Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Stolen Children: a tribute to Cristián Orrego


Cristián Orrego is in the final stages of a struggle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Based at the Human Rights Center, University of California in Berkeley, and more recently in El Salvador, as a forensic geneticist Cristián inspired and enabled me to write Stolen children.  It documents the deeply stirring birth and life of Pro-Búsqueda (For the search), a Salvadoran citizens’ organization that seeks to find and reunite children and relatives forcibly separated during the 1980s military assault on the people of that battered country.  Their story became a key chapter in my book Bold Scientists, about working scientists who question and defy a range of status quos

When I asked Cristián what motivates him in his often frustrating work, he replied: “I only have to think of the strength and determination of the families, who carry on this struggle for decades in the face of so much official indifference, greed, and laziness—the indifference of a state toward what happened in the past, ignoring that the future will be better by understanding the past, laziness in the sense of a society so indifferent to the loss of its children, and greed in the sense of not wishing to disrupt business as usual.”

I’m posting the Stolen children chapter here, as a tribute to Cristián Orrego, to forensic geneticist Patricia Vásquez Marías, his partner in life and work, and to the people of Pro-Búsqueda.

Stolen Children

In the autumn of 1982, a California couple, Jerry and Greta Fillingim, began the process of adopting a child from El Salvador. Their family story would be intertwined with the history of a people. Only a few months earlier, the Salvadoran army had launched a brutal incursion in the department (administrative region) of Chalatenango, in which forty-six to fifty-three children disappeared, including two young sisters, Erlinda (age three) and Ernestina Serrano Cruz (age seven). No one knows what happened to the sisters after that, or rather, the few who do know hide behind a wall of silence and immunity. One or both of the sisters could still be alive, now in their thirties, in El Salvador or elsewhere. Relatives continue to search.

This story begins a century and a half earlier.

1840: El Salvador, a small country in Central America, achieves independence from Spain.

1932, January: By now, fourteen wealthy families control 90 per cent of El Salvador’s land, mostly growing coffee for export. When prices drop, the lives of campesinos go from grim to desperate. Finally the campesinos rebel, led by Agustín Farabundo Martí. In reprisal, the army kills thirty- to forty-thousand Salvadorans.

1975, July: In the capital, San Salvador, soldiers open fire on unarmed antigovernment protesters.

1977, February: Another rigged Salvadoran election installs another general as president. More than two hundred unarmed protesters are killed.

1977, March: Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande García is assassinated, to silence his outspoken advocacy of liberation theology—interpreting the Christian gospels as a call to struggle for justice and equity. His murder is widely believed to have moved his friend Oscar Romero, the previously conservative archbishop of El Salvador, to embrace liberation theology.

1978–1979: Across El Salvador, popular protests intensify against rising military repression.

1979, November: U.S. president Jimmy Carter authorizes military aid to El Salvador, and American military “advisers” are sent to train Salvadoran security forces.

1980, March 23: In Archbishop Romero’s Sunday sermon, broadcast live on radio, he directly addresses soldiers: “Brothers, you are all killing your fellow countrymen. No soldier has to obey an order to kill. It is time to regain your conscience. In the name of God and in the name of the suffering people I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression.” The next day, a military death squad assassinates Romero while he conducts mass in a small chapel.

1980, March 30: For  Archbishop Romero’s funeral, more than two hundred thousand Salvadorans fill la Plaza Libertad in San Salvador. Soldiers fire on the crowd from the National Palace. At least fifty people are killed.

1980, May 14: The military, national guard, and death squads massacre at least three hundred men, women, and children trying to flee across the Sumpul River from Chalatenango into Honduras. Honduran troops prevent the fleeing Salvadorans from coming ashore.

1980, October: Five revolutionary organizations join forces in the FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, named for the leader of the 1932 uprising. In 1980, according to the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador, army and security forces kill 11,895 people, most of them peasants, trade union members, students, journalists, priests, and human rights advocates.

1981, January: The FMLN launches its first major initiative, advancing swiftly in Chalatenango and Morazán.

1981, December: At the village of El Mozote in Morazán, more than a thousand civilians are massacred by the Atlacatl Battalion, armed and trained by “counterinsurgency” specialists from the U.S. army. That same month, the Reagan administration refuses the FMLN’s offer of peace negotiations, and increases aid to the military. In 1981, according to the Christian Legal Aid Office, army and security forces killed more than sixteen thousand Salvadorans, the vast majority of them civilians.

1982, May–June: Salvadoran army battalions attack northern Chalatenango. The army calls it Operación Limpieza (operation clean-up); the people of Chalatenango call it Guinda (running away) de Mayo. More than six hundred civilians are killed, and approximately fifty children, including the Serrano Cruz sisters, disappear.

1982, July: President Reagan “certifies” to the U.S. Congress that human rights standards have improved in El Salvador, so that new military aid can be authorized.


The horror in El Salvador continued for another ten years, until 1992 when the Chapultepec peace accords were signed in Mexico. By year-end, the UN Truth Commission concluded that seventy- to seventy-five-thousand Salvadorans were killed during the war, 95 per cent of them by government forces, 5 per cent by the FMLN. The commission called for perpetrators of human rights atrocities to be brought to justice. But within days, the right-wing Arena government decreed a blanket amnesty for all those implicated in such crimes. That immunity from prosecution still stands today.

International Adoption

The Fillingims Get the Call

I meet Jerry and Greta Fillingim with their daughter Angela in the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Jerry is neatly grey-bearded, Greta slightly flushed, her brow furrowing readily when she speaks. Greta was born in 1950 in Salinas, California, and Jerry in 1948 in Wheeler, Texas. Both are social workers: Jerry with unions, Greta in a substance abuse program with children and families. Wanting children, and finding they had fertility issues, they sought adoption advice from Catholic charities, which recommended intercountry adoption. The Fillingims wrote to agencies in several countries, and heard back promptly from the state agency in El Salvador: the couple met the agency’s criteria and could apply immediately. They did, through Child Services International, an agency in the state of Georgia. Then they waited.

In the meantime, they wondered how they might handle a range of unknowns: a child of different race from theirs (Causasian), for example, or a child born disabled or drug-addicted. Says Jerry, “As social workers, we’re aware of the potential for inequality in these kinds of relationships, where the mother could easily be a young woman who doesn’t have a lot of options. In the process to adopt our son Brendan [in 1984, in a U.S. “open” adoption], we worked with the birth mother to think through carefully if this was what she really wanted to do. It’s a challenging dynamic, and I don’t know if you can ever fully resolve it.”

Greta adds, rather poignantly, “I had read The Politics of Adoption, a book that talks about how you can rob the future of a country when you take a child from it. The U.S. was at war in El Salvador at the time, so we thought a lot about this. But we really didn’t have much guidance, and we did very much want a child. The agency suggested that El Salvador could be easier, more rapid than some other countries. So we told each other that we would figure it out and make it right.”

In 1985, U.S. military advisers in El Salvador decreed that civilians in areas controlled by the guerillas should be considered combatants, and ordered an escalation in aerial bombings and rocket attacks. In the first quarter of the year, 105 aerial attacks on civilian populations were reported. That June, the Salvadoran adoption agency called the Fillingims: a baby was available, born May 15. Her foster parents named her Helena.

“It was so thrilling,” says Greta, a smile lighting her face. “I still remember when the call came, I was standing by the wall phone in the kitchen. The agency said to send them a name.” Jerry adds, “They also said, Better get down here immediately if you want to take your daughter home, because probably the door will close soon. There was a front-page newspaper scare at the time about babies being taken for body parts, and a political effort to stop all foreign adoptions.”

What did they know about the birth parents? “Nothing about the father,” Jerry replies. “What we heard at the time was that the mother was young, she lived in Chalatenango where the fighting was most intense, and she moved to San Salvador to get her baby away from it. She worked as a seamstress, probably in a sweatshop, and she didn’t have means to raise a child on her own. That’s about all we knew.” Greta adds, “We hoped to meet her in El Salvador, but they told us that wouldn’t be possible.”

The journey is a tumble of memories. Greta explains, “Within three or four days we got passports and off we went, took Brendan with us. In San Salvador our lawyer couldn’t leave his house; apparently he’d received a death threat. It was a wild situation.” Jerry continues, “Military planes were bombing Guazapa, the mountain just outside San Salvador.” Greta says, “We heard these booms, and called the hotel desk—what’s happening? We were pretty naive, really. We’d tell people we met in El Salvador that we didn’t think the U.S. should be intervening, but anyone right-wing we met said, Oh yes, you should. We really just wanted to get out safely with Angela. People at the [U.S.] embassy told us that many adoptive parents were returning without their children. It took a week, but finally our lawyer did show up at the court to help us complete the process.” Jerry adds, “We think it all worked out because we had a good lawyer, and the paperwork was done just right.” And Greta continues, “But we don’t know that for sure. Angie has a theory about the lawyer.” She turns to her daughter, seated between the two parents.

I’ll pursue her theory later.

Angela Searches for Her Roots

When we meet at the Human Rights Center, Angela is 27, a new mother herself—her daughter Lucia born only a few months before—and fitting in research for her sociology PhD. “I’m looking at U.S. human rights policies toward Argentina in the seventies and El Salvador in the eighties, trying to understand the factors in play when they crafted those policies.” Of hue and hair darker than her parents, Angela projects a quiet, easy confidence that, to me, suggests a well-supported childhood.

How did she experience her other story, her roots in another country? “I think that until high school I wasn’t interested in that part of my heritage,” she replies. “My parents tried, by keeping me in activities—a bilingual school, a Mexican dancing group—that were as culturally relevant to El Salvador as they could find in the Bay Area, because most Salvadorans live in San Francisco. In high school I met my best friend to this day, who is Indian. She wore saris to school; at her house there were all these wonderful aromas—chai tea, garlic, ginger, cumin—and I’d see her talking with her family in their language. So finally, I got interested in learning about my own background. I took Spanish at Berkeley High, and it included a course about the war in El Salvador, which got me started looking through my adoption files. It happened like that, in small steps. By late high school I was identifying as Salvadoran, a Latina in the United States.”

How did her parents experience this awakening? They had encouraged it, so Jerry welcomed her developing identity. Greta pauses a moment, then replies, “The early childhood piece is still a little painful to me. At six months, Angie was plucked up from this foster home in San Salvador where she had been since she was born, and where we could see she was very attached to them. Then suddenly she’s on a plane and she’s in California, but she never stopped smiling. I’ve learned in my work that it’s traumatic when a child has no choice, no way to understand what’s happening. I’ve worked most of my life in social work to prevent this kind of thing from happening to children—being separated from their parents—which is partly why it means so much to me.

“In places where people were speaking Spanish, I noticed her head would turn. At six months kids, don’t have expressive language, but they do have receptive language. But at the end of the year in bilingual kindergarten, she said she didn’t want to be with Spanish kids anymore. A white child in a mostly white school, she’d already got the pecking order—who’s in and who’s not. That’s sad. Looking back on it is hard for me, probably because I love her so much.”

