Analysis Human Rights

Case Records of Children ‘Disappeared’ Into Adoption Destroyed in El Salvador Attack

Karen Smith Rotabi

Recently, the investigation files on children forcefully disappeared during the 13-year civil war in El Salvador were destroyed in an attack on the offices of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda—seemingly part of an orchestrated campaign to destroy evidence related to the genocidal acts committed during the civil war.

Recently, the investigation files on children forcefully disappeared during the 13-year civil war in El Salvador were destroyed in an attack on the offices of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda (Pro-Search Association) in San Salvador. This attack seems to be the continuation of an orchestrated campaign to destroy evidence related to the genocidal acts committed during the civil war. This particular act of destruction is part of a long history of child abduction in Latin American and the prevalence of what has been called a culture of impunity preventing due justice for the cases of children disappeared during civil wars in various Latin American countries.

The forced separation of children from their parents who were identified and persecuted as insurgents during civil war has a repetitive history in Latin America. The atrocities in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1984) are notorious, and in July of 2012 Argentinean General Jorge Rafael Videla was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in crimes against humanity during that war. Among those crimes that featured prominently in his recent trail were illegal child adoptions—infants entered into illegal adoptions after their mothers were systematically executed. Many applauded this conviction as an important step in accountability, and trials like Videla’s help in confronting the past atrocities of a war in which at least 30,000 Argentineans died. Prosecuting such a high-ranking military official for war crimes is remarkable in a region known for amnesty and impunity.

Guatemala’s civil war (1966-1996) resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and countless other individuals disappeared as a result of genocide. Testimony indicates that an unknown number of children entered into illegal adoptions internally, while others were sent overseas as adoptees. That country’s recent attempts to hold former dictator General Rios Montt accountable have been unsuccessful thus far, but he too is implicated in many war crimes. While Montt’s case is very complicated and we don’t want to over-simplify here, evidence in recent court hearings included a full day of testimony from rape victims. Montt is also believed to have been involved in illegal adoptions.

Sadly, neighboring El Salvador shares a similar history of civil war (1979-1992). This particular conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 75,000 people, while a half million others were internally displaced and nearly one million Salvadorans sought refuge in other countries. Amidst death and displacement was the loss of family life—some children were forcibly removed from families as an act of reprisal. Other children were spared death as their adult family members were executed, while some children were simply lost from their families during the chaos. An unknown number of children entered into adoption; some children were adopted by military and other elite families in El Salvador while other children were sent into overseas adoptions in the United States, Europe, Canada, and elsewhere. Some of these international adoptions cost as much as $10,000, underscoring the human trafficking element of such illicit adoptions.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Today, a movement to reunite the lost children of Salvador’s civil war has resulted in the momentum of Pro-Búsqueda. A powerful force in truth and reconciliation, Pro-Búsqueda has reunited hundreds of now adult children with their lost family members in El Salvador. The organization provides support services to those in the search and reunion process, including the counseling necessary when individuals learn the truth about their loss of family life during civil conflict.

To aid in reuniting Salvadoran families, expert organizations, such as the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a DNA database so that the lost individuals and families may be matched using modern technology. Each success story is not only profoundly emotional, but in the telling of the social history the dark past of El Salvador’s disappearances continue to come to light some 20 years after the war ended.

Pro-Búsqueda serves as a powerful advocacy organization, bringing the difficult subject of disappearance during civil war into contemporary discourse. Among the accomplishments is the organizational history of bringing cases before various courts, including the Inter-American Human Rights Court (IACHR). Also, since October 2007, Pro-Búsqueda has filed habeas corpus (constitutional right of protection of rights and liberty) recourses in over a dozen cases in national courts. Their voice is loud and effective.

Pro-Búsqueda’s work in the policy arena resulted in major steps forward when, during the 137 Period of Sessions of the IACHR, the Salvadoran government committed to establishing a special commission to search for the disappeared children, including the creation of the publicly funded DNA bank. In January 2010, on occasion of the Peace Accords anniversary, in addition to asking for forgiveness for human right violations, the government announced a new commission to investigate the disappeared children.

In memory of those who disappeared during the civil war, the organization is in the practice of keeping meticulous records of their investigations, including testimony of survivors looking for lost loved ones. In fact, documentation is one area of Pro-Búsqueda’s expertise, and their search and reunion process depends on first-person accounts of the crimes that led to family-child separation.

