Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS: Reuniting El Salvador’s Missing Children with Their Families

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Apr 8 2008 (IPS) - Alberto Henríquez was six years old when a soldier took him away from the village of El Mozote in northeastern El Salvador, where around 1,000 children, women and men were killed in a counterinsurgency operation by the army in December 1981.

The soldier, Manuel Henríquez, took Alberto under his wing during the military operation after the little boy was separated from his family, who fled the village.

“First he took me to the military outpost and then to his mother’s house” in the northwestern province of Chalatenango, Henríquez told IPS.

The soldier gave Alberto his last name, and he and his mother raised the boy.

For 19 years, Alberto knew nothing about his biological family – not even whether they had survived the massacre.

But today, the 34-year-old married fisherman says he stays in touch with his adoptive family, and also “gives thanks to God” that he was reunited “with my entire family” in May 2000.

Alberto’s is one of the 787 registered cases of children who went missing during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, many of whom were taken to orphanages, raised by soldiers’ families, or placed in adoption with U.S. and European families.

Since 1994, the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Association for the Search for Disappeared Children) has been able to reunite 335 of them with their biological families, in El Salvador as well as in cities in the United States and Europe.

In March 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Salvadoran state responsible, for the first time in history, in a case involving the forced disappearance of two sisters, Ernestina and Erlinda Serrano, who went missing during a June 1982 military operation in Chalatenango when they were seven and three years old, respectively.

The sentence handed down by the Court, which forms part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) system, ordered El Salvador to investigate the case, bring the perpetrators to justice and search for the Serrano girls.

It also ordered the creation of a national committee to search for people who went missing as children during the armed conflict, the designation of a day dedicated to the missing children, and the provision of medical and psychological treatment and economic and other reparations to the families of the disappeared children.

In January 2007, the Salvadoran Congress approved the designation of Mar. 29 as National Missing Children’s Day.

Alberto Henríquez was among those who addressed the Mar. 29 demonstration organised this year by the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda in a downtown park in San Salvador.

The speakers gave first-hand accounts of their experiences during the war and demanded that those responsible for the massacres and forced disappearances be brought to justice. And while some celebrated the fact that they had been reunited with their families, others expressed hope that they would one day find their long-lost families.

The 12-year civil war, which was brought to an end by a 1992 peace agreement between then president Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) and the insurgent Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) – now the country’s second-largest political party – left 75,000 people (mainly peasants) dead, 8,000 missing and around 50,000 disabled.

Mario Sánchez, the coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda, complained that the state has not yet “investigated the cases, located the missing children, or determined who was responsible, which fuels impunity.”

Sánchez also protested that the government has not given the National Missing Children’s Day any real content, thus ignoring the Inter-American Court ruling.

“The state has remained silent and it is us, the victims, who always have to bring up the issue,” the activist told IPS, saying the group had turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court after years of receiving no response from the local courts.

On National Missing Children’s Day, “public ceremonies could be held, as well as events commemorating the occasion in schools, paid ads could be run, or a minute of silence could be observed nationally to remember the victims,” said Sánchez, describing activities that would raise awareness on the issue and help guarantee that such a thing never happened again.

In late March, Pro-Búsqueda brought legal action against prosecutors Yessenia Salguero, José Salazar and José Zavala, from the Attorney General’s Office in the province of Chalatenango, for “grave errors and failure to carry out their duties” in the case of the Serrano sisters.

On three occasions, the last of which took place in May 2007, the Chalatenango court ordered the Attorney General’s Office to ask the defence minister and President Antonio Saca, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, for the list of officers who commanded the “Operación Limpieza” (Operation Clean-Up), the counterinsurgency campaign during which Ernestina and Erlinda disappeared.

According to the report on the case, the girls had fled with their family into the mountains, as did dozens of other families in rural areas that were targeted by counterinsurgency operations. They were hiding in a thicket with their older sister Suyapa when soldiers approached, and the 17-year-old sister fled to another thicket. When she returned, her little sisters were gone.

The mother and the older sister searched for them, and in 1993 the girls’ mother filed a complaint against the elite army Atlacatl Battalion for the kidnapping of her daughters.

Pro-Búsqueda lawyer Leonor Arteaga demanded that the court order to identify those responsible for the operation be obeyed, to make it possible to track down the Serrano sisters. “They have refused to comply with the court order. Attorney General Garrid Safie has been negligent in not requiring them to hand over the list of officers who took part in the military action,” said the lawyer.

The Inter-American Court has issued two resolutions, in 2006 and 2007, urging the Salvadoran state to fully comply with the sentence handed down in the Serrano case, said Sánchez.

In late March, Amnesty International published a statement calling on the government to fulfil the Court ruling, saying that substantial points had not been implemented.

President Saca and the attorney general must take all measures within their reach to facilitate the investigations, said the London-based human rights group.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has admitted two new cases of forced disappearance, at the request of Pro-Búsqueda. The cases involve two children, Emelinda Hernández and Santos Salinas, both of whom were “disappeared” in 1981.

Alberto Henríquez, meanwhile, said he would continue to speak out about his own case to prove that there are missing children, even if the government of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has ruled the country since the end of the civil war, tries to deny or ignore the issue.

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