In summer 2005, Angela joined a couple, friends of the family, one of them Salvadoran, who went to El Salvador every summer with their two kids. She would travel around with them, and spend a couple of weeks working on her Spanish at a language school.

When she registered at the school, a scan of her passport was required. By chance, the woman who handled it, Ester Alvarenga, also volunteered with an organization called Pro-Búsqueda (short for Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos de El Salvador), or For the Search. “When I mentioned my adoption,” Angela recalls, “immediately Ester said, You must go to Pro-Búsqueda. And being the force of nature she is, she got me into a taxi on her lunch break and took me there herself. Did I have any paperwork from the adoption? No, it hadn’t occurred to me to bring any.” Angela called home; her parents faxed her birth certificate to the language school.

“When Ester saw the documents, immediately she started talking with one of the Pro-Búsqueda investigators who focused on Chalatenango. I guess they assumed I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew enough Spanish to get the gist of it: Look where she’s from—think of the massacres around there, the bombings. Look who the lawyer is; his name is on lots of illegitimate adoptions. Her family is probably dead; she was definitely stolen. I remember going to the beach that afternoon. By the time we got back to the city, I’d had time to absorb what I’d heard. All my life I’d been told I was adopted because my birth mother worked in a sweatshop and couldn’t afford to keep me. Then to hear this person say I was stolen and my family was probably dead—it’s a lot to take in. I called my parents, pretty incoherent; I think I was sobbing.” Greta nods.

Within twenty-four hours, Angela’s sister Sherrine (Jerry’s daughter from a previous marriage) flew to El Salvador with more documents. The parents didn’t have passports handy, but Sherrine was a veteran traveller. She stayed with Angela for her remaining two weeks in El Salvador. “I didn’t want to leave,” says Angela, “but I also didn’t want to stay by myself.”

The day before Sherrine arrived, Angela returned to the Pro-Búsqueda office and gave a full interview about her background. It was conducted by a volunteer, Elizabeth Barnert, a PhD student from the University of California at Berkeley working at Pro-Búsqueda for the summer. “Liz was very gentle. She said, I have to ask you these questions, and some might be difficult, but the more we know, the better we’ll be able to help. She walked me back to the guest house and helped me to calm down. She also introduced me later to a priest, Father Jon de Cortina [co-founder of Pro-Búsqueda], who said, We don’t know yet what the story is, but please for now try to accept not knowing.”

Angela also gave Pro-Búsqueda a sample of her DNA. Barnert would transport it, along with other samples collected in El Salvador, to a laboratory in Richmond, California, where a volunteer team of DNA analysts were assembling a database of genetic profiles from Salvadoran families whose children had disappeared during the war, and from children seeking their birth families. In that moment when Angela consented to donate a DNA sample, a mild curiosity, still ambivalent, turned into a serious quest.

A Country at War

Ester Alvarenga Recalls the Massacre

A force of nature, Angela called Ester Alvarenga. When I meet Ester at the Pro-Búsqueda office in San Salvador, I can see why. Intense gaze, ready smile, and she grips my proffered hand with both of hers. She has become co-ordinator of Pro-Búsqueda. The offices are small, crowded, humming with activity. Now and then I hear laughter, a fine leavening agent for heavy work.

Since my Spanish is embarrassingly sparse, and Ester’s English limited, Montserrat Martínez Gómez agrees to translate, as she does throughout my visit. From Barcelona, Montserrat came to El Salvador as an international volunteer in a summer sports program for young people. She took home two compelling impressions: she would have to return, and shed the comfortable assumption that people of the north always know better than people of the south.

The intensity of grassroots organizing was high on her list of reasons for returning to El Salvador. “When Pro-Búsqueda calls people to a demonstration,” says Montserrat, “for example to demand that the government pay more attention to the disappeared children, all the families come—people from all over the country, who work hard and have little spare time. And it’s not just the parents, but grandmothers, nephews, the whole family. When the government announced it would privatize water in El Salvador, many people went to the streets; the demonstrations were very big. Maybe it’s something historical here, where people have learned that if you want to change things, you have to move.”

Ester is also one who is willing to move for change. Born in 1965, Ester grew up in Las Aradas, a tiny village on the Sumpul River, part of the border between El Salvador and Honduras. Her father, a farmer and activist, worked in a Catholic community that followed liberation theology, organizing for liberation not just in the hazy hereafter but here and now, with justice and a decent life for all. To the arrogant few who ruled El Salvador, this was a red flag in every possible sense.

In 1979, campesino families that had been driven off their land in Chalatenango gathered near Ester’s village to form a new community of about a thousand people, in non-violent defiance of the government. Ester, fifteen at the time, helped organize working groups to grow food, build shelter, and handle the myriad challenges that arise in building anew with minimal resources.

It was at Las Aradas in May 1980 that at least three hundred Salvadorans were massacred trying to flee across the river. Ester was one of the survivors. “This was the first test of how the army would deal with growing resistance by campesinos and campesinas,” she says. “They made an example of these people to terrify others. It made me conscious that I needed to engage in more political activities. Since neither the army nor the government cared about the needs or security of the people, those who did care had to work even harder for change. Chalatenango was one of the departments where people were most conscious of the political situation in El Salvador, which is why the army especially targeted this region.” Ester often helped people fleeing military attacks, sometimes carrying smaller children “because their mothers couldn’t run with three or four children.” In those years she met hundreds of people, many of whom have now joined Pro-Búsqueda.

In a powerful 2013 talk at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Ester said that, having “survived the first massacre perpetrated by the Salvadoran army…at the Rio Sumpul…in 1984, at eighteen years of age, I survived the prisons of the former National Police.” Then she spoke of others’ suffering, and the need for justice from international courts.

It feels too intrusive to question Ester directly about her prison experience, so instead I ask more generally about consequences from her work in the war. “There were many consequences,” she says, “but all through the armed conflict, we knew there would be. Working in Pro-Búsqueda, there are four people who are direct victims of the armed conflict, and among the relatives many more. A lot of situations were very painful, and when people who lived through it meet and talk, they speak of these things in a distant way—Well, that’s how it was in those days—to avoid reliving the pain. When you work here, you are always trying to do what you can to end the pain of others. Sometimes we forget we have our own.”

In 1992, when the peace accords were signed, Ester joined others in creating a new women’s organization, Movimiento de Mujeres Mélida Amaya Montes, named after a university professor who led strikes in the early 1970s, helped found one of the guerilla forces that later formed the FMLN, and was assassinated in 1983. The organization decided to co-operate with Pro-Búsqueda, also launched in 1992. One of their mutual goals, Ester explains, was to encourage the relatives to “claim their rights from the government.”


Padre Jon’s Quest

On November 16, 1989, at the University of Central America in San Salvador, a squad of masked soldiers murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter. That night their seventh intended victim, Padre Jon de Cortina, happened to be in Guarjila, a village in Chalatenango.

On a fog-shrouded morning in June, five people squeeze into Pro-Búsqueda’s pick-up truck for the two-hour drive from San Salvador to Guarjila: Oscar (the driver), Pro-Búsqueda forensic geneticist Patricia Vásques Marías, Montserrat Martínet, Patricia’s nephew José Manuel, and me. On volcanic slopes north of the city, we pass ranks of shacks made mostly from black plastic sheeting, and people walking, riding bicycles or motorbikes that exhale black smoke, or standing in the open backs of rusty pick-ups. Soldiers with machine guns stroll in pairs past makeshift stands selling fruit, coconut milk, and fresh-cooked food. Here and there, cows and goats graze by the road, unfenced, untended, unconcerned.

In Chalatenango the road ascends, winding through red-brown earth and lush green hills. A lane leads us into Guarjila, and a smaller lane, rough and partly cobbled, up a steep hill to Padre Jon de Cortina’s house, now a museum. A group of young people from the village takes care of the house and gardens.Nestled among flowering gardens and shade-giving trees, it feels shrouded in an immense silence. I hear only soft wind in trees, bird calls I don’t recognize. In such tranquility it’s hard to imagine the terror and cruelty that had rained down on this land’s inhabitants.

The dwelling is one room with a sheltering overhang. Inside, display cases house objects and images, relics from the padre’s uncommon life. His bed is no wider than a body, the mattress no thicker than a pocketbook. Vilma Guardado, a young woman from the village, tells us Padre Jon wanted to live as much as possible like the people he served. As she talks us through the displays and the events they embodied, Vilma speaks with evident respect and affection.

Jon de Cortina was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1934. Two years later, his family fled their town, Guernica, when it came under aerial attack by Nazi bombers supporting Franco’s fascist coup d’état against the elected government of Spain. In 1955, Cortina came to El Salvador as a Jesuit novice, and after studying in several countries and attaining several degrees including a doctorate in engineering, he settled in the country he had come to love.

Padre Jon taught engineering at the University of Central America, did practical work on the construction of bridges, wells, and roads, and did pastoral work in Chalatenango, supporting rural communities in their long struggle for basic needs and rights. In 1987, in the depths of war, he helped negotiate the return of Salvadorans from a refugee camp in Honduras to Chalatenango, where they built a new community.

With the advent of peace in 1992, three women from the area told Padre Jon they had reason to believe that their missing children had not been killed in army attacks, but instead had been kidnapped by the soldiers. If they were alive, they could be found. He took up the quest and made it the core mission of his later life. Two years later Pro-Búsqueda was born.

“Tita” Castro Finds Her Son

Berta Castro climbs the cobbled road to meet us at Padre Jon’s house. She doesn’t much like the name Berta, she says; she would rather be known as Tita—it seems less heavy. The others laugh merrily, and she joins in. They know her as Berta, a referente or representative for Pro-Búsqueda in Guarjila. But in her own story here, she’ll be known as she asked, as Tita.

Tita Castro was born in 1959 at San José Cancasque, a small village not far from here. Before the war, she joined the Unión de Trabajadores del Campo, a union of people who worked the land. Conditions were terrible, especially in the coffee plantations: gruelling work, inadequate pay. As protests mounted, so did reprisal attacks by the military.

“As the repression increased,” says Tita, “it led even more people to join the union. Many were jailed as political prisoners; many were murdered. We would find their bodies on the road, or we never found them. Even so, before Monsignor [Oscar] Romero was murdered, none of the land workers was armed. I remember the early protests; they were joyful events with food and music. But after Monsignor Romero was killed because he told the truth about workers being murdered and jailed, then people saw that things would keep getting worse, and only then did they take up arms to defend themselves. By then the army was creating special brigades to attack rural communities. I was there when the first incursion happened in 1981. Not only the army came but also planes with machine guns, bombs, and rockets.”