In the early morning hours of November 14, Pro-Búsqueda’s offices were ransacked by armed men who set a fire to paper records. The organization’s computers were also stolen. The destruction of records from past and present cases is not only stunning, but the attack leads to the obvious question: Who was so threatened by the case files of Salvadoran families attempting to search for the whereabouts of their missing children?

In a tweet from Pro-Búsqueda Director Ester Alvarenga, it was clear that the organization considers the events to be a terrorist act. Notably, the incident comes after the September closing of Tutela Legal, the main office collecting this type of evidence for the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation established in the post-war phase of documentation. The Constitutional Court recently agreed to consider the petition for cancellation of an important amnesty law.

The act of document destruction can also be characterized as further victimization of the families whose children were forcibly disappeared and “adopted.” Alvarenga expressed her indignation because, in addition to destroying the case files, the perpetrators also destroyed the pictures of Jon Cortina, one of few survivor Jesuit priests who helped the searching families establish the association. This act seems to aim at shooting down the “voices of the voiceless”—the children and families torn apart due to child abduction into adoption.

Other human rights defenders also link the destruction of records to a decision made by the Supreme Court to accept a case that will challenge the constitutionality of El Salvador’s 1993 Amnesty Law. The Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) reports that this law has “protected top former government and military officials from prosecution for war crimes and grave human rights violations.” CISPES also raised concern about the protection of other war crime records, which has been called into question as the major archive previously in oversight of Tutela Legal, and now in possession of the Catholic Church Archdiocese.

Analysis Human Rights

Zika Increases the Already Grave Dangers of Being Young and Female in El Salvador

Kathy Bougher

The Zika virus, its potential link to microcephaly and other complications, and the inadequate government responses to it so far all bring into sharper focus the threats girls and women already face in the country.

Read more of our articles on the Zika virus here.

The arrival of the Zika virus is not the only threat to young women’s health and human rights in El Salvador. The virus, its potential link to microcephaly and other complications, and the inadequate government responses to it so far all bring into sharper focus the grave situation girls and women already face in the country. Such danger, highlighted in both government reports and the work of activists on the ground, includes sexual violence, a lack of access to medical care, and gang activity.

El Salvador’s health ministry recently recommended that because of the virus, women contemplating pregnancies should take measures to postpone their pregnancies for at least two years. However, as Rewire reported, feminists responded that the recommendation is inadequate. It does not address the realities in El Salvador, they said, a country where 31 percent of all pregnancies registered with the El Salvador Ministry of Health in 2014 occurred among girls and women ages 10 to 19. Because of a number of societal restrictions, many of these girls may not have a choice in whether to put off pregnancy. 

A November 2015 report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health (MINSAL) gives the most up-to-date details so far about this large segment of the population, especially where issues of relationships, pregnancies, and reproductive rights are concerned. Although the report was released before news of Zika became widely recognized, it describes interconnected systems of coercion and abuse any strategies to address the virus must take into account.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The UNFPA and MINSAL report stemmed from two stark figures in a National Health Survey in 2014: One out of every three women ages 20 to 49 in the survey had a pregnancy before the age of 18. One out of four lived in a relationship with a man, married or unmarried, before the age of 18.

These numbers, notes Minister of Health Violeta Menjívar in the 2015 report’s introduction, reflect the environment young women must often navigate in El Salvador:

The relationships as well as the early pregnancies are the result of circumstances beyond the control of the girl and the adolescent, and they impede her from making key decisions about her life adequately. The situation of violence in the family and in the society places girls and adolescents in situations in which their rights are violated. The relationships and pregnancies before age 17 are a product of the social violence that they suffer daily, and which is not taken on as such by the society or the State. 

Using interviews with girls between the ages of 10 and 17 who had a live birth in 2012 at a Ministry of Health facility, the authors of the 2015 report attempted to flesh out the stories behind those statistics. The majority of the relationships, it found, were “not among peers,” meaning an age difference of three years or less. Rather, two-thirds of the girls had a male partner at least four years older at the time they gave birth, and 18 percent had a partner at least 10 years older.

