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


Eric Lemus

CIUDAD BARRIOS, El Salvador, May 12 2008 (IPS) - One of the men comes across a plastic thread and stops digging. He starts to carefully remove the dirt until unearthing a piece of material that he hands to an elderly woman, who is silently observing the exhumation of the remains of victims of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.

Gloria Portillo takes what is left of the garment and crumples it in her hand. “This belonged to my Carlitos,” she manages to get out, before she begins to sob.

Her son, Carlos Vinicio Portillo, and five other people were killed on Jan. 7, 1981 by the army, which accused them of belonging to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas.

The local residents and forensic experts are digging in the spot where the remains of five men and one woman are thought to be buried in La Angostura, a rural village in the mountains near the town of Ciudad Barrios, 136 km east of San Salvador. The exhumation work takes place Apr. 24-28.

The Madeleine Lagadec Human Rights Centre’s efforts to uncover the truth have led to around 600 exhumations of common graves since El Salvador began the transition to democracy in the wake of the 1980-1992 armed conflict, which left more than 75,000 civilian victims dead, as well as some 7,000 people “disappeared”, according to official estimates.

Nearly two decades later, the remains of thousands of “desaparecidos”, as the victims of forced disappearance are known in Spanish, are still buried in common graves without ever having been identified.

In La Angostura, the army seized 87-year-old farmer José de la Paz, teenagers José Tomás Villafuerte, José Noé Salmerón and Carlos Vinicio Portillo, who were between the ages of 17 and 19, a young woman only remembered as Gloria, and a high school teacher known as Leopoldo, in 1981.

At that time, the FMLN insurgents were beginning to organise in the northeastern part of the country, and the armed forces were carrying out counterinsurgency operations in villages in the area.

“They captured them and tortured them. They chopped them into pieces with an axe. A soldier told me that, and asked me not to say anything. That’s how I heard it happened,” 70-year-old María Emma del Carmen Salmerón tells IPS.

For 27 years she has waited for the moment when she could recover the remains of her son José Noé. “I’m tired of waiting,” she says.

A local resident, Esaú Pineda, found the bodies after the killings and buried them. He kept the secret all of these years. Now his indications have been crucial to the work of the legal authorities, who did not know where to start looking.

“There was a ditch where the water ran down, and we used it to bury them. Then we made a rock fence so the dirt wouldn’t wash off. The heads are pointing south and the feet are to the north. It’s right here,” says Pineda.

Elí Hernández, an activist with the Madeleine Lagadec Human Rights Centre, says he has taken part in four exhumations so far this year, in different parts of the country.

Discovering the truth about what happened and the whereabouts of the remains of the desaparecidos is not an easy task because judicial authorities continue to look askance at the efforts made by the victims’ families to find out the fate of their loved ones, he says.

Legal action is blocked by a 1993 amnesty law for human rights violators decreed by then president Alfredo Cristiani of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which is still in power, having governed the country since 1989.

Clarifying past human rights abuses is difficult “because these things still touch, in one way or another, a power that is still latent,” Hernández comments to IPS.

Some of the military chiefs in power during the civil war are now in the foreign service, others are members of parliament, and others own private companies with contracts to provide public services.


The forensic expert removes the dirt and uncovers a dental plate, and then a skull, which probably belonged to José de la Paz. The local residents looking on make the sign of the cross.

A few weeks ago, another forensic team uncovered the bodies of seven peasant farmers on an estate in the northwestern province of San Ana.

The Madeleine Lagadec Human Rights Centre has documented the Nov. 20, 1982 murder of seven members of a cooperative there, by dozens of paramilitaries who seized them and accused them of collaborating with the guerrillas.

One of the seven victims was 37-year-old Isaías Landaverde. His widow, Ramona Hércules, 62, explains to IPS that although she fled the area, she never stopped believing that one day she would recover the remains of her husband.

“This proves that life does not end with death. In this case they (the widows) continue to have affection for those bodies,” Hernández reflects.

Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna tells IPS that “regrettably, these issues have not been given priority treatment by the government.”

He says, however, that the idea is “to create a unit to follow up on these questions.”

The peace agreement signed in January 1992 in Mexico by the ARENA government and the FMLN established a United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission to clarify crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict.

The Truth Commission’s 1993 report, “From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador”, contains the results of its investigations into the murders of a number of Catholic priests in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 1980 assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the 1981 El Mozote massacre, and other human rights crimes.

After the report was released, an international team of forensic experts discovered the remains of some 900 victims – mainly children, women and elderly people – in El Mozote, a village in eastern El Salvador.

The Legal Aid Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador reports that the El Mozote massacre was one of the most appalling human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran army.

The Catholic Church will publish “Massacre of Innocence”, a new book on what happened in El Mozote, aimed at recovering the memory of the victims and restoring their dignity.

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