Here she stops and sighs; when she resumes her voice is more subdued. “One of my children was only six months old when the army attacked, I think it was in July. After the first bombs fell, we dug a big tatú [underground bomb shelter], but sometimes we didn’t have enough time to get there and people were killed. When the army came, shooting people, and the planes came with bombs and rockets, some people fled through the mountains to Honduras; others hid not far from the village. They ran with only the clothes they were wearing, leaving behind their houses and everything else. The soldiers killed farm animals, destroyed homes and crops. They occupied that area for almost two and a half years.”

And you, I ask, what happened to you and your children? Like Ester, Tita doesn’t dwell long on herself, but keeps returning to the collective story. “A lot of people went into hiding because they wanted to protect their children. It was very difficult to walk through the countryside with small children. We had to keep moving, but only at night. During the day, we had to hide, because soldiers were everywhere and planes flying overhead. If they saw anyone moving, they would shoot. We couldn’t cook because the planes would see the smoke and they would bomb. At first my husband could go out and try to find a bit of corn or beans, so I could make tortillas. Then my husband was killed, and we had no way of getting food. Sometimes we survived on roots, nuts, leaves, even dirt. We had to sleep on the ground, which was difficult with children, especially during the rainy season. A lot of people died during that time. But we had to keep doing these things. This was our life during the war.”

Tita lost other people close to her. “My father died in the war, and my brother. And my son disappeared.” When it became impossible to survive any longer inside El Salvador, in 1986 Tita joined the trek over the mountains into Honduras. “I couldn’t take three children with me, so I left my son with some people who said they would take care of him while I fled with the other two. When I came back from Honduras, I expected to find him, but the people who took care of him became frightened when the army came and they gave him to the soldiers. I started to look for him, but there was no trace of him. I went to Pro-Búsqueda with all the information I had—what he looked like, where I had last seen him—but it wasn’t enough to trace him.”

I ask her to describe the 1987 return from Mesa Grande, the refugee camp in Honduras. “In the refugee camp,” she replies, “it was mostly women and children. Most of the men were either killed by then or still fighting. Life was horrible in the camp. It was a closed place, a prison surrounded by Honduran soldiers who would shoot you if you went outside. That’s why people preferred to come back to their own country, even though the war was still very bad in Chalatenango.

“After international negotiations, we were allowed to leave Mesa Grande. Padre Jon accompanied us on the journey, and after we arrived, he stayed here with us. There were no houses here, just the forest. Fortunately we arrived in summer, with no rain, because we had to sleep in the open. We had few resources, hardly anything, but we started to build houses with mud. We had to build everything, grow food, find water. Of course the war was continuing, with soldiers very near and people still getting killed.”

Tita continued to search for her son. In 2003 she met a woman in the area who said she had witnessed a boy who looked like Tita’s son being taken away by the army. “With this information I went to Pro-Búsqueda again and asked them please to investigate. I thought, if this is not my child, then maybe the information can help another mother who is searching. Margarita [Zamora, a Pro-Búsqueda investigator] said she would do everything she could to find him. In only two weeks, they did find him, and with DNA they confirmed that we were mother and son!” In the telling of it, Tita’s face brightens.

“On December 5, my birthday, we were reunited, twenty-one years after I lost him. It’s really beautiful when something like this happens. My heart was back in the right place, and the pain calmed down so much. Pro-Búsqueda is doing something very important, because other people have also been reunited. And Padre Jon, too, he looked for the children as if they were his own. We have to continue this work until all the relatives can be reunited with their children.”

Science on the Victims’ Side

Eric Stover and DNA Analysis

Pro-Búsqueda investigations proceed on two tracks. In the field, investigators go to particular areas and talk with relatives, witnesses, anyone who might have useful information about military operations and disappearances. On the documentation track, they search all available documents, birth records, adoption agency registries, any public information that could offer clues on what happened to the children. In the mid-2000s, science provided a vital new tool to expand the search: DNA analysis. And the path of a group of American scientists to the Human Rights Center at Berkeley—and to collaborating with Pro-Búsqueda—is a story unto itself.

I meet Eric Stover in the boardroom at the Human Rights Center he directs, in the University of California at Berkeley. Also an adjunct professor of law and public health, he brings to his work an extraordinary depth of experience as an organizer, researcher, writer, and teacher in human rights and international humanitarian law.

Eric was born in Indonesia in 1952, to an American father and a British/Chilean mother. Growing up in the United States, he was encouraged to develop an international perspective; eventually he joined the anti–Vietnam War movement, then worked a series of jobs across the United States and south to Chile. “I ended up in Argentina with my brother, who was studying in Buenos Aires. In March 1976, when the military coup happened, we were picked up in a small town and held in a cell with other guys, some of them already beaten up. Because we had U.S. passports, we were released the next day and deported. It had a profound effect on me that we got out, but had no idea what happened to the other guys in the cell. The question of forced disappearances had already surfaced, even before the coup.”

Eric made his way to Paris, then London, to work in the Latin America research department at Amnesty International. His primary focus was the disappeared. In international human rights law, forced disappearance is designated a crime against humanity. It occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate or whereabouts. Usually forced disappearance implies murder. The bodies are disposed of clandestinely, so that the person vanishes.

In Eric’s next chapter, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, he developed a new program on science and human rights. The original frame widened to include dissident scientists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and detained/disappeared scientists in South America. Eric’s first book (of six so far), Breaking Bodies and Minds, investigated psychiatric abuse in the Soviet Union and the role of medical professionals in treating victims of torture in Latin America.

In 1983 when the Argentinian military dictatorship collapsed, the first elected government appointed a commission of inquiry on the disappeared, mostly under pressure from the persistent, courageous Madres (mothers) and Abuelas (grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo. Since 1977, they had marched regularly in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, defying threats and violence to demand information about their disappeared children. In the military regime’s dirty war of repression, many thousands of parents and pregnant women had been arrested, tortured, and disappeared, and thousands of children simply vanished. ¿Dónde están los niños y las niñas? their banners asked—Where are the boys and girls?

In 1984, two of the founding grandmothers travelled to Washington to meet with Eric Stover and his colleagues at the AAAS. They had read about DNA testing for paternity in the United States, but when parents had disappeared and their DNA had disappeared with them, could DNA also link grandparents and the young? At the same time, the chair of the Argentinian commission of inquiry asked Eric to organize a forensic team to help with its investigations.

The team included American experts in several forensic fields. “We toured the country,” says Eric, “meeting families and visiting military bases where people had been held and tortured; also morgues and sites of mass graves. At the end of the trip, we called for a moratorium on any further exhumations of graves until they could be done properly. They were being ordered by judges on request from families, but the way the remains were being handled, there was no way individuals could be properly identified. It just meant further torture for the families.”

Cristián Orrego Comes on Board

One member of the team that went to Argentina—and now also a member of the Human Rights Center—is a biochemist born in Santiago, Chile, in 1944. Elegant and eloquent, Juan Cristián Orrego Benavente has a precision in English that I imagine comes partly from the disciplined mind of a scientist, partly from the conscious attention needed to learn to speak a second language as fluently as one’s first.

He grew up in a house of music, his father a musician, composer, and teacher. Says Cristián, “Although I would have liked to be a musician myself, it is very difficult to become a really good one.” Instead he chose biochemistry, a new program at the University of Chile. Though he’d been bored by the pedantic teaching of biology and chemistry in school, something about the combination sparked his imagination, and a visit to the university laboratory—“the ambience, the books, blackboards filled with formulas, people so absorbed with their work”—confirmed that this is what he would do. He studied for a year in Santiago, then in 1961 the family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where his father joined the university faculty of music. After Indiana University, Cristián took up graduate studies in biochemistry at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

“Those are unforgettable years for me, the middle sixties,” he says. “The professors were remarkable, and it was a golden era for science in this country, with strong support from the government. Brandeis was also a centre of resistance against the Vietnam War, so a lot of my political upbringing occurred there, too.”

Next he went to France for post-doctoral research in applied microbiology. “All along, I had the clear idea that eventually I would return to Chile and do something useful with all this science I was learning. Microbes are very interesting elements of life that can do many useful things, from making good beer to a great many other possibilities.”

In the early 1980s he took a brief detour into a shiny new wonder science, biotechnology. “I was very glad when they fired me after three days,” he says with a wry smile. “I was obviously uncomfortable with this notion of making a lot of money out of my knowledge.”

In 1984 Cristián experienced what he calls an epiphany. Doing post-doctoral work at the National Institute of Health in Washington, he was invited by Eric Stover to join the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility at the AAAS. Cristián explains why. “This was one of the first attempts by scientific societies of the time to address the connection of science to war and the repression of entire populations by their own governments, which was going on throughout the seventies and eighties in South America, including my country, Chile.” Since he had left Chile in 1974, a few months after the military coup that brought in Augusto Pinochet, Cristián had engaged in campaigns to inform the American public, media, and members of Congress about what was actually happening through the long nightmare of the Pinochet regime.

He dates his epiphany from the arrival of “two very elegant ladies” at a meeting of the committee. These were the abuelas, the grandmothers from Argentina who wanted to know if DNA analysis could help them to link grandparents with grandchildren. The simple answer was no—the still-young science hadn’t yet developed the necessary mathematical formulations. However, Eric and Cristián assembled a team of eminent forensic scientists who went to assist Argentinian human rights organizations in the overwhelming task of locating and identifying some ten to thirty thousand disappeared persons.

“I think that our experience there was an epiphany not only for me, but for everyone in the group,” says Cristián. “All of us in various ways experienced the same compelling question: What can science do in the face of massive human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law?”

As DNA research advanced rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s, Cristián realized how much the identification of recovered victims could benefit from the new techniques. In 1986 he joined the University of California, Berkeley, where he learned how to recover DNA from remains, and in 1999 he started work at the California Department of Justice DNA lab in Richmond, north of Berkeley. Over the next eleven years, he practised forensic genetics in the context of crime investigation, at the same time deepening his sense of its potential in the search for and identification of missing persons.

In 1992 Eric Stover received an urgent call from Reed Brody, a UN representative monitoring the recently signed El Salvador peace accords. By then Eric was executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (U.S.). Brody reported that a Father Jon de Cortina and three mothers from Chalatenango were in his office, asking if DNA analysis could help find their children.

Eric went to El Salvador with Robert Kirschner, an experienced medical examiner from Chicago. In Guarjila, a shelter was set up beside Padre Jon’s church where people could give blood samples. Simpler collection methods would soon be developed, but at the time, blood was still the best source for DNA. The priest and Radio Venceremos spread the word: come, give a blood sample, it will help in the search for our missing children. In no time, people were lining up.

Radio Venceremos (We shall overcome) aired its first program in January 1981, and continued to broadcast clandestinely throughout the war, sometimes from caves, often on the run. By chance in the mid-1980s I was also making political radio programs, under rather more comfortable circumstances in Toronto. Radio Venceremos embodied the bold use of a low-tech medium that we tried to emulate in our work. Now above ground, it continues to broadcast from Guarjila.

