilleros were mowed down. The guerillas took their revenge by executing mayors they suspected of cooperating with the death squads. The present-day governing FMLN party is an outgrowth of the guerilla movement.

Their top candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections is former guerilla commander and current Vice President Salvador Oscar Sánchez Cerén, who publicly asked the El Salvador people for forgiveness for his part in the bloody civil war.

But the right-wing conservative Arena party has taken a less direct approach. High-level functionaries are said to have ordered Archbishop Romero’s death. But rather than working through the issue, their approach is to let sleeping dogs lie and not re-open old wounds.

In her work, Mirla Carbajal does exactly the opposite. She digs up the past, brings forgotten acts out into the light. Perhaps for that reason she gets no financial support from the state. And researching the thousands of unsolved cases is dangerous for the volunteers. In November, some unwelcome some nocturnal visitors broke into the Pro Búsqueda offices and tried to destroy part of the archive and thus annihilate compromising documents.

“Our documents have explosive power, and a lot of people are scared that our results will become public,” Carbajal says. There is currently debate in the country as to whether to repeal amnesty laws. The military in particular is fearful that their involvement in the era’s dirty deals could land them in court.

Reuniting families

Pro Búsqueda has already solved 300 cases, the last one a few weeks ago when Xiomara Osorio, whose name is now Carolina Cárcamo, was reunited with her biological mother and siblings after 29 years.

These are stirring, emotional and teary moments. “Most of the children are told that their parents and families abandoned them, or that their relatives are dead, so that they don’t follow up their history,” Carbajal says.

This week, Pro Búsqueda is getting some German visitors, a parliamentary delegation that wants more information about the organization’s work. Carbajal intends to put the evidence she has before them and ask for their help.

“We are certain that there are children from El Salvador in Germany,” she says. “All indications lead to that conclusion. But without information from Germany we can’t proceed.”

She is going to ask for her organization’s work to be made known in Germany so that kids concerned may even contact them themselves. “They have a fundamental right to know their stories.”

Pro Búsqueda doesn’t intend to split up happy families in Germany. “The kids concerned are around 30 years old today. They may be married and have children of their own. The point of what we’re doing is to achieve clarity about what happened here in El Salvador. For the relatives concerned here in El Salvador, it would be the end of a nightmare to learn that their abducted child is alive and well in Germany.”

In Switzerland, four children who were abducted and whose origins have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt have been found. One of them is Manuel, who took 11 years to accept the fact that he came from El Salvador.

He then traveled to Central America and visited his family. After initial reserve on the part of all concerned, he and his biological family formed deep relationships, and the young man today has two families. Pro Búsqueda reports similar cases in Spain, Holland, France and Belgium.

“We have a DNA data bank that can reliably establish who the biological parents are,” Carbajal explains. But for it to work the group needs both data and permission from the kids concerned. “Get in touch with us,” Carbajal pleads. “Help us and yourself know your real story.”

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