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.
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.
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. Continue reading