In the village, Eric Stover learned in more detail what sparked Padre Jon’s call for help. In the priest’s search for leads, he encountered a man who tended gardens at one of main orphanages in San Salvador. There the gardener had noticed an unusual number of rubios, blond children, and began to wonder if they might be from his area, northern Chalatenango. Eric explains, “It turns out that this area has quite a few fair-haired genes floating around, maybe going back to the Camino Real [royal road] of the Spanish occupation. So Father Cortina went to the orphanage, checked their records, and sure enough the rubios did come from this area. In the case of one boy, they had enough information to suggest a particular woman might be his mother, so blood samples were taken and the first identification was made.”

When Eric moved west to launch the Human Rights Center, he brought the El Salvador project with him. In that same auspicious year, 1994, Pro-Búsqueda was born in El Salvador. Soon more and more DNA samples were being taken in villages and towns, more labs were needed to process them, and more volunteers to analyze them. At this point, Cristián Orrego re-enters the story.

As a trainer in forensic genetics at the Department of Justice, it was one of his tasks to organize teaching seminars. In 2003 he invited Eric, a friend and colleague, to speak about his current work on identifying missing persons in the former Yugoslavia. Cristián invited the director of the Department of Justice lab, Lance Gima, to attend. In conversation after the seminar, Eric mentioned Padre Jon’s request for DNA analysis, and the resulting identification of a disappeared child.

“At the time,” says Cristián, “Lance Gima was in charge of a databank that collected DNA profiles from convicted persons, for comparison to DNA profiles from crime scenes. From this perspective, he suggested that Pro-Búsqueda could move beyond one-off cases into a much broader initiative to collect DNA profiles from all families looking for disappeared children, so that if someone was found, and the investigators had no information as to where that person might belong, comparison could now be made to every family in the database. This was the start of the Berkeley involvement in Pro-Búsqueda, which I immediately joined.”

Where Are the Children?

Physicians for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center at Berkeley provided initial funding for the project. As the DNA component expanded, a three-year grant was obtained from the U.S. State Department to launch the Latin America human DNA initiative, primarily to identify missing persons in Central America. The second funding cycle included a new position, forensic program director. Cristián applied, and in November 2011 he moved from the Department of Justice to the Human Rights Center.

His work here has several facets. Recently he collaborated to help the International Criminal Court to bring more effective forensic evidence to its cases. He has also chaired an Early Injury Detection Group, assisting a regional district attorney’s office to develop detection methods for cases of domestic violence.

A map of El Salvador covers most of Cristián’s desk. It represents in visible form the preoccupation that consumes most of his attention: Where are the children? His paramount focus is outreach. In El Salvador as of mid-2013, some 550 families have requested help from Pro-Búsqueda to find a disappeared child. About 920 children have been reported as missing, and to date about 320 have been found, but only about 60 of them in the United States.

“We know that a substantial number of the missing children were adopted by people in the United States. In 1996 a journalist at The Boston Globe published the figure of 2,354, a number which has neither been acknowledged nor denied by the State Department. Where are the others? In recent years, Pro-Búsqueda has begun to find more children in the United States, but they don’t connect to any of the families in the current database. This would suggest an incomplete registration of families who lost children during the war. So where are those families?

“In El Salvador, Pro-Búsqueda still gets ten to twenty families a year coming forward to say, We lost a child during the war. Even if they were to receive the kind of support they should from the Salvadoran government, and every TV and radio station in the country, the number of families coming forward might double, even triple, but that’s still quite small compared to the deficit we see. On the other hand, we can project from U.S. census data in the 1980s that a minimum of nineteen thousand families in which the mother gave birth to a child in El Salvador during the war came to the United States. To reach these families and let them know that Pro-Búsqueda can help find their children, this will be most important part of my efforts in the year to come.”

La Cruz Roja’s Role

In separate conversations, Eric Stover and Cristián Orrego both mention the strange role of la Cruz Roja, the Salvadoran Red Cross, in adoptions during the war.

Eric puts it like this: “When the military swept through an area, they would kill adults, and either kill or take the kids to the barracks. In some cases, they marched them through the streets, same as they did in Uganda. Anyone who wanted to adopt these kids would be told that the parents were guerillas and they were dead. Then the women of Cruz Roja took the kids and put them out for adoption. The woman who was head of it, her husband was an officer in the military, and we’ve always believed he was setting up these adoptions illegally, for money. We sent a graduate student to do research on this, and she actually managed to get access to judicial records. But then the funding ended and the work was never finished.”

Later I pursue the question with Cristián. “To my mind,” he says, “it is very crucial to know exactly how this adoption business worked, because the claim of the military has always been, look, it’s a war—people get killed, children are left orphans, it was humanitarian to rescue them.”

Nicole Inacio Vanacek Seeks Elusive Justice

En route to El Salvador, I stop off in Tampa, Florida, to meet Nicole Inacio Vanacek, between her travels to Afghanistan (to do DNA work with the U.S. military) and Thailand (vacation). Born in Vermont in 1974, Nicole studied science, then specialized in forensic genetics. Preferring applied over theoretical science, she interned at a coroner’s office, learning how to do forensic autopsies—How did a person die? And, if necessary, who are they?—and to gather evidence from crime scenes and process it in the lab. In her senior year at university, she worked full-time as a deputy coroner.

A long-standing dream to live in San Francisco took her to a job in a human genome lab there. At the same time, she took a night course in forensic DNA analysis to qualify for the job she really wanted, in the California Department of Justice DNA lab in Berkeley. Starting work there in 2001, she participated in a project organizing DNA profiles of convicted criminal offenders into a state database. One of her trainers was Cristián Orrego. Within a year, Nicole was mentoring new personnel and assisting supervisors.

In September 2001, she volunteered to work at the Staten Island landfill in New York City, sorting through debris from the World Trade Center for human remains. Then in 2003, lab director Lance Gima invited her to join a team exhuming mass graves in Guatemala, where her background in identifying human remains would be useful. In those graves, says Nicole, she experienced a parallel to Cristián’s epiphany.

“The whole time we were down in these mass graves—while we removed the dirt, then photographed the remains—through all of that the families were present. Children and adults, they were there before us in the morning, and they didn’t leave until after the last of us finished work. In the U.S., once the remains are removed, the family is kept at arm’s length. In Guatemala people were right there, and before we’d remove any remains, we would all get out of the grave while they set up candles around it and the family said a prayer.

“I found it quite overwhelming to be part of that. I think that for Guatemalans this is an essential part of the healing process, after all the atrocities they’ve experienced. At least it’s some kind of finality. For the first time, I could really understand the full impact of this work and how many lives it can affect. At one point when I was shovelling dirt, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a man, a family member. He asked me for the shovel so he could dig.”

In El Salvador, the people who launched Pro-Búsqueda had decided from the beginning to focus on the living. With thousands of disappeared children to trace, this would be challenge enough. As discussions on the DNA component evolved between Padre Jon, Eric Stover, Lance Gima, and Cristián Orrego, Gima invited Nicole and her lab colleague Brian Harmon to join the conversation. Neither hesitated. Gima had already won dispensation from the state attorney general for staff to use lab facilities on a volunteer basis in off-hours.

Nicole describes the challenge that lay ahead. “We knew it would take years, who knew how long, to accomplish what the families hoped for,” she says. “So we decided we had to come up with a simple, reliable method for non-professionals to collect DNA samples, train people to do it, determine what information they would need to collect on the forms. And figure out how to track the samples, to document a chain of custody—Who collected the sample? Where? Who consented? Who handled it? Where and how it was stored?—to ensure the integrity of samples right through the process. It also seemed crucial to us that Pro-Búsqueda would own the DNA profiles, because if the same country that supplied weapons to the military which committed these atrocities now took control of the DNA samples, what would happen to them? Those of us who had worked on criminal investigations were very aware that for each family that was reconnected, the potential for justice through the courts increased.”

Justice through the courts remains elusive in El Salvador. In 1992, a few days after the UN Truth Commission called for perpetrators to be brought to justice for crimes against humanity, the ruling Arena government decreed a blanket amnesty for all those implicated in such crimes. That immunity from prosecution still stands today.

In 1993, with astonishing bravery and strong support from Padre Jon, Victoria Serrano Cruz launched a court case to compel the government to investigate the forced disappearance of her two daughters, Erlinda and Ernestina, among many children who disappeared during the army’s June 1982 “clean-up” operation in Chalatenango. The government effectively blocked the case with technical manoeuvres until it too disappeared. Eventually Pro-Búsqueda took up the case and in 2004 succeeded in bringing it before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, claiming multiple violations of the American Convention on Human Rights.

In March 2005, the court ruled that the El Salvador government had indeed contravened the convention on several counts, and should immediately make a public apology to the Serrano Cruz family for the disappearance of the sisters and assist in the search for all the missing children of El Salvador. A year later, no apology and no search. Meanwhile, government agents repeatedly cut off electricity to the Pro-Búsqueda office, photographed people entering and leaving the building, and telephoned employees at their homes to elicit information about the organization’s activities.

In California and El Salvador, the Pro-Búsqueda DNA project evolved rapidly. At the Department of Justice lab near Berkeley, Nicole and her colleague Brian Harmon developed and tested an easy-to-use DNA collector kit. The collector is a paper strip mounted on a plastic device, with which staff, volunteers, and family members can scrape each side of the inner cheek eight times to collect as many cells as possible for analysis. Samples are easier to collect this way; also less hazardous to handle and store than blood.

Physicians for Human Rights and the HRC funded a training session in El Salvador, where Nicole and others demonstrated how to collect, handle, store, and ship the DNA samples. By summer 2006, Pro-Búsqueda had collected more than five hundred samples from people in many communities. In each town or village, investigators also gathered information on which children had gone missing, who had witnessed what, when, and under what circumstances, the birth names of missing children, and vital data on relatives. All these elements would be crucial to the search.

At the lab in Berkeley, as volunteer DNA analysts processed more samples in their spare time, the resulting profiles accumulated in a growing database. “If we didn’t get enough genetic information from a sample,” says Nicole, “we would ask Pro-Búsqueda to go back and collect from other family members. When children, now adults, would call Pro-Búsqueda wanting to search for their families, Pro-Búsqueda would get a sample from that person. Pro-Búsqueda was the hub of the whole operation, and they were very savvy about it, looking not only at people who were missing out there, but also at members of the organization itself who were missing children, so they could collect DNA from them to verify relationships. This gave us the ability to test our systems. Here we had a known family, and if we had done everything correctly, we should be able to associate them through their DNA profiles.” From the beginning the failure rate was low, about 5 per cent, and it improved rapidly.

This is when Dr. Patricia del Carmen Vásques Marías, the Salvadoran forensic analyst with whom I would visit Padre Jon’s museum, entered the story.


