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El Salvadoran Officials Seek Help to Find Missing Children

El Salvador delegation
Cristián Orrego (right) and the El Salvadoran delegation

By Andrew Cohen

A nine-person delegation from El Salvador recently spent a week in Sarajevo at the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) to study legal and scientific methods of locating lost children. The trip was arranged by Berkeley Law’s Human Rights Center (HRC), which has worked tirelessly on this issue with NGOs and state institutions in El Salvador.

Cristián Orrego, HRC’s director of forensic projects and its “Building Justice in El Salvador” program, led the trip and co-arranged ICMP workshop sessions with the center’s El Salvadoran partner, Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos de El Salvador (Pro Búsqueda Association for the Search of Disappeared Children). The delegation included high-ranking officials from El Salvador’s National Search Commission, the Supreme Court of Justice, the nation’s Ombudsman Office for Human Rights, and three local civil society organizations.

An estimated 8,000 people disappeared during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, including thousands of children. Some were kidnapped, others sent away to escape danger. Many youngsters separated from their parents were funneled to corrupt adoption agencies that profited from illegally placing children in homes thousands of miles away. Enforced disappearance continues to this day, albeit due to different causes, as a growing number of El Salvadorans are victims of organized crime and illegal migration.

Orrego is working with the Pro Búsqueda Association to complete a DNA database of families who lost their children. Launched under the leadership of Pro-Búsqueda founder Father Jon Cortina and HRC Faculty Director Eric Stover in 2006, with technical support from the California-based Alliance of Forensic Scientists for Human Rights and Humanitarian Investigations, the database has helped connect dozens of adoptees with their families.

Eduardo Giai Checco was wounded as a child and violently separated from his family during a village raid by El Salvador Army units in 1981. Initially handed over to the El Salvador Red Cross, he was led to an orphanage and given up for adoption to an Italian family. Checco learned about Pro Búsqueda in 1996 and began a long, frustrating search for his family of origin—hampered by a lack of cooperation from institutions involved in his disappearance and subsequent adoption. Checco’s brothers also contacted Pro Búsqueda years later, and DNA comparisons finally helped reunite the family early last year.

“Those responsible for these crimes have not been held accountable,” Orrego said. “Using forensic DNA analysis to identify missing children and document human rights violations, it’s possible to find evidence that can be very persuasive in court, particularly when other circumstantial evidence is not forthcoming. Political leaders and the El Salvadoran government have prevented Pro-Búsqueda from examining all available adoption records, and until 2010 denied that state agents had been involved in the disappearance of children.”

Learning best practices

In Sarajevo, delegation members met with experts in the search and identification of missing persons, including forensic archeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists. They also consulted with government representatives and families of the missing.

Magistrate Florentín Meléndez, who coordinates El Salvador’s Commission for the Modernization of the Supreme Court of Justice, said the visit “highlighted the relevance of the technical and scientific cooperation that would strengthen the investigation of crimes perpetrated in our country.”

Participants learned about ICMP’s scientific identification techniques and methods for developing local resources to search for missing persons more effectively. They discussed needed policy reforms, legislation, and the potential to create a central records database. The visit, said Orrego, “enabled us to discuss the extraordinary results ICMP has achieved in the last decade, which should in turn help provide guidance to El Salvador.”

ICMP pioneered the use of DNA technology to identify large numbers of the disappeared and has helped identify about 18,000 people using scientific methods. Its database houses roughly 150,000 genetic samples and DNA profiles from family members and victims of war. The organization also developed a unique software platform that it provides to governments that can manage complex human identification-related data.

Given the number of top Salvadoran officials and forensic scientists who went to Sarajevo, Orrego said the visit “can be considered a hopeful sign. Is it a turning point? We will be hard at work to make it so.”