Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 218 | Septiembre 1999


El Salvador

Finding Children: Working for Peace

The idea of trying to find boys and girls who had disappeared during the war arose in 1993. By the next year that idea had grown into Probúsqueda, a small mission for peace whose contribution is immense. From below, starting from the smallest clue and working with infinite patience, it reunites families separated for years. In so doing, it is reconstructing family histories truncated by painful experiences that Salvadorans must never forget.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

“Usually when someone dies,” explains María Juana Benavides in a testimony quoted in Probúsqueda's April 1999 report, “the family members know they can go to the cemetery. Although it means years of grieving, the knowledge is sure. But if a person has disappeared, one has no way of knowing whether he or she is dead or alive. It's a more desperate and irresolvable feeling. One wants to know, because one is trapped between hope and hopelessness.”
“Those accusations about the disappearance of children are like something out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel; it never happened,” said General Mauricio Vargas in an interview published by the San José Mercury News in 1995, also quoted in Probúsqueda's report. “Where are those children? Are they in some secret orphanage? Or have we eaten them? Baked? Roasted? Or Stewed? I really don't understand why they keep on with these stories.”
Probúsqueda occupies an unassuming office in San Salvador, from which 16 people dedicate their time, their lives, to the peace option. Moreover, they are doing so from one of the most painful areas a war can bequeath: the search for the boys and girls who “disappeared” one way or another within the dynamics of war.

Following four routes

The Probúsqueda team is organized into four groups. One follows up on the different cases, while the other three work in the legal arena, in psychological counseling and in trying to get the cooperation of state and nongovernmental institutions. The casework, in turn, is organized along four different routes. One is to seek information from the Armed Forces, which were responsible for almost all cases of forced disappearances. Another is to seek clues among relatives that could lead to the whereabouts of children who were lost or were left with someone else when whole groups fled en masse, a category the team calls circumstantial disappearance. The third is to work with the young Salvadorans living in other countries who request help in identifying their relatives. And the fourth is to review the records of various institutions, orphanages among them, in search of boys and girls who could have been registered under other names.

On May 20, the Probúsqueda team invited various sectors of Salvadoran society to a forum where it discussed the results of its activities. It also asked for the active participation of civil society, the government, the Armed Forces and the FMLN in a joint search that could return to many families the happiness lost after long years of anguish. envío seconds its request as a small contribution to peace with justice and truth.

It all started like this...

One day in 1993 the Jesuit priest Jon Cortina listened to the pain of three women. They were suffering not because they saw their children die but because they got separated from them when their whole community fled through the hills of Chalatenango in 1982. It was that same anguish of not knowing whether they were dead or alive, and how they might be living.

The Truth Commission Report, written a decade after those events, contained not so much as a line about the issue of disappeared children. Nor did there seem to be any other avenues for action. But because he felt them as untouchable crimes against the most innocent and indefensible, Cortina decided to take up the challenge. On April 22, 1993, he presented the first cases in Chalatenango, then went to present them to the Office of Attorney General. “They nudged us out of both places with pretty words and no answers whatever,” he recalls. “In that first period our mission seemed Quixotic, nobody paid the slightest attention to us.”
Months later, Cortina learned about five children living in an orphanage in Santa Tecla whose families were found in Guarjila, in northern Chalatenango, an old war zone. “Seeing those five children reunited with their families was a key moment for me,” he recalls. “That's when I really took on the mission. If those children had found their parents, others could too.”
The news of that success story ran from house to house and district to district. Cortina moved from diligently seeking information to being sought by people with information to give. In August 1994, he decided he needed help with his personal crusade and even though nobody in the big institutions would yet give him the time of day, he created the association. The first public activity he remembers was a vigil with the families who had begun to look for their disappeared children. It was held in Mejicanos, north of the metropolitan area of Greater San Salvador. That was the kick-off for the project, in which a whole chain of people would join in the search: Jon and his first team plus the children's whole families, from mother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings, to godparents and family friends. The association's very name was an expression of that solidarity: Probúsqueda—in favor of the search.

With European support, that first group that Cortina coordinated hired experts in accompaniment. When the office opened its doors it was the start of a story that the outside world is just now beginning to hear. The Probúsqueda team has compiled 520 files on disappeared children, and searches for clues to their whereabouts in hills and gullies, at Central American border crossings, in airline records, in the spacious and clean avenues of Europe, and, of course, in the United States and Canada. It has 98 success stories so far, 52 of them found outside El Salvador.