The Currents of Change

Patricia Vásques Marías Commits Herself to the Truth

Patricia Vásques Marías and Montserrat Martínez Gómez meet me in the arrivals plaza, which is outdoors at the San Salvador airport. On a scorching afternoon, in the well-travelled Toyota that Patricia shares with her brother, we stop at a makeshift stand by the highway for refreshing milk from a freshly cut coconut. Then they accommodate my request to visit places that somehow embody memories of the war, officially ended twenty years ago but still an open wound for many.

We go directly to a small chapel at the Hospital of Divine Providence. The simple A-frame’s plain glass windows pour warm afternoon light into the sanctuary. Here in March 1980, Archbishop Romero was celebrating mass when soldiers shot him. As soon as we enter, Patricia kneels to face the simple altar. On the wall, an inscription quotes Romero: “I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Patricia and her mother used to listen to his Sunday sermons on the radio. They heard him implore soldiers “in the name of God …[to] stop the repression.” When he died, Patricia’s mother and grandmother wept. Her mother attended the funeral, standing among the silent throngs that filled la Plaza Libertad. She saw people fall, killed trying to escape a rain of gunfire from the National Palace.

Born in 1970, Patricia grew up with her grandmother and her brother Mauricio in western El Salvador. Her mother had to work long hours; they saw her only at night and on weekends. When Patricia was ten, her mother found work at a hospital in San Salvador and the family moved to the San Marcos neighbourhood. When the union went on strike, in a rising wave of protest, soldiers surrounded the hospital.

By 1989, when Patricia began her studies in medicine at the National University, the war had spread and intensified. Near the end of her first year, soldiers surrounded the university, trapping her, Mauricio, and many others inside. “It was terrible,” she says in a quiet voice. “We heard shots and windows being smashed. After a few hours, we were allowed to go out with our hands raised, the soldiers aiming their guns at us. They closed the university for several months, but we continued our studies in exilio—that’s what we called it, studying in secret with our teachers.”

In November of that year, the war came much closer to home. “On the national radio there was nothing, but we listened to the news on Radio Venceremos, very low because it was dangerous to be caught. We heard of the FMLN offensive into the city; after so many years of fighting, they were determined to finish the war. In San Marcos the guerrilleros built a barricade near my house, and the tanks came. We were trapped in the house, because in the streets tanks were passing, they were shooting, and helicopters dropped bombs. My mother, brother, and I hid under the bed; we thought we would die.”

How did she complete her studies? “A few months later the university reopened. I was very nervous going back. Before, I used to sing in the university chorus, songs about justice and freedom. But after the offensive my mother was afraid for me; she told me I couldn’t do that anymore. My brother was studying there too, so he would wait until my evening class finished, and then we would go home together.” Such are the memories of her youth.

On graduating, Patricia went to work immediately as a doctor—afternoons in a private clinic, mornings in a free clinic near the central market. “I liked that very much, helping people,” she says, “but after six months I had to close my practice and go to Spain.” Inspired by a course in forensic genetics, she decided that this would be her path, applied for a scholarship to do post-doctoral studies in Spain, and in October 2000 left El Salvador to study for three years at the University of Zaragoza.

Sometimes when people study abroad, they don’t want to return. What brought Patricia back to El Salvador? “I like my country,” she replies, “and I thought it would be important to bring back the knowledge from my studies.” It sounds so matter of fact, why would I even ask such a question? She laughs, with a small shrug.

On her return in autumn 2003, she looked for work at El Salvador’s only genetic lab, at the Supreme Court. The woman who interviewed her was impressed by her CV, her thesis, and the letter of reference from Spain, but then told Patricia to go see if the magistrate of the court would help her. “I thought, I don’t need help,” she says with quiet assurance, “so I didn’t go.”

A university friend suggested she apply to teach in one of the universities. She applied to three. A private university, Universidad Dr. José Matías Delgado, offered her a job teaching biochemistry and molecular biology. In early 2006, a colleague heard a talk she gave on forensic genetics, and recommended that she send her CV to an organization called Pro-Búsqueda. She hadn’t heard of it, knew almost nothing about disappeared children, but sent off her CV. In July at the Pro-Búsqueda office, Patricia faced a hiring committee of five, including Cristián Orrego.

Of all the questions they asked, only one made her nervous: If telling the truth could put you in danger, would you still do it? “I told them, Yes, if something is true, I would say it, if necessary even to the president of the country. My mother and grandmother always taught me that the truth is important, no matter what.”

Studying the Alleles Leads to a Cold Hit

In her small cubicle at Pro-Búsqueda, Patricia explains her work. “When the investigators bring DNA samples to me, I prepare them for sending to the labs. I check the documents that come with the sample, the chain of custody, and register all the samples I receive in a spreadsheet. After I receive results from the labs, the DNA profiles, I do a technical review of these results and enter them into the database. Then I do a comparison of the profile with others in the database, to look for any other profiles that match. If I get a match between two profiles, I ask the investigators, Can you provide more information? Or they tell me, We think this DNA sample may be associated with that family. Then I look for that family’s profiles in the database, and tell the investigator yes or no.

“If I find a strong association between a family and a young person, I write a report, using the DNA and other evidence, the context of the disappearance, and other elements. After I finish this report, I send it to Charles Brenner for review. If he has any doubts he asks questions, and if not he signs off on the report.” We’ll meet mathematician Charles Brenner soon, in California.

One evening I sit with Patricia at her computer for a beginner’s primer in DNA analysis. Her colleagues have left for the day, but she still faces several hours of work. In the mornings, she teaches at the university; afternoons and more than a few evenings, she’s here at Pro-Búsqueda. Tonight she’ll check some DNA profiles and bring the database up to date.

On the screen, I see what looks like a multicoloured vertical bar graph. This is a profile from the lab: one person’s DNA analysis in visual form. For confidentiality it’s identified only by a number. Each column represents a particular allele, one of a pair of genes located at a specific position on a specific chromosome in this person’s DNA. These genetic codings, or markers, can be passed from parents to offspring and also serve as a handy way to compare profiles.

Patricia points out tags at the top of each column. “D7, D19, TH01—these are names to identify each of the fifteen loci [places] on the genome that I will analyze. This [she points to a column] says if this person is male or female. I check these peaks, and then confirm that the numbers for the alleles the lab obtained are the same as the ones I obtain in the technical review I conduct. I organize this data, then I compare in a concordance table my results with the lab’s. They should be the same. If they are, that sample passes the technical review, and I can introduce it into our database.”

Once a profile is added to the database, Patricia turns to DNA-View, a program created by Charles Brenner. “I import all the information into this program—the profiles of families and the young. Then the program compares them. From that I get a report, which allows me to see if one young person is connected to any family. In cases where an investigator has a family and a young person they think might be associated, I can tell them if the DNA match is good or not.”

In 2012, Patricia experienced one of the rarest, most thrilling aspects of her job: a cold hit. In crime forensics, that describes a situation where connections are found between a crime victim, a perpetrator, and/or a crime scene in the absence of any other leads, in other words, a lucky break.

In the case of three siblings who disappeared in 1982, Pro-Búsqueda had already tracked down one, a girl, but the trail ended there. Coincidentally, someone speculated to a Pro-Búsqueda investigator that a young man they had met might be one of the children who had disappeared from their village during the war. The investigators take careful note of any such clues, no matter how vague. They located the young man and interviewed him, and he consented to donate a DNA sample, which was sent to the lab for analysis.

On one of her late-night work sessions, Patricia imported the resulting profile into DNA-View, and as usual scanned hundreds of family profiles for comparison. This time the program indicated a match, a strong one, with one particular family. “So then I checked the file of this young man for the circumstances of his disappearance, and—[she lets out a little gasp] the match was possible! It was very late, but immediately I called Margarita [Zamora]—she holds many cases in her head—and I asked her, Margarita, is it possible he could be associated with this family? She said, Yes, it’s possible. And it was!” A cold hit. Here Patricia laughs happily, as if it had just happened.

She clicks to another screen, an official-looking document in Spanish. “Here is the report I wrote from that case. This boy was one year and eight months old when the soldiers took him. In the beginning, a soldier took care of him for a full year, then he gave the child to an aunt [of the soldier]. We know now that in all those years this boy actually lived not far from the home of his biological family.”

Patricia and Ester both tell me that the reaction of adoptive families to these inquiries can vary. In this case, undoubtedly complicated by military involvement, the adoptive mother, the soldier’s aunt, neither helped nor hindered. Perhaps she realized that whatever she did, the young man, now thirty, would make his own decision.

In August 2012, thirty years after the child was taken, the young man went to meet his biological mother and father. Did Patricia go to the reencuentro? “Yes, yes,” she says. “It was very exciting. I like this case. I like many cases, but this was our last cold hit. Now we need to find the other sister.”

Charles Brenner Does the Math

The computer program that delivered the cold hit was a product of Charles Brenner’s lively mind. In his home/office, built into a steep hillside above Oakland, California, he sits behind a wide wooden desk, flanked by computer screens. On a music stand in one corner, sheet music for a violin sonata sit open, ready to play.

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1945, Charles says he invented a unique field for himself, forensic mathematics. His professional CV includes scientific, business, systems, and mathematical programming, Bachelor of Science from Stanford University, IBM research, professional bridge (the card game) in England, PhD in numbers theory from UCLA, visiting scholar, senior research fellow, consultant. Many intriguing questions here, few of which I’ll have time to pursue.

How did he become involved with Pro-Búsqueda? “It was a natural fit,” he says. “I was already doing work of related kinds, in mass victim identification.” He had worked, for example, in Argentina, at the World Trade Center collapse, after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. “Technically Pro-Búsqueda differs only in dealing with the living rather than the dead—an important distinction for some people, but mathematically it’s irrelevant. I find it gratifying to do some pro bono work, Pro-Búsqueda is an appealing project, and I had heard good things about Cristián. So I called him up about ten years ago at the Department of Justice lab in Richmond, where I knew people.”

Early on, Charles worked with others to establish what he calls “the mathematical underpinnings” of the project—how to quantify the kind and quality of evidence they would need for positive identifications, the scale of the project, how many children and families were involved. “If only three people are missing, a small amount of DNA will help sort out which is which. But if there are, let’s say thirty thousand, there is a huge opportunity for unrelated people to accidentally share a lot of DNA. By looking at cases and seeing what complications arose, we came up with parameters we still rely on in principle.”

His website notes that DNA-View is now used for a variety of purposes, including legal paternity cases, in over a hundred labs on every continent but Antarctica. In the case of Pro-Búsqueda, how does it work?

Charles explains, “The beautiful thing about DNA is that like fingerprints it has individuality, but it also has the nice feature that it’s inherited, so it’s shared by relatives. That’s why we can do paternity testing with genetic markers. It also means if you have bodies like at the World Trade Center, you can collect reference samples from relatives who think they lost someone in the collapse, and then you can compare a body fragment with a DNA sample from these relatives. Similarly with children and relatives in El Salvador. If the samples share a lot of particular fragment lengths, it’s evidence that they’re related. This isn’t just a simple statistical calculation; there is an actual combinatory calculation based on the exact kind of relative you’re talking about. Based on every combination of relations, this program works out the exact formula.”

