Michael Riordon

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Margarita Zamora, stolen children and DNA

Good news: Margarita Zamora of Pro-Búsqueda nominated for a prestigious Tulip Human Rights Award.  Voting has begun.


Margarita Zamora and other searching relatives,
at the Monument to Memory and Truth, San Salvador.

During the 1980s-90s military repression in El Salvador, Margarita Zamora lost her mother and six brothers, two of them killed.  She still searches for her mother and four brothers, aged 9 months to 8 years when they disappeared during a ‘scorched earth’ military assault in the Chalatenango region. She also searches tirelessly, year after year, for thousands of other missing children.

Margarita coordinates the Research Unit of the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda in El Salvador. A citizens’ organization, Pro-Búsqueda (For the Search) strives to identify, locate and reunite with their birth families thousands of children forcibly disappeared during the war. Many of them were kidnapped by soldiers and given or sold into adoption, either with military families in El Salvador or in North America and Europe.

With Pro-Búsqueda since 2003, Margarita has conducted more than 1,000 interviews with family members and witnesses, and gathered more than 500 DNA samples for a genetic database that can match children and relatives. Her extraordinary skill in engaging people throughout El Salvador has been key to solving 60 cases to date.

But obstacles remain.  Margarita explains, “The army holds important details – dates, names and places – which would help us solve many more cases as families are often too traumatized to remember. We have been asking the military for years to release their files. They always say yes, but these are just words.”

The work is also dangerous. At dawn on Thursday November 14, 2013, three armed men broke into Pro-Búsqueda’s office in central San Salvador, beat and handcuffed the security guard, an employee and a member of the board, poured gasoline over file cabinets in three offices, set them on fire, then stole several computers. Clearly the intent wasn’t vandalism but the destruction and theft of vital records and testimonies essential to human rights investigations. Pro-Búsqueda has changed its address, but not its mission to find the stolen children, to defend public memory that some would bury, and ultimately to bring perpetrators to justice.

The Human Rights Tulip is an award of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for courageous human rights defenders who promote and support human rights in innovative ways.  Each of the international nominees deserves acclaim. Based on my own inspiring encounters with Pro-Búsqueda people in writing Bold Scientists, I’ve cast my vote for Margarita Zamora. Please consider doing the same.

For more on Margarita Zamora, and to vote: http://www.humanrightstulip.nl/candidates-and-voting/margarita-zamora-tobar.

Stolen children: a gripping story of war, loss and reconciliation, science and human rights, in Bold Scientists. Read an excerpt here. (Scroll down to Chapter 5, Stolen children.)