Learning the truth

“We are trying to bring families back together,” Father Cortina explains. “When families that got separated because of the war recognize each other, embrace and leave behind the anguish of living lost, we can sense the reason for our mission. Our aim isn't necessarily for those who are found to remain with their biological families, but rather that they know their own identity, that they rediscover their own past. And we want to give the parents their right to know the child's situation. The decision about whom to stay with belongs to the young people who disappeared. We try to convince those who disappeared as children that their families love them, because they have been told often over the years that their families abandoned them, tossed them into any old scrub hoping they would die. That's a traumatic thing to hear, and they have the right to know the truth, to learn how much their family members have suffered. Our task is simply to bring those who were so cruelly uprooted during the war back in touch with the strength of blood relations. The rest is up to these children who disappeared so many years ago and have survived in a different setting. Because they are adolescents or adults now, the decision about where they will stay belongs entirely to them.”
At this point in the conversation with envío, Father Cortina's eyes shine with a particular intensity and his voice becomes even more serious. “The embrace between parent and child makes up for any of the difficulties or frustrations we experience in this work. Any effort, however small or large, is paid in full with that embrace. In that single move, the families break out of a history of sorrow and hardship. All of us who work in Probúsqueda grow together in our humanity and also come to terms with our own history, so everyone wins.”

Institutional hurdles

Satisfactions there may be, but they can't hide the difficulties. The Probúsqueda members unquestionably identify the weakness and fragility of the national justice system as the first major hurdle that their enterprise comes up against. This institutional weakness goes hand in hand with the inefficiency, disinterest and negligence that characterize the justice system's officials. A number of judges also are afraid to dig into the past, and not without reason. Some of the powerful and almost untouchable individuals and structures that were responsible for the disappearances are still around in this postwar period. The Probúsqueda members do not hesitate to identify the Armed Forces as the main institution responsible for innumerable atrocities, among them the disappearance of children. Despite—or perhaps because of—this culpability, it is the institution that least collaborates with this humanitarian gesture of bringing families back together again.

Probúsqueda also gets frustrated with the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman. This institution, one of the fruits of the 1992 peace accords, was at first very committed to the search for family reunification, but after a drastic change of top-level administration, it stopped fulfilling its objectives of consolidating peace and is today busily sabotaging it.

Children as spoils of war

Jon Cortina has a doctorate in civil engineering. Many Salvadorans have seen him design bridges and organize the population around training to look for water sources and build wells. In those tasks, and above all in his academic activities in San Salvador's Central American University (UCA), there is no shortage of sometimes curious and sometimes disconcerted people who ask him why, with this profession, he is dedicating himself to look for children. “Because, before any other function and mission, I am a human being,” he responds firmly, recalling that the priority is to uncover the truth, so that the cruelties experienced in El Salvador will never be repeated.

Many of the children who disappeared were victims of a macabre business dealing in human lives that was practiced by sectors linked to the army, and protected by the characteristically secret and conspiratorial style of any military conflict.

Many children were treated as war booty, as illustrated in this testimony from the Probúsqueda report regarding the November 1982 disappearance of a baby girl. “According to what the townspeople told me afterward,” recounts the mother, María Secundina Funes, “a soldier picked up my 16-month-old little girl in the massacre they carried out in the hamlet of La Joya de San Luis and took her to the Ciudad Barrios barracks. An officer there bought her clothes, shoes and milk, making her all pretty. The child's grandmother went to the barracks a few days later to claim the little girl. She made it clear that she knew they had taken a child there and that it was her granddaughter. The soldiers told her they had no little girl but that if the mother came to claim her, she would end up in the barracks too. People say the officer kept the little girl, that his maid arrived with a chauffeur to take her to his house.”

Born in a cave

Lucila Reyes is now 16 years old. She lives in a mountain village in the department of Colón, on Honduras' northeastern coast. Her daily life is uneventful. She works at home, and in the afternoons meets with a group of 13 children to give them catechism classes. The first Saturday of every month, she and her uncle, a delegate of the Word, walk for kilometers along a mountain road to meet with other delegates and catechists from the Tocoa parish and reflect on issues related to the small Christian communities.

Lucila was born in the outskirts of Arcatao, department of Chalatenango, in northern El Salvador, when her mother, who was participating in the tenacious guerrilla struggle against the Salvadoran army, took advantage of a brief respite to give birth. She did so inside one of the cave shelters that can still be seen along the road from Arcatao to La Virtud, the first population center on the Honduran side of the border.

