Michael Riordon

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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. Continue reading


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A serious food fight: GMOs in 4 countries

Salvadorn farmers vs MonsantoSalvadoran farmers vs GMOs. Photo: mintpressnews.com.

The United States: On March 15, a bill was narrowly defeated in the US Senate that would have blocked any state or local government from regulating or even requiring labeling of food products containing GMOs (genetically modified – or manipulated, more to the point – organisms.)  The House of Representatives had already passed a version of this repressive bill last year.

What are these people afraid of?  Knowledge. The more the rest of us know, the better decisions we can make. Opponents of the bill dubbed it the DARK Act – Deny Americans the Right to Know. The right to know is inherent in mandatory GMO labeling laws passed by Vermont and at least two other states so far. Vermont’s law survived a major corporate legal challenge last year and should come into force this July. Maine’s and Connecticut’s are expected to follow soon after.

Healthy food campaigners know from experience that the powerful corporations who co-wrote the DARK Act with their hirelings in Congress will keep trying. They need to keep us in the dark on GMOs, as on so many other crucial facts.

How far will they go? This far at least, as in their campaign to defeat a state-wide mandatory labeling referendum in Washington State: Opponents of GMO Labeling Broke Washington’s Campaign Finance Law. The real surprise is that they got caught.

Canada: 64 countries have instituted some form of mandatory GMO labeling. In Canada, we have none.  Over the past decade, several private members bills to that end have been defeated in Parliament.

A new citizens’ initiative, a petition to the Prime Minister, is currently circulating on Change.org: Label GMOs.

Initiated by Barbara Drury, a farmer in the Yukon, Label GMOs has already gathered over 30,000 signatures. You can add yours here.

Russia: Moving well beyond debates on labeling, the government of the Russian Federation is in the process of actually banning all GMO foods. Why and how this extraordinary initiative came to pass is a fascinating story, told here.

And the next step for Russia?  Become the world’s primary source of non-GMO food.  It follows rather organically, doesn’t it?

El Salvador: With less than half the area of Canada’s second smallest province (Nova Scotia), El Salvador is the most densely populated (currently about 6.4 million) country in Central America.  Its farmers, most of them working small parcels of land, face enormous obstacles just to survive, let alone thrive.  And like farmers in most countries, they also have to contend with relentless pressure from the agents of corporate agriculture to cede control of their seeds, methods, independence, and livelihoods.

Even so, against overwhelming odds Salvadoran farmers continue to defy not only one of the most powerful and aggressive corporate entities on the planet, but also an even larger and more insidious threat, the web of international trade agreements that are being spun over our heads and behind our backs. To these corporate-dictated, made-in-USA entanglements, we are endlessly told, resistance is futile.

Apparently not.

If the Salvadorans can do it, can we not?

 


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Stolen children: Crime and immunity in El Salvador

In March 2015 a US immigration court ruled that Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova, 77, can be deported from the United States to El Salvador, because “he participated in or concealed torture and murder by his troops” during the 1980 – 1992 war.  He is likely to appeal the ruling.
El_Salvador_disappeared
According to a UN commission of inquiry, over 75,000 people were killed during the war, more than 90% by the Salvadoran army and allied paramilitary forces, and 1000s of children disappeared. Some have been found in mass graves, but the vast majority simply vanished.

However, even if Vides Casanova returns to El Salvador, he could still avoid prosecution there. The country’s 1993 Amnesty Act guarantees immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of human rights crimes during the 12 years of military repression.  As long as this law remains in force, it denies any possibility of justice for victims and their families.

In the last fifteen years, similar laws shielding war criminals from prosecution have been overturned in Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Guatemala, and partially in Chile. But in El Salvador, a succession of governments have failed to repeal the amnesty law. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has demanded several times that it be repealed, and Amnesty International continues to urge the same.

As it has always done, the Salvadoran military apparatus refuses to open its records, and no government has yet been willing to force it to do so. Lack of public access to these records not only shields perpetrators from justice, it also complicates greatly the work of Pro-Búsqueda (‘for the search’), a small Salvadoran grassroots organization run by the families of children who disappeared during the war.  Many of the children, it turns out, were kidnapped by soldiers and given or sold into adoption, primarily in North America and Europe.  Since 1993, Pro-Búsqueda’s mission has been to find them, and where possible to reunite them with their families of origin.  Continue reading


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A victory in El Salvador: Farmers defy Monsanto

El Salvador seedlings

The Monsanto and Dow corporations, both chemical behemoths, nearly always get their way, by a variety of means and with disastrous consequences on almost every continent. But in El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America:

“The farmers, who have already been consistently outperforming Monsanto with their local seed, which is far healthier and more productive, have just managed to bring about a giant defeat of Monsanto by preventing it   from supplying El Salvador with its seeds.”

The full story is here.

A rare victory, and an inspiring model for farmers everywhere.

 

 


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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.

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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.)


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Whole food for free-range minds

Available September 4, 2014

Bold Scientists, front coverCritical comment:

“A gripping tale of heroic scientists working in the public interest despite powerful
opposition.  At once, both tremendously hopeful and profoundly disturbing.  The world
needs more bold authors like Michael Riordon.”

 Thomas Duck, Associate Professor, Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science,Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada

“Silence is consent, my fellow scientists. Riordon’s profiles in courage encourage us to take our data and our voices into the gladiator’s arena and engage in the great moral and political battles of our time.  As Bold Scientists so clearly shows, it’s where we belong.”

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment; co-founder, Concerned Health Professionals of New York

The menu/chapters:

When the river roared.   First Nations, a long view.
Digging thistles.   An experimental post-oil farm.
A dialogue with the world.   Biology, from the ground up.
Blood on my hands.   Life and death in the garden.
Stolen children.   In El Salvador, war, genes and human rights.
The Cloud.   Watching Big Brother.
ODD.   Psychology and power
Awe.   The wisdom of a spider web.
Pesky data.   Under lakes, dark truths.
The unsolved problem.   Fracking: homeland insecurity.
When the lights go out.   Awakening in an ice storm.
No time for cowardice.   An elemental fight for science and democracy.

Bold Scientists: dispatches from the battle for honest science

Now:

  • Pre-order it from independent bookstores and Chapters/Indigo stores across Canada.

After September 4th:

    • Purchase or order Bold Scientists from local retailers or libraries across Canada.
    • Purchase it directly from the publisher, Between the Lines, online (within Canada) at http://btlbooks.com/book/bold-scientists, or by phone toll-free at 1-800-718-7201.
    • Purchase online through Amazon.
    • Internationally, the book will also be available via Central Books Ltd:  orders@centralbooks.com / centralbooks.com. (Tel) +44 20 8986 4854.

Unspun science for dangerous times