How does this calculation of odds works in the Pro-Búsqueda context? “In one case,” he says, “sort of a classic, a Salvadoran child about twenty years old had some scarring on his neck, assumed to be a result of childhood insect bites, and relatives remembered that a child of theirs had such scarring. So the first question was, how unusual, how individualizing is that kind of scarring? Second question: how do you decide a question like that?

“In this case Pro-Búsqueda did something very scientific; they went to a doctor in El Salvador who was aware of such things, and he said the odds of this being the same child were about a hundred to one, in other words, high. We had already calculated that we needed about the same odds to bridge between our DNA and our target, so we concluded that we could safely call this an identification without feeling any guilt about twisting the facts to get the result we wanted.

“Our criteria for identification are pretty strict. Some people involved in the project are more accustomed than I to working in the criminal justice system, where you have to be very meticulous and do everything by the book. The evidence has to be unassailable, because some lawyers are quite clever at assailing.” Charles gives a wry smile and a soft laugh, hardly vocalized. “If there are any chinks that can be pried open, you haven’t done your job right.”

How Not to Do It: Patio 29, Santiago, Chile

In 2006, the consequences of a job not done right surfaced dramatically in Chile. After the military dictatorship ended in 1990, the first democratically elected government launched a search for thousands of disappeared victims. It began in Patio 29, a section of the main Santiago cemetery where people summarily executed in the early years of the Pinochet regime were known to have been clandestinely buried. Members of the Chilean medical anthropology group were assigned to exhume and identify human remains from the mass graves.

In 1997, the first DNA laboratory in Chile initiated a program to analyze DNA from human remains found in Patio 29. When the results conflicted with identifications made by the anthropologists, laboratory staff conveyed these results to the state magistrate in charge of the investigations. In April 2006, the magistrate informed the Chilean public that misidentifications had occurred. The news set off a wave of shock and outrage. It was shattering to families who assumed they had finally experienced a kind of closure, but also fostered widespread distrust of the whole process of recovering and identifying remains, adding fuel to the stock right-wing argument that the past should be left where it was, buried.

The newly elected president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, called on major organizations of relatives of the disappeared to advise her as to what should be done. One group mentioned that forensic geneticist Cristián Orrego had been urging them for several years to consider DNA analysis as a tool for investigation. Accordingly, he was invited to Chile to advise the president on appropriate actions.

Cristián explains: “Essentially I said that in order to do this search well, you will need to stop any investigations in Chile that are not being done by properly trained individuals, put together a group of national and international experts who can advise you on how to build a credible program, and be prepared for this group to tell you all that all DNA analysis should be done in accredited labs outside Chile until the country has a fully accredited lab capable of doing this work. All of that was carried out to the letter through President Bachelet’s administration, to her credit and that of key persons she appointed.” I notice how generously Cristián assigns credit to others, doing so much more sparingly to himself.

Angela, Meet Blanca

That same year, 2006, in El Salvador, a team from Berkeley delivered the first set of six hundred DNA profiles to Pro-Búsqueda. A few months later, Angela Fillingim says she received an email from Elizabeth Barnert, her ally on her visit the year before to San Salvador, now a friend in Berkeley: “‘Pro-Búsqueda has found your biological mother; her name is Blanca Rodrigues. I have a letter from her. If you want to read it on your own or with me, let me know.’ Liz gave me the letter, then she arranged a phone call from her house to the Pro-Búsqueda office. I talked with Blanca and my brother Henri, as much as you can have a get-to-know-you conversation over the phone with that magnitude of story behind it. They sent a photo with the letter, so I could see how tall my brother is compared to Blanca—he’s six foot two! We actually look a lot alike, except that he’s whiter than me. He burns more than I do, poor boy. He’s two years younger.”

On the journey to El Salvador, Angela was accompanied by Barnert, Eric Stover from the Human Rights Center, and a two-person crew from NewsHour, a current affairs program that airs on the Public Broadcasting System. Angela and her father had given a press conference at the Human Rights Center, which generated wide interest from the media. But now, at this crucial moment, I ask, Greta and Jerry didn’t go with her to El Salvador? “I felt strongly it should only be me who went,” says Angela. “If they had come, I knew that I’d feel obligated to deal with what they were feeling, and after talking with Liz about other reunifications she’d witnessed, I thought that my own emotions would be enough to manage.” With a glance at her parents, she smiles.

In San Salvador Angela visited with Blanca and Henri. Then, with her travelling companions, the NewsHour crew, and Pro-Búsqueda psychologist Marco Perez Navarrete, she went to her biological grandfather’s finca (small ranch) in the hills of northern Chalatenango.

“I had no idea what to expect,” she says. “It all seemed kind of surreal to me. But Liz and Marco were very supportive—Do you need a break? Go for a walk? It was quite an experience pulling up to this ranch where they grow most of the food they eat. I met my grandparents, an aunt, and two uncles. My grandmother is a woman of few words, but she did show me how to make tortillas over the fire. My grandfather took me to see what they grow, the cornfield, the cows down by the river. One uncle makes hammocks, so I got to watch him work on his huge loom, and the other uncle makes covers, blankets. Eric bought one and gave it to me later at dinner. It’s been with me everywhere I’ve gone. Also my parents sent them a picture book about Berkeley so they could see where I lived. It happens to include a picture of a Berkeley High graduation, with Aztec dancers, one of which was me.”

It surprises me how little Angela has to say about the woman who gave birth to her. In the NewsHour documentary, she mentioned that Blanca had apologized to her. What for? I ask.

“She said, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m still not sure exactly why. All I could think at the time was, You’re hugging me so much but I really don’t know you. Now with more distance, I think that memories, especially memories of war, are so complicated that people tend to weave conflicting narratives from them. I’ve heard several stories from Blanca about my adoption. The key things that recur in each version are the ones I assume to be her truth. It’s clear that she felt quite powerless. In different ways, she’s told me that she tried to stop the adoption but couldn’t. She told me one story where the lawyer moved and she wandered around his neighbourhood for days trying to find him. Well, it turns out he hasn’t moved from where he’s lived since the war. Consistently, though, she says she tried to stop the adoption but didn’t have the money to do it. So I think that Blanca was telling me she felt sorry for her powerlessness to keep me, or to get me back.”

Since the initial visit, how have things evolved? Angela pauses, then says, “I’ve had a very—[another pause, choosing her words] complicated relationship with Blanca. A lot of it centres on money. Liz introduced me to a couple of other people who were reunited with their biological families, and the issue of money comes up a lot. It’s based on the remittances, the earnings that thousands of Salvadorans in the U.S. send back home. Something like 20 per cent of the Salvadoran economy comes entirely from these remittances. So from Blanca’s perspective, asking for money isn’t out of line. But from my perspective, it’s not the kind of relationship I want—I’m not an ATM. If that’s the relationship you need, I’m sorry but I can’t provide it.

“The Pro-Búsqueda psychologist helped me draw a line with her, telling her that if she keeps asking for money, the relationship probably wouldn’t last. Since that conversation, things have changed; it’s been better. Henri has also been really good at helping me and Blanca figure things out and diffusing tension between us. He’s very easy for me to get along with. There isn’t the same emotional complexity as there may be with her. For example, could there be an underlying feeling that she rejected me and maybe part of me wants to do the same to her? I haven’t gone far enough in processing it to know whether something like that is there or not.”

Earlier in our conversation, Greta remarked that Angela had a theory about the lawyer who negotiated her adoption. This seems a reasonable moment to pursue it. “Based on comments I heard at Pro-Búsqueda,” says Angela, “it seems likely to me that the lawyer had connections with the military. His name appeared on quite a few adoptions that were legally questionable. Also comments from my birth mother made it seem, at least from her point of view, that what she consented to was a temporary situation where I would be in a foster home in another country until things were safer here, then I would be returned to her. When she understood this was a full adoption, she tried to back out, but the lawyer told her she would have to pay back all the money that had been spent, thousands of dollars by then. Of course she couldn’t; she worked in a sweatshop. For my PhD research, I’ve been reading all these congressional hearings from the El Salvador war years, and at the time of my adoption they talk about how piss-poor the judiciary system was. USAID actually went in and rebuilt it. This is the context in which the court put a stamp of approval on my adoption and others.”

Who Owns Memory

A Slap in the Face

2007: Under pressure from the 2005 judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the legislative assembly of El Salvador declares that from now on, March 29 will be a “day dedicated to missing children during the armed conflict.” Commemoration activities are organized by Pro-Búsqueda, but for several years state institutions remain aloof. Also, as required by the court, the Arena government announces the establishment of a National Commission on Disappeared Children. From the beginning, its purpose seems more decorative than functional.

2008, January: As required by the Inter-American Court, the government holds hearings in Chalatenango on the forced disappearance of the Serrano Cruz sisters in 1982. General Rafael Flores Lima is summoned to testify, as former chief of state of the armed forces during that period. Predictably, his responses are evasive, and no prosecutions result. Still, Pro-Búsqueda marks this hearing as an unprecedented event. Finally, despite the blanket amnesty, a high-ranking military officer has at least been called to account for his actions.

2009: FMLN candidate and former journalist Mauricio Funes wins the presidential elections, the first time a candidate from a progressive party has been elected to the post.

2010: The government announces the formation of a new National Committee on Disappeared Children. Its usefulness remains an open question.

2011, March 29: National day dedicated to missing children during the armed conflict. For the first time, the government takes an active role in organizing commemorative events, including a presidential breakfast.

Angela Fillingim and others who’d been reunited with relatives were invited to attend the 2011 commemorative day. Angela holds two vivid memories, the first from the presidential breakfast. “Pro-Búsqueda tried really hard to advocate with the military and even the First Lady: Please don’t wear uniforms to these events, because most people who’ll be there remember what those uniforms meant, the massacres, rapes, torture, and disappearances. We’re trying to heal from the trauma, so please, no uniforms. They refused. I remember at the breakfast seeing this military guy in full uniform just glaring, visibly enraged at the existence of this day and the fact that he had to be there. He looked like he wanted to shoot everybody in the room. A Salvadoran friend of mine is one of the few survivors of a massacre at the Rio Lempa, and here he was trying to have breakfast with his son, daughter, and wife, who was injured in a bombing by the military—for them to see the soldiers in their military gear, it was an affront, a slap in the face.”

Her second memory is gleaned from a concert for families of the disappeared. “I remember Ester getting on the stage—this was broadcast live on national TV—and she points at army officers in the front row. She says, ‘I call on you to open your archives; we will never resolve these cases until you do.’ I’m thinking, Oh my god, we’re going to get shot! Even the president of El Salvador doesn’t dare ask them to open their records, but here this tiny woman Ester is pointing and virtually yelling at them, ‘Open your archives!’”