“She was born in the bush, like the squirrels,” said her adoptive mother Bartola Chicas, smiling. After lifting one of the tortillas from the pan, filling it with cheese and beans and offering it to this envío correspondent, who had come to Tocoa to hear of one result of Probúsqueda's work firsthand, Bartola and her husband Juan Reyes settled down to fill me in on Lucila's story.

An unexpected gift

In March 1984, the Salvadoran army undertook one of its many “invasions,” to use the guerrilla term for the land and air operations the army carried out when penetrating FMLN-controlled territory. Lucila was by then ten months old and her parents, both involved in the FMLN guerrilla project, had to join in a mass evacuation. The invasion was particularly aggressive, exhausting for both the guerrilla movement and the surrounding civilian population, which the army treated as if part of the rebel group. There came a moment when Lucila's parents couldn't keep moving in such difficult circumstances carrying the child, who ran the danger of dying from either army bullets or exposure and exhaustion. The group's security and logistics committee decided to turn the little girl over to a collaborating family from one of the neighboring Honduran villages.

Juan Reyes and his wife Bartola Chicas were used to seeing guerrillas pass by to evade the army. On innumerable occasions the couple made tortillas for them as a way of supporting a struggle they considered just and noble, but they never imagined that their collaboration would one day involve caring for the child of a guerrilla couple. Their own children were already grown, and the chance to protect that little girl, Lucila, was more than tempting. And so it was that on March 10, 1984, they received Lucila, not from her mother's hand—they did not meet her personally then—but from another guerrilla, a man from the committee.

On the list

The Salvadoran army maintained a close alliance with its Honduran counterpart during the war, and Honduran security infiltrated the hamlets on the border with Chalatenango to identify families collaborating with the Salvadoran guerrilla movement. Bartola Chicas and Juan Reyes became one more number on the fateful list of the death squads from El Salvador or Honduras—at the end of the day it was all the same war to them, so they erased the borders in favor of the political interests at stake.

Bartola and Juan began to receive warnings and later threats. One day the warning was particularly blunt: if they didn't escape right away they would meet the same fate as some of their neighbors, whose disfigured bodies were found in one of the hollows near the mountain hamlet.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 18, 1990, Bartola and Juan left La Virtud with their progeny and all the personal possessions they could carry, leaving behind a whole history, their tradition and their land, to save their lives. Juan confessed to envío that the night of June 17 was the most tormented of his life. He had to decide whether or not to take little Lucila, by then six and a half.

“Sooner die than leave her!”

In a turbulent session with the guerrilla security and logistics committee, Bartola defended her right to take the child, arguing that she had the right to grow up protected, and that her life could not be guaranteed in the environment in which her parents moved. The committee reminded Bartola that it had been agreed she was to have the child only temporarily, and that those ultimately responsible for the child on her parents' behalf were not she and Juan, but the committee. “I felt I'd been stabbed in the heart when the FMLN commission told me that I couldn't take the little girl,” recalled Bartola vividly.

She had doubts about many things but not about this: she would not undertake the move further inside Honduras without either taking Lucila or at least delivering her to her mother's arms. And since no one could assure her that the child would be returned to her mother, Bartola settled the long night's discussion with one fell swoop: “I'd sooner die than leave without that child!”

Arranging papers

Juan Reyes and Bartola Chicas, entwined around Lucila like a knot, cut through the mountains of western Honduras and crossed the valleys of the center and north of the country in a rickety old truck. When they had traveled 700 kilometers, they made their last stop. It was the community of El Plantel, where the Reyes Chicas family was expected by other relatives who had made the same trip just a few years earlier for pretty much the same reason.

The months went by. Juan and Bartola dared not even venture out to the nearest community. The persecution syndrome had hold of them. In mid-1991, a Jesuit from the Tocoa parish visited El Plantel, and Bartola and Juan attended the mass. There they heard the priest tell of the need for the community to organize Legal Aid to defend themselves against human rights violations, and to “put their papers in order.”
Peasant families often suffer because negligent officials write their children's names incorrectly on their birth certificates or, since they live so far from the urban centers, their children often end up not even being recorded in the municipal registry. The Jesuit spoke of all of this while Juan and Bartola exchanged meaningful glances. The final blessing had barely been said when Juan invited the priest to stay the night in his humble home.