This, the report states, creates “very unequal power” in the relationships, which leaves the girls and young women with “very little margin with which to make decisions about their lives.”

The study recognizes the problematic and conflicting laws in the country that criminalize some of these relationships but legalize others. For unmarried individuals, for example, any sexual relation with a minor younger than 15 years old is a crime. But there are still laws in effect in the penal code, it says, that “permit marriage under the condition that the girl or adolescent is pregnant or [they] have children in common, and there exists the express permission of the parents or guardians.”  

The study also shows that “one of every ten relationships was formalized through marriage, including some with girls ages 10 to 12.”

The report also highlighted the inadequate medical services many of the girls received. In the case of the 10-to-12-year-old group, 20 percent had no postpartum care, even though, as the report says, they are the most vulnerable to obstetric complications. Half the girls and young women who gave birth in 2012 were not using contraceptives at the time of the study in 2015. By that time, 29 percent had already had a second pregnancy or were pregnant.

Girls and adolescents with histories of sexual violence, as self-reported in the interviews, comprised 37 percent of the interviewees overall, but two-thirds of girls ages 10 to 12 in 2012. One out of five of the girls who were 10 to 12 years old in 2012 had their first sexual relation with a family member, which constitutes the crime of aggravated sexual aggression. Though the report did not discuss individuals’ experience with the justice system, feminist groups that collect data on violence against women say that few police reports are ever filed of crimes like these—and if they are, there is rarely any follow-up.

“Sexual aggressions committed against girls and adolescents take place in an environment of social permissiveness around assaults, abuse and deception, fed by neglect, violence and poverty,” wrote Menjívar in her introduction.

“The fact that a girl of 10, 11 or 12 years of age is pregnant or finds herself in a relationship, that she leaves school, that she does not have access to services to protect her, et cetera, should be considered a national priority especially, when the persons who should protect them, and the institutions that should guarantee their rights, permit that these rights be violated,” she continued.

Right now, local health educators say that combating this problem is not a national government priority—and their own community-based work reinforces the report’s conclusions. Zuleyma Lovo, psychology student and leader from the activist group Jóvenes Voceras y Voceros en Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, gave workshops in rural communities and in middle schools on sexual and reproductive health—until increasing gang violence caused the program to be suspended in late 2015.

In an interview with Rewire, she affirmed the frequent incidents of violence and sexual abuse among the students she knew, and the many young girls who lived with older men:

At the school we asked for anonymous written comments, and in addition to questions about our talks, the girls would tell us about the physical, sexual, and emotional violence they experienced at home. Many think they can escape it by leaving home and living with a man, almost always a man who is older. But, the same dynamics repeat themselves, the violence, the abuse, the control.

This coercion extends to the control of pregnancy planning. “The men decide whether or not the women can use contraceptives. The men almost never agree to use condoms,” she said.

“Then the Ministry of Health arrives and tells women to abstain or to keep from getting pregnant,” she added.  

This is not the only situation, advocates say, in which adolescents have difficulty accessing contraceptives. Lovo, and Noel Gonzalez, health educator and national director of Voceros y Voceras, described the difficulties the young people they serve face when attempting to obtain birth control available at no cost from local health centers operated by the government. Such clinics are the providers for the majority of poor people, both urban and rural; those who can pay for private pharmacies tend to have more options.

Gonzalez explained that the centers are directed to offer “youth-friendly” services, but that is rarely the case. Frequently, Gonzalez said, the young people he’s interacted with are met with “judgmental, prejudice-laden treatment and a lack of confidentiality” from the time they walk in the door. When young people do request contraceptives, he said, they are often told, “You’re too young. It won’t matter. You’re just going to get pregnant, anyway.” As a result, Gonzalez said, “many never go back.”

Clinics, Gonzalez said, often have limited supplies of certain kinds of birth control. “They only have the three-month injections, which have more side effects for young women,” noted Gonzalez. In its 2014 report On the Brink of Death: Violence Against Women and the Abortion Ban in El Salvador, Amnesty International found that “these clinics have … been associated with provision of fewer options and poorer levels of service for young women including denial of services and discriminatory treatment.”

And if that contraception fails, Lovo noted, women have few options: Abortion is 100 percent illegal in all cases in El Salvador. “Pregnant women who are abused or whose partners deserted them might be considering interrupting their pregnancies, but they are afraid to talk about it because of the strong religious biases against abortion,” she said.

