Government creates Commission to Search for the Disappeared

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On September 27th, President Sánchez Cerén issued an executive order creating the National Commission to Search for Persons Disappeared in the Context of the Armed Conflict (CONABUSQUEDA), whose purpose is to determine the whereabouts of adult victims of forced disappearance during the civil war of El Salvador (1980-1992). The United Nations Truth Commission estimates that 5,500 people were forcibly disappeared during the armed conflict; some human rights organizations put the figure closer to 10,000.

As Guadalupe Mejía, founder and long-time leader of the Committee of Mothers and Families of the Disappeared (Codefam) commented after the President’s announcement, many of the disappeared during the war were assassinated buried in common graves, which mean the work of locating and identifying their remains “will be a difficult undertaking.”  She called on other human rights defenders to collaborate with the commission to help find the remains of their relatives so that she and countless others who have devoted the past thirty to forty years of their lives to this search “can die in peace.”

Under the charge of the Ministry of Foreign Relations and with the support of cooperating agencies, the Commission will have the authority to search, locate, reunite, identify and deliver the remains of victims to their relatives. To be successful, the commission will also require the declassification of records from U.S. military and intelligence agencies as well as assistance from international organizations.

Though the Commission was officially created in August, it wasn’t made public until September, after the government finalized a consultation process with human rights organizations. According to Margarette May Macaulay, the Inter-American human Rights Commission rapporteur for El Salvador, “The creation of the National Commission to Search for Disappeared Persons is excellent news, especially because the government worked together with civil society to reach a consensus on how the mechanisms would be designed and function.”

Joining human rights organizations in El Salvador who have continued to lead the movement for justice and historical memory, including the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA), the Foundation for the Study and Application of the Law (FESPAD) and Probúsqueda, the Our Parents’ Bones’ campaign of the Mauricio Aquino Foundation was instrumental making this successful proposal to the government of El Salvador. Bringing together young Salvadorans in the U.S. whose family members in El Salvador were disappeared, Our Parents’ Bones has mobilized Congressional support for U.S. cooperation with the government of El Salvador in its truth and reconciliation process.

After the announcement, U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) commended “President Sánchez Cerén, the Government of El Salvador and the Salvadoran people for working together to establish the National Commission to Search for Disappeared Persons” and called on the White House to “preserve all records and files that might provide any information, documentation, context or clues that might help the puzzle of each missing individual... [and] be made available to the National Commission in aid of this search.”

The importance of the Commission’s creation cannot be overstated in the context of the ongoing search for truth and justice. After the civil war ended with the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992, the United Nations created a Truth Commission that worked from July 1992 to March 1993. Its report From Madness to Hope revealed that about 75% of the murders of civilians were committed by the Armed Forces, which were armed and trained by US government. On March 20, 1993, five days after the release of the report, right-wing parties in the Legislative Assembly approved an Amnesty Law prohibiting any criminal prosecutions for acts committed during the armed conflict. In the intervening years, human rights organizations and legislators from the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) repeatedly filed cases with the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the amnesty law but to no avail.

However, the election of President Mauricio Funes in 2009, which ended twenty years of rule by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the party founded by the “father” of the Salvadoran death squads, Roberto D’Aubuisson, represented the possibility of a long-awaited truth and reconciliation process in the country. Funes was the first president to apologize for atrocities committed by the state during the war, including the 1981 El Mozote massacre and the assassination of Archbishop Romero.

In July 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the Amnesty Law, finally opening the door to the prosecution of war crimes. The Administration was caught off-guard by the Supreme Court decision, which was issued within a series of rulings that prompted the social movement to denounce the judiciary for attempting to undermine the government and destabilize the country. However, the FMLN government has continued to make advances towards truth and reconciliation, including the creation of CONABUSQUEDA, which President Sánchez Cerén described as a “reaffirmation of our deep commitment repay the historical debt owed to the victims of forced disappearances in the country and so that this sad chapter in our history is not repeated.”

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