Victims' Families and Advocacy Groups Warn of Resurgence of Forced Disappearances in El Salvador

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Monument to Memory and Truth, Parque Cuscatlán, San Salvador. Photo credit: Jorge Montenegro (www.jmontenegro.com.sv), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This year in El Salvador, activities in observance of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances carried a particular urgency: As survivors and advocates for justice for the thousands of people forcibly disappeared over the course of El Salvador’s civil war continue their decades-long struggle, they are now also raising the alarm that forced disappearances have returned to El Salvador under the Bukele administration in an environment of widespread repression that recalls some of the country’s darkest history.

Although the UN-designated observance has not been officially recognized by the Salvadoran government, the day is significant in El Salvador—a mark of the “unhealed wound that many families have”—and is commemorated each year.

Official estimates indicate that as many as 9,000 people were abducted by US-backed Salvadoran Armed Forces as a systematic tactic of control and terror during the country’s brutal 12-year civil war; families and local communities say that number may be much higher. More than 30 years after the end of the war, victims’ families continue to seek answers: “The State carries a debt with the victims of the war and with the survivors, to whom truth and justice are owed,” said a representative from the Herbert Anaya Human Rights Collective.

On August 30, families and survivors alongside civil society and human rights organizations gathered at various historic sites throughout San Salvador and beyond to honor victims and make demands. In front of the Metropolitan Cathedral, they inaugurated a “Festival por la Memoria Histórica.” This day-long cultural and political action brought together art, cinema, poetry, music, theater, testimony, and more to center the importance of historic memory in the struggle for “truth, justice, reparation” for the thousands of people still unaccounted for. The fight to preserve historic memory has become even more significant today in response to President Bukele’s campaign of historic erasure, by diminishing historic achievements and downplaying atrocities.

"We have this in our hearts and we will never forget, the memory lives in each one of us,” said “Mother Vicky,” president of one of the oldest organizations in the search for justice, the Committee of Mothers of El Salvador (CO-MADRES).

Historic memory helps us to remember the serious human rights violations committed in the country and to commit ourselves that they never happen again,” said a representative of CRIPDES from the department of Chalatenango.

Together, organizations called specifically on the Salvadoran State to:

  • Enact the “Special Law of Transitional Justice,” a set of judicial and other actions that would address grave human rights violations that occurred during the armed conflict; a bill for this law was presented to the Legislative Assembly most recently on October 7, 2021.
  • Declare August 30 “National Day of the Victims of Forced Disappearance."
  • Sign and ratify instruments such as the “Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons” and the “International Convention for the Protection of all Persons against Forced Disappearance.”
  • Open the military archives that hold records of forced disappearances, massacres, torture, and other war crimes committed by the US-backed Salvadoran Armed Forces during the war. “We know that (in them) is the truth of what happened,” said a representative of the historic organization CO-MADRES, Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Politically Detained, Disappeared, and Assassinated

In Parque Cuscatlán, families brought photos of loved ones, candles, and flowers to the “Monument to Memory and Truth”—a memorial that includes a marble wall etched with the names of war victims. In addition to offering testimony,  they denounced the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Legislative Assembly for openly