All this is worsened, Lovo explained, by the threat of gang violence, which shut down her project in 2015. “They murdered a woman leader in one community, and we can’t go back there,” she said.  

El Salvador, by many rankings, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Contributing factors are complex, but gangs and organized crime play large roles.

Gangs claim territories, which makes access to some health clinics a dangerous matter. Gonzalez elaborated, “The gangs stop you and ask you for your [identification], and if you live in the area of a rival gang, they won’t let you into their area. That can be where the clinic is.” A young person with the resources can take a bus to a distant clinic, but most don’t have that option.  

Working as a health promoter is also dangerous: Some, Gonzalez said, have been murdered by gangs as they move from one community to another. He also explained that gangs kidnap or threaten to kidnap young women from their families and rape them, which has caused families to relocate within the country or to leave the country in order to protect their daughters. Some health clinics are reluctant to report rapes when women come to them for fear of reprisals from gangs.  

Violence and poverty work together to curtail school attendance, including access to sexual education. Rates of students who leave their school out of fear have doubled in the past five years. In some cases, schools have closed as families flee to other regions of the country or leave the country altogether. Lovo noted that independently run sexual education programs such as hers have been effective but small, and limited by safety concerns.

Various projects and programs to improve matters have been written at the ministerial level and partially implemented, but have not met their goals. A proposed law on sex education in the schools has stalled in various committees.

The potential risks and impacts of the Zika virus interact with and exacerbate the chronic dangers of being young and female in El Salvador. Any efforts to deal with Zika need to recognize those contexts, and to work on making the country safer for girls and women beyond the threat of the virus alone.

Analysis Maternity and Birthing

Government Recommendations on Zika Virus Not Grounded in Reality, Say El Salvador Locals

Kathy Bougher

The country’s Ministry of Health recommended last week that women should avoid becoming pregnant until 2018. But local feminist groups say this guidance doesn’t reflect the needs of Salvadoran women, especially where reproductive health is concerned.

Read more of our articles on the Zika virus here.

The presence of the Zika virus in El Salvador, along with the evidence that it may be causing microcephaly in fetuses and babies, led the country’s Ministry of Health to recommend last week that women should avoid becoming pregnant until 2018. But local feminist groups say this guidance doesn’t reflect the needs of Salvadoran women, especially where reproductive health is concerned.

Last May, there was a Zika outbreak in Brazil; in October, a large number of babies there were born with microcephaly, a condition in whichthe head is smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly or has stopped growing.” According to the New York Times, Zika has existed since about 1947 in Africa. It was not particularly linked to microcephaly until last year, however, because most people had mild cases as children, and had immunity when they reached childbearing age. Still, as the Times notes, “Investigators may even find that Zika virus is not the main cause [of microcephaly], although right now circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that it is.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an understanding of the links between Zika and microcephaly is “evolving,” but that preventive measures, such as avoiding mosquito bites, are appropriate.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Since the virus has only recently arrived in El Salvador, the Ministry of Health does not yet have records of fetuses diagnosed with microcephaly as a possible result of the Zika virus. However, the data reflect that 96 pregnant women have the virus, and the total number of cases continues to rise.  

El Salvador Vice Minister of Health Eduardo Espinoza announced on behalf of the Ministry of Health last week that “We are recommending that women of childbearing age take the precaution of planning their pregnancies and try to avoid pregnancy this year and next.”  

As reported in Spanish by La Prensa Gráfica, “The official also [reissued] the call that the Ministry made a few months earlier to women who were already pregnant and could be susceptible to acquiring Zika to ‘cover as much of the body as possible, use pants and long-sleeve blouses to limit the possibility that mosquitoes infected with Zika can affect them.’”

Sara García, coordinator of the feminist group Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion), says that the recommendation seems directed primarily at adult married women or women who have a stable, cooperative male partner. She noted to Rewire in an on-the-ground interview, “Paternal responsibility is not included. Where are the men in this process?”