In Guarjila, Berta Castro takes the same position. “So many people were killed and disappeared, so many children, I think the state has an obligation to help Pro-Búsqueda find all the children. The war was made by them. The officers that were in charge knew perfectly well what was going on, so I’m sure they have this information. They have to stop hiding, and open their military files, share all the information that will make it easier to find the children who are still missing.”

Ester Alvarenga explains the demand when we meet at her office. “The soldiers who took children know perfectly well what they did with them, and who they gave them to. All the Pro-Búsqueda 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.”

The question is naive, but still, worth asking: Why do they refuse? After years of thought and action on the matter, Ester’s view is both broad and nuanced. “The army still has to believe—or at least to claim—that what they did in the war was right, to defend the country from communism. They also participated at such a high level in human rights violations, they may fear that if they give any information about the disappeared children, the families might start judicial proceedings against them. They fear that if one soldier is condemned, proceedings will occur against his superior, and then his superior, until it reaches the former presidents of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani and then after him [José] Napoleón Duarte, because during the war they were responsible for the conduct of the army.” She makes no comment on the responsibility of people who directed the war from Washington, DC, and I don’t pursue it.

In the last fifteen years, amnesty laws shielding high-level war criminals from prosecution in Central and South America have been overturned in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Guatemala, and partially in Chile. The amnesties still stand in several other countries, including El Salvador. Proponents of the status quo argue, let bygones be bygones. Why dig up the past? It only brings trouble. I ask Ester, why is it so crucial that individuals be prosecuted?

She replies, “We have already obtained two judgments at the Inter-American Court that the state has a responsibility for what happened, so they must investigate the taking of the children and condemn the individuals who were responsible. That would be the first step, symbolic justice. The next step is to define who were the persons that committed these crimes, and to prosecute them in court. That would be real justice. We need to take this step to ensure that these kinds of crimes cannot be committed with impunity in the future. There are precedents now in Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Guatemala, where high-level people have been tried and found guilty. Here in El Salvador we hear public officials, army officers that were at high levels of power during the war, saying that if war came again they would do the same as they did before. This creates a lot of fear, and this is why it is so important to prevent these people from being able to repeat their crimes.”

The Uses of Terror

In March 2011, U.S. president Obama visited El Salvador, not long after police in riot gear had raided the campus of the National University in San Salvador. In this, their first incursion into the university since the war, the police claimed to be searching for drugs; in 1989, when soldiers had barricaded Patricia Vásques Marías and her brother in the same university, the excuse had been communism. Figures from the Salvadoran government and the World Bank, which can safely be considered underestimates, show that the richest 10 per cent of the population in El Salvador in 2011 received approximately 15 times the income of the poorest 40 per cent, who lived below the poverty line. On this visit, Obama’s Central American Citizen Security Partnership promised US$200 million in “technical assistance and aid” to the military/security forces.

Angela Fillingim mentions the oppressive climate of fear she experienced on her 2011 visit. “No matter where I stayed, in which guest house, they were very adamant about me being inside as soon as the sun started to go down. They wanted to make sure they knew where I was at all times. Now when I think of visiting there with my parents, my husband and child, the anxiety is overwhelming.”

I reply, “I kept hearing the same stories when I was there: the war on drugs, marauding gangs, murders on buses. What really alarmed me was the large number of soldiers with machine guns I saw on the street, and all the armed security guards and coils of razor wire at so many homes and shops. It reminded me of Israel. I’ve learned to be so suspicious of the way people in power use fear as a political weapon, I felt ill-equipped in El Salvador to tell what’s worse, the threat described by the authorities or their use of it.”

“Yes, yes,” says Angela, nodding. “I was also quite disturbed to see how militarized the country is, and so sad to see this growing level of inequality and violence. It seems like the same kind of boiling pot El Salvador was in before the war. At the same time, the U.S. government is doing all these mass deportations of undocumented immigrants—I’ve heard that sometimes as many as five hundred people a day are being sent back, and when they go, you shut off all those remittances so vital to the Salvadoran economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. pours millions of dollars into the area for so-called inter-American security and the war on drugs, and once again they’re militarizing El Salvador. It’s crazy, and incredibly discouraging.”

Before I met Angela, she had already given a number of interviews about her adoption experience. Why did she agree to yet another?

“As someone who has experienced adoption,” she replies, “I think we need to talk about all its complexities, especially given the proliferation of transnational adoptions. We need to be clear about the power relationships it’s founded on, and to think about how we can ensure that it’s done ethically. Aside from that, I think it’s essential to bring out what happened around adoptions in the war, because even now so little of that is known. Even in El Salvador, it was only taught in schools for the first time in 2010! I’ve met a lot of families there who wonder about their children here in the U.S. They don’t ask anything more than to know they’re alive and well, that they didn’t die in the war. A lot of what Pro-Búsqueda does isn’t only about reconnecting families, or even empowering people to achieve some of their human rights, it’s also about helping people to heal who still live every day with the trauma of war, because they just don’t know, and not knowing can be so painful. I think it’s important to keep talking about Pro-Búsqueda and that history so it doesn’t get lost, buried, and to let people know there is reason to keep hoping.”

In 2013, Angela Fillingim’s birth mother, Blanca Rodrigues, died in El Salvador. In the last year of her life, she gave her daughter the one gift that only she could provide. In a November 2013 post on the Human Rights Center blog, Angela wrote:

Now I know the truth about my origins, and Blanca had a chance to tell her story—one she had been afraid to tell for 20 years. During the war, Blanca’s brothers were executed and her family home destroyed by gunfire. She, along with my surviving family, fled to the outskirts of San Salvador where, shortly after, the army started bombing her neighborhood. Blanca initially placed me up for adoption—at the behest of a lawyer—to guarantee my physical safety and economic security. When she had second thoughts, the lawyer threatened her life and mine if she did not go through with the process.

The post is accompanied by a photo of Angela, holding the cherubic Lucia on her knee. The photo is taken on a Pacific beach—could be in California, could be in El Salvador.

Elusive Justice

In 2012, a Salvadoran man living near Boston was convicted in federal court on charges of entering the United States under false pretenses, having lied about the fact that he was a military officer. But this was the least of his actions that Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano concealed. He also faced an extradition request from Spain to stand trial for his role in the 1989 assassination of the Jesuit priests at the University of Central America. There is also strong evidence that as one of the three most powerful officers in the Salvadoran armed forces, he was heavily involved in several massacres, including the Guinda de Mayo in Chalatenango, where many children were abducted. Montano’s defence to the last accusation was simple: I didn’t kidnap children, I rescued them; look, I even established a small orphanage.

Cristián Orrego argues that if justice is to be attained, it will depend on the ability to prove exactly who did what in the adoption business. “By now the linkage has been made between the military and a network of lawyers and judges that were signing the papers. But we don’t yet have enough solid evidence to link the abductions of children, the adoption business, and criminal activity. I think this is one of several reasons why the military refuses to open a single page of their records, because the business connections would be revealed.”

In August 2013, Colonel Montano was sentenced to twenty-one months in U.S. federal prison, then deportation to El Salvador. Effectively, he may elude trial on the far more serious charges.

That May, though, in a Guatemala court, former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to eighty years in prison. The first time a former head of state had to face such charges in the country where the crimes were committed, the trial set a crucial international precedent. Ten days later, the Constitutional Court overturned the judgment on a technicality, and ordered a new trial. Given the make-up of this court, it seems likely that the ruling was prescribed by powerful Guatemalan economic and political elites. The new trial was scheduled to begin in April 2014.

Then in November 2013, claiming that it was busy with other cases, the court announced that the trial would not be held until January 2015. These tactics are widely regarded as the most convenient way to absolve the aging dictator of his now-proven crimes, raising the chilling prospect that in Guatemala as in El Salvador, once again justice may be denied to thousands of victims. La luta continua; the struggle continues.

In October 2013, Pro-Búsqueda staff, family members, and volunteers postered, handed out leaflets, and spoke with people in San Vicente, a region where 150 children have been reported as disappeared during military operations. The goal is to raise public awareness of the search for missing children, and to gather information for research and potential testimony. Connections made through this kind of direct outreach have proved vital in many investigations. La búsqueda, the search, continues.

¿Dónde están?

To date, in addition to reuniting Salvadoran young people with their biological families within the country, Pro-Búsqueda has also linked youth in Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Canada, the United States, Honduras, and Guatemala with relatives in El Salvador. By far the largest number of disappeared children were adopted, like Angela Fillingim, into the United States. The 1996 Boston Globe figure of 2,354 still stands, unchallenged by the U.S. government. Of these, Cristián Orrego says, only about sixty have been reunited (as of mid-2013) with relatives in El Salvador.

In his cross-country outreach campaign, the goal is simple, the task enormous: to inform an estimated 2.5 million Salvadorans in the United States that Pro-Búsqueda exists, and that it can help identify children who disappeared during the war and reconnect them with their families of birth. His primary efforts focus on major Salvadoran communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and Toronto. When we speak at the Human Rights Center, he has just met with Ana del Carmen Valenzuela Peña, consul general of El Salvador in San Francisco. “This is one of the bright spots in our current work. The consul has been very supportive, and thanks to her energy and intelligence we now have posters and flyers on display in the consulate. According to her, an average of 130 Salvadorans a day visit the consulate. This is a first for us in the United States, and very encouraging.”

The full-colour poster features a vivid image of a young girl at the memory wall in San Salvador, the slogan ¿Dónde están? and a clear message in Spanish and English (since young people adopted into American families may not have learned Spanish): “Were you separated from your child during the war in El Salvador? Pro-Búsqueda can help you.” Three contact methods are listed: text, phone, and email.

A thirty-second public service announcement has just been produced that will spread the word on the older media, Hispanic radio stations in key cities where Salvadorans live. “The financial resources at our disposal are small,” says Cristián, “so we have to be ingenious in our use of them. For example, we know that youth in Hispanic communities use text more than email, so we have launched a campaign using the text number 99000: Please resend this to your friends, ask them to resend it to their friends. To send these texts, of course, we need cell numbers. FMLN associations here and in other cities have good registries of Salvadorans who live in the area, as do the consulates—but I anticipate that the FMLN will be most likely to help. In their meetings, they’ll give us space to announce the campaign and to pass around a list so people can add their numbers—no names, just the numbers. We’ll enter these on the computer, send the texts, and then hope it goes viral. Since the older people who came here during the war are not so savvy about texting, we’ll depend a lot on young Salvadorans: If you’ve heard anything about children lost in the war from your grandparents, aunts, uncles, please alert them to this campaign.”

Cristián’s passion for this work is palpable. But each child found, each family reunited, takes an enormous amount of time and work, with inevitable setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations. I ask Cristián what sustains him.