After dinner, over a cup of coffee, Juan brought out Lucila and presented her to the priest with this story: “Look father, here's this little girl. She has lived with us since she was born, but she isn't ours. She's the child of my daughter, who died in childbirth. The father gave her to my wife to raise as her own, and said he would give what he could despite his poverty. But when the girl was two, the father was mistaken for a member of the guerrilla movement, and one day he was found dead. As you can see, the girl has no one except us, but the poor little thing has no papers. I don't know if you can help with this problem.”
The priest bought the story, and a few weeks later the girl was legally registered as Lucila Reyes Chicas, daughter of Juan Reyes and Bartola Chicas. “Merciful little lies, father,” he would later admit to the priest amid laughter and hugs, when the end of the war also ended the fear so many peasants had of publicly and openly expressing their political options.

A complex re-encounter

While all this was going on, Lucila's biological parents also fled the war's cruelties, taking refuge in Mesa Grande, Honduras. After the peace agreements, they returned to El Salvador and began the search for their lost little girl. In 1998, her mother and grandfather went to Probúsqueda with the only piece of information they had: a woman from Arcatao known as Lola said she had information on the whereabouts of the family that might have her daughter. A couple of Probúsqueda members went to Arcatao and found the woman, who showed them a letter from a distant relative, an old FMLN collaborator, who wrote from a hamlet in northeast Honduras called El Plantel. She mentioned that the girl was living with the family the guerrillas had placed her with in the 1980s for safekeeping. The relative also detailed how she had gotten from Arcatao to that Honduran village.

Armed with this seemingly reliable information the Probúsqueda team set out on the same 700-kilometer trip, but one of those devastating floods that so often batter the coastal populations frustrated Probúsqueda's plans only a few kilometers from their destination. Weeks later they tried again, this time successfully. They talked to Juan and Bartola and set up a meeting between the two families for June 9, in a Salvadoran community of returnees in the district of Huisisilapa, Tacachico municipality, in La Libertad.

Both Juan and Bartola went with their adopted daughter, who was by then 15. In Bartola's heart, pain mixed with joy at knowing Lucila would meet her biological parents. “And if she stays with her own mother, what will become of my life?” Bartola silently asked herself as the Probúsqueda vehicle moved inexorably closer to the meeting place. But she was determined to abide by the young teenager's decision. For her part, Lucila recounts that something was turning over and over very deep inside her as they headed down the roads that took her ever closer to her parents. She can't explain it, but says she felt a headache that got more intense as they reached each new town.

The re-encounter was full of hugs and tears. Lucila threw her arms around her mother and grandfather, cried with her aunts and cousins, then hugged her father. Once she had embraced her whole family, she looked at Bartola, who stood apart from the tumult of family hugs and kisses, crying silently.

A doubt ran through Lucila's body making her tremble as if in an earthquake. She recalls that she remained paralyzed for a few moments, then with tears in her eyes returned to Bartola's arms. “Ay, mama, I don't want to leave you and I don't want you to leave me.”
Bartola still remembers her exact words that day: “My little girl, I haven't brought you to give you up, we brought you to know your family. But the decision about your future belongs to you.”
Even today, Lucila doesn't know how to explain the reasons behind her decision to stay with Bartola and Juan. As she tells it, “I didn't like El Salvador's climate. In the four days I spent in El Salvador, my headache just kept getting more resounding. It only went away when my mama Bartola told me that she didn't bring me to give me up. I felt happy, and I felt sad; who knows what I felt. I really was happy when I realized I look like my mother; I'd never had that feeling that I looked like another person. One loves one's family, but I didn't grow up with mine, I care very deeply for it, but my love is for my mama Bartola and my papa Juan.”

A miracle of patience

From Tocoa, I went back to Probúsqueda's signless office. Only part of the team was there: Janina and Rafael, respectively a psychologist and researcher who accompanied the process of reuniting Lucila with her relatives. In the back was Arcinio Suira, another of the researchers, one of those who loses little time scrutinizing each case before hitting on where to slot it in the structure of wartime and postwar actors and scenarios.

“What luck you had finding us here,” Arcinio said to me. The whole team is never in the office, which is a place for brief gatherings and story sharing, not for long stays and meetings. They arrive at 6:30 am, and almost always immediately start up the single vehicle in which researchers go out to try to dig up information, psychologists to hold meetings with family members and the legal team to arrange documents.