Furthermore, about 31 percent of females with pregnancies registered with the El Salvador Ministry of Health in 2014 were ages 10 to 19. Many of these pregnancies, García argued, could have been “imposed,” or nonconsensual. “What happens with an imposed pregnancy?” she said. “What happens when contraceptives fail?  We can’t just think about the ideal and assume that everyone can plan pregnancies.”  

“This recommendation is not grounded in the realities and the context of El Salvador,” García concluded.

The potential inability to plan for pregnancies—or prevent them—is exacerbated by El Salvador’s weak policies around sexual and reproductive health services. Both García and Salvadoran OB-GYN and specialist in women’s health, Dr. Aleida Marroquín, noted to Rewire that comprehensive sexual education that includes contraception is not available in schools.

Such barriers to access are not limited to education, however. Contraception is not legally restricted in the country. Even so, in a study-in-progress carried out by the feminist organization Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace, known as ORMUSA), which shared a preliminary draft with Rewire, early findings based on interviews indicate that although local health centers might prescribe contraceptives, centers can go for months at a time without actually having any in stock. Young women say they routinely encounter humiliating treatment or have their requests to purchase contraception denied at public clinics and private pharmacies.  

In addition, the study reports, although the country’s policies direct that there be specialized services and personnel trained to serve adolescents and young adults, in reality those services rarely exist. Gang violence and territoriality also impact clients’ ability to physically access clinics, and the reporting of rapes for fear of retribution.  

And if a person does not prevent pregnancy and discovers that her fetus is showing signs of microcephaly—which, as Marroquín noted, is not possible until the second trimester—El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion means that she has no choice apart from giving birth.

Marroquín explained, “The symptoms [of microcephaly] can run a continuum from extremely severe with an early death to practically non-detectable and a relatively normal life.  However, most babies affected need specialized care from birth, and some will need round-the-clock care all their lives.”  

She emphasized that El Salvador has “almost no resources to meet such extensive medical and social needs. What happens to a woman who is an agricultural worker or a vender in the market who must work long hours every day to feed her children?”

Although a woman may or may not wish to interrupt the pregnancy if she were to discover that her fetus was microcephalic, the option does not even exist in the country. This, activists say, reflects the broader problem of denying women access to potentially life-saving care.  

“In addition to Zika,” García pointed out, “When we talk about a nonviable pregnancy, about risk, Salvadoran women are confronting other situations too. A major example is ectopic pregnancy, where any medical textbook will tell you that the only way to treat it is to interrupt the pregnancy. Otherwise the fallopian tubes can rupture and cause much graver problems, including the possible death of the woman.”

“What happens in this country?” García continued, referencing anecdotes medical providers had relayed to the Agrupación. “The woman arrives at the hospital. The doctor tells her that they cannot interrupt the pregnancy as long as they can detect a heartbeat. ‘You can stay here in the hospital and wait,’ the doctor tells her. But she has other children to care for at home.  If she doesn’t work, they don’t eat. So she goes home and runs the serious risk of having her fallopian tube rupture at home, far from medical help. In cases of ectopic pregnancies, there is no question about what is going to happen, but doctors have their hands tied by the law.”  

García also mentioned Beatriz, who turned to international courts for help in 2013 when medical personnel refused to let her terminate a pregnancy of an anencephalic fetus. Beatriz was threatened with prison if she took any action to do so; many other women in the country are currently incarcerated on abortion-related charges because of pregnancy complications.

García linked the Zika issues to the long-term work of the Agrupación to decriminalize abortion and recognize the negative health consequences for women of the absolute ban.

“We need to push the conversation beyond the question of Zika, and talk about the consequences of a law that gives women no options for interrupting a pregnancy, especially when the conditions to prevent pregnancies are almost nonexistent,” she said.

“Other countries in the region have laws that permit therapeutic abortions, abortions in case of rape or incest, and abortions in case of severe fetal abnormalities. We used to have that,” García said.

Since making its initial recommendation that women avoid becoming pregnant, the Ministry of Health has backed off a bit from that stance, instead emphasizing its campaign to eradicate the breeding grounds of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika. The same insects also transmit dengue fever and Chikungunya, related viruses that have been present for much longer in the country. The government has also recommended that female students be allowed to wear pants as part of their school uniforms rather than the required skirts as one more preventive measure.  

However, public officials have yet to suggest proposals for workable policies and practices to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and to provide women options that include abortion.