He pauses a moment, holding my eyes, then replies, “Much of my adult life I’ve worked in science. When young people ask me what it’s like, my first question to them is, Do you love failure? You have to if you are going to do science. You’ll struggle with being wrong most of the time, and every failure is an opportunity to be more astute, to think in different ways. To me, the challenges of the Pro-Búsqueda work are no different. Sometimes frustration is unavoidable, but I remind myself that this is reason to think differently: How can we face this challenge, be more astute, deal more effectively with obstacles, opposition, hostility, indifference?

“And then I only have to think of the strength and determination of the families, who carry on this struggle for decades in the face of so much official indifference, greed, and laziness—the indifference of a state toward what happened in the past, ignoring that the future will be better by understanding the past, and greed in the sense of not wishing to disrupt business as usual. That greed and laziness, that inertia of a society so indifferent to the loss of its children, this has to be deeply hurtful. So—the love of failure in science, the strength of the families, and if none of that does it, I listen to good music.”

I ask Patricia Vásques Marías the same question: What sustains her through the long search? She smiles. “In my case it’s the wish to help families who are suffering. In the area of forensic genetics in El Salvador, at present I’m the only one who can help. Even though sometimes it’s frustrating, I know I can do this work and I want to do it. I also want to teach others in the country, so more people could be prepared to work in this area.”

I recall that in the chapel where Archbishop Romero was murdered, Patricia crossed herself and then knelt the whole time we were there. I assume she was praying. What role, I ask, does faith play in her work? “It’s very important for me,” she replies. “I think that God has a plan for me. He sent me to study in Spain because he wanted me to work with Pro-B. This is my thought. He prepared the way for me. I always ask him about the work. For example, before I do a comparison in DNA-View, I say, Please, if it’s possible, can we find an association of this person with a family? Sometimes I ask Padre Jon de Cortina too. I never met him because I only came to Pro-Búsqueda one year after he died, but still I talk with him. I like to say, Padre, por favor, if you can do something, please intercede in this comparison. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.” With a small shrug that says that’s how it is, she smiles.

Miming the distance with hands spread wide, I comment, We are taught that over here is science, and over here is faith. They don’t meet.

“No, no,” says Patricia, emphatically. “For me there is no contradiction between faith and DNA, because it’s God who made the DNA. I see faith and science joined, because God is science. If you talk with him, you obtain knowledge. It’s a gift that God can give you, if you ask.”

I ask, provoking a little: So if you have enough faith, knowledge will come to you?  Patricia smiles, with a tilt of her head. “Yes, but you have to do something, too. You have to look for knowledge, and then you have to use it well. This is how it works.”

José Matías Guardado’s Memory Wall

We sit in the protective shade of an open veranda with vines spiralling up the supports. A chicken wanders through, pecking at fallen seeds. In the open kitchen, two women laugh while they wash freshly harvested vegetables. A young boy riots around until José Matías persuades him to park temporarily in front of a TV. On the outside wall, a poster of Archbishop Romero, frayed at the corners, bears someone’s hand-written comment, Si, Si.

A compact man, weathered from farm work, José Matías was born in Las Minas, not far from Guarjila. Every eight days he goes to San Salvador to work an equivalent long week as a private security guard. In those weeks his son, an agronomist, assumes the farm chores. I notice his photo, in a graduate’s cap and gown, on display just inside the door.

José Matías shows us the vegetable garden beside the house. As we step into full sun, he runs back inside, and then with a smile, plunks a straw hat on my thinning gringo-blond head. At various seasons they grow corn, beans, rice, vegetables; also feed for three cows, which provide abundant milk. They also have a piece of land with about forty fruit trees—mango, avocado, marañones (cashew fruit), and pineapples—all of which they grow organically. “On this land we work co-operatively,” he explains. “We learn how to improve our crops, also teach those who don’t know how to do it. In this way we can improve together.”

Here is the sharing impulse, very much alive, that has so often brought campesinos into conflict with wealthy landowners throughout Central America. With no prompting from me, José Matías moves directly into talking about the war.

“A lot of people worked hard but were poor because they were paid so little, sometimes nothing. Then we started to organize, claim our rights, and protest against the leaders of this country who were working for the rich and ignoring the poor. In 1979 the repression really started in a big way, and in 1980 it got worse. The army began to kill more and more people who were claiming their rights. Chalatenango was one of the departments where the repression was worst. When the army came into villages and towns, shooting and bombing, civilians had to run for their lives.” According to data from Salvadoran and international human rights organizations, assassinations of rural workers increased from 164 in 1978 to 10,413 in 1981.

“Finally we had to take up arms to protect our families, to live,” says José Matías, without rhetoric. “Many died during the war, but if we hadn’t taken up arms in those days, maybe now we would be dead too.” He says nothing about his own experience in the war, and I don’t press him. But on the outer wall, he has mounted a modest gallery of artifacts from the war—a battered walkie-talkie, two hand grenades, a foldable shovel, and other tools of the guerrillero. Next to his son’s graduate photo, a black-and-white snapshot shows several FMLN fighters with rifles: one of them is a young José Matías. Also in the photo is his brother, who later lost an arm to a bomb. Another photo shows a brother-in-law who shot down a helicopter carrying seven U.S. military “advisers.”

I ask to take a picture of José Matías in front of his personal memory wall. I click once, then he holds up a hand, disappears for a moment, and returns in his straw hat, a coil of rope over one shoulder—his work gear. He nods, I click. We exchange a smile.

On November 10, 1980, when José Matías was fighting elsewhere, the army attacked Las Minas. His mother and two little sisters fled from their house to hide in the countryside. “After the army left, we went to the place where my mother and sisters had been hiding,” he says. “There we found only the clothes of my mother, so we assumed she must be dead. We found no trace of the two girls. Padre Jon told me years later that he had investigated, and discovered that the soldiers took my sisters to Ilopango, a town near San Salvador, where they were put in an orphanage. After that there is no more trace of them.”

How did Padre Jon know this? “I don’t know exactly. In searching for the children, he talked to a lot of people in many places. But then we went together to visit this orphanage, and we found their names in the registration book. The woman in charge also confirmed it. After that, no trace.”

As we talk, from the village I hear voices, singing. On a Sunday morning, it is probably mass in the small church the community built with Padre Jon. How did José Matías meet him?

“When he came to northern Chalatenango, he liked it so much he decided to live here. Jon Cortina was one of the priests closest to the people here during the war. He dedicated himself to trying to protect them, even facing the soldiers’ guns, saying, These are your people; they have rights. You should defend them, not attack them. He also went to Mesa Grande, the refugee camp in Honduras, to support people there. In 1987, when people came here from Mesa Grande, Padre Jon was a kind of guide, especially on the land issue, because people hadn’t been living here, and some had lost their land in other places in the war, so they had to buy the land in order to start farms and their lives here. I worked with others to help build the community.” I notice that, like Tita Castro, José Matías consistently downplays his own contribution.

During the seven years he worked on the Pro-Búsqueda co-ordinating committee, he and Padre Jon became close friends. He shows me a framed photo, José Matías and the priest in white shirts, side by side in Guatemala where they represented Pro-Búsqueda at a meeting with a sister organization.

José Matías is a referente, a Pro-Búsqueda representative here. “My role is to transfer information to my neighbours. In addition to the search for children, Pro-Búsqueda has other initiatives we want to share with people, for example, a project to increase our knowledge and resources for working the land. Also we pass on news about the continuing struggle for human rights.”

Pointing to the memory wall, I comment that history is alive here. Why is it so important to him? “Our struggle was justified,” he replies, “because we were discriminated against so much by the government, so badly treated as workers—our rights denied, no justice, and then all the violence against us when we protested. That’s why I keep these objects, these memories, to remind me of the struggle. It’s a struggle which still goes on today.”

He stops there, so I ask him to tell me more about the struggle today. “The war was a struggle to farm, to protect our families, to live. After the war, when the peace accords were signed, the struggle was to rebuild our lives, our homes, our families, and our land. We still struggle for these things, but now also to maintain peace in the country, especially with the high rates of violence we have nowadays.”

When he says peace, I imagine he means peace with justice? José Matías nods. “Yes, yes. You can’t have one without the other. Peace is a short, beautiful word, but it’s also a lot of work. After the war ended—and conditions were so bad here, so many people as poor as they were before the war—people from the army, even some from the FMLN guerillas, decided not to do things legally, to look for a job, but instead they went into illegal activities. So we are trying to encourage young people not to get involved in that, in the gangs. I think that in our communities, the level of organization among people is high. It’s not as high as it was in the war, but still it’s good: people working together, doing what they can to improve life.”

Late in 2013, Pro-Búsqueda people were sharply reminded that in El Salvador, peace with justice remains a goal so distant, sometimes it must seem a mirage. At dawn on November 14, three armed men broke into the organization’s quarters in San Salvador, beat and handcuffed the security guard, an employee, and a member of the board, poured gasoline over file cabinets in three offices and set them on fire, then stole several computers. Clearly the intent wasn’t vandalism but the destruction and seizure of vital records and testimonies; also possibly to identify witnesses to military atrocities.

The attack follows two other recent events, both clearly related. On September 20, a Salvadoran court announced that it would hear a legal challenge to the 1993 amnesty law. If the law could be overturned, it would open a door to potential prosecutions for human rights abuses like those now underway in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. Much of the evidence needed to pursue such cases would come from the archives of Pro-Búsqueda and other human rights organizations.

Then without warning on September 30, conservative archbishop José Luis Escobar shut down Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic Church. Employees arrived to find their offices padlocked and guards stationed in the hall. Founded in 1977 by Archbishop Oscar Romero, Tutela (guardian or protector) Legal has provided support and legal counsel to civilians during the war and since, until Archbishop Escobar—no Oscar Romero—claimed that its work was complete. A more credible motive for the closure: Tutela Legal archives hold close to 80 per cent of El Salvador’s testimonies and other documents related to human rights abuses during the war.

Together, these three events embody a deep, bitter conflict over who controls memory and justice. At best, history is a composite of all our memories. But repressive authority always craves a clean slate, on which it is free to write the history of its choice, the official version. In erasing the past, it seeks to repeat it, and by repeating it, to command the present.

Quietly but insistently, with courage and dignity, Pro-Búsqueda and its sister human rights organizations stand in their way. So does José Matías Guardado’s wall of memory. In the present, he continues to search for his two stolen sisters.

“I think they were raised with other families, but I don’t know if they are here or in another country. One time I saw a girl—a young woman here in El Salvador—she looked a lot like my family. I was shocked. I wanted to approach her, to ask about her family, but I didn’t know how. It’s not easy, and probably the family name has changed. But the information from the orphanage, that encouraged me. I think my sisters are alive, and one day I hope to meet them again.”


Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

2 thoughts on “Stolen Children: a tribute to Cristián Orrego

  1. Presenting the story was a wonderful way to provide a tribute to this remarkable scientist. It was lovely to read again and still contains its power.



  2. Excellent tribute to Cristian and excellent work by Michael Riordon, for the knowledge of many people, about the harsh situation suffered by El Salvador.


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