While the others scattered off to their respective activities, Arcinio stayed behind to respond to envío's questions. “The families,” he began, “see the result of our work as a miracle. To us it's the fruit of patience, but we're often tempted to substitute this patient work for that other kind that wants quick fixes or roles that get us a lot of publicity. Nevertheless, we can only go on being the cause of a ‘miracle’ for people if we stick with the patient work. That's where our true identity and our reason for being lies.”
Arcinio is adamant that Probúsqueda contributes to peace in El Salvador because it is helping rebuild a mutilated and smashed history from below, from its smallest fragments. Bankers and big business leaders puff all up with the claim that they are contributing to peace by economically stabilizing the country, neglecting to say that the fruit of their contribution is increasingly shared out between fewer and fewer Salvadorans. Probúsqueda contributes with this small reuniting of families whose history has been truncated by the war. “Those moments of coming together are priceless,” Arcinio said, sharing Jon Cortina's sentiments, “Their value can't be measured or even explained. You have to experience it to understand.” After a minute he added, “The disappeared cannot be denied without denying something very important in Salvadoran history.”

Fear of speaking; fear of listening

Arcinio Suira explains Probúsqueda's two biggest problems. First is people's fear of giving information. This seems irrational to those who did not experience the war directly, but the relatives of the disappeared did, and it makes them afraid. Giving information seems dangerous because talking about past events reconnects them to the risks they lived through in those years of unimaginably cruel repression. The peace accords aren't enough to assuage that fear. Even less so is the official propaganda proclaiming that the war is behind us and we are now building a new El Salvador, in which the state institutions protect citizens rather than persecute them. As can be imagined, that line is hardly convincing to the large segments of Salvadoran society in which fear has become an essential part of people's personalities.

This fear particularly hobbles progress in Probúsqueda's most difficult cases, those in which it is essential to get information from high-ranking military officials. There is a lot of evidence, for example, that various children who survived the El Mozote massacre were picked up by Armed Forces officers, who gave them out to various families. There is no way to find those children without directly investigating these high officials. Who can do it? The family members can't overcome their fear; the judges aren't about to risk their own personal and job security, and the Armed Forces themselves have no desire to collaborate by opening their files or helping locate the officers responsible.

The other big problem is institutional deafness. Probúsqueda is socially and politically respected, but any time it asks for genuine support, the institutions backpedal or go silent, including those linked to the FMLN, from whom one would expect closer and more systematic collaboration. However much Probúsqueda explains that it is not judging anyone, but only working to bring relatives back in touch, the resistance to collaborate is always very big. Individuals and institutions linked to the FMLN with a lot to say about the disappearances of children, including those who know the relatives of many of them, skirt around evasively when Probúsqueda asks them for information that only they can provide. With that behavior, FMLN people are prolonging the emotional wear and tear on so many Salvadorans for whom the pain will only end when they either find the person they are looking for or can finally learn their fate and begin the healing process of mourning.

When the relatives involved in the search are people who believed in the revolutionary project and joined the struggle convinced that the FMLN stood for aspirations worth any risk, disillusionment is added to their pain. Today, hoping for little more than the FMLN's support in finding their children, they often find only denial and refusals.

In Arcinio's opinion, the Armed Forces have a huge quota of responsibility, but the FMLN also has things to answer for, particularly in those cases in which everything indicates that the disappearances resulted from FMLN decisions. While the Armed Forces claim they have no responsibility for the disappeared children and only committed humanitarian acts, the FMLN says it has no responsibility for any of them either and everything was a result of the recruitment policy.

Create commitment and hang on to it

Arcinio Suira sees two mutually complementary challenges for Probúsqueda. One is to use political and judicial advocacy measures until it gets the diverse institutions really involved, making the work of clearing up these cases more effective. Commitment to the Probúsqueda project has to go well beyond participation in forums and other events. It is not about trying to look as if one is working and has all the good will in the world. What is needed is real, systematic and committed involvement.

The other challenge is to continue, stubbornly but patiently, with the daily search for boys and girls. This challenge, like the other one, is a race against time. As time passes, information sources are lost and everything gets increasingly harder.

Tiredness, like idleness, is a bad adviser. The Probúsqueda team could over time slide into the temptation of becoming “like so many other NGOs,” in which the association becomes a refuge for well-intentioned workers who delude themselves and others, in all sorts of speeches and events, that they are doing important work when in reality they are investing most of their time and significant resources in “workshops.” Staying plugged into the pain of the families is the best guarantee that Probúsqueda won't lose its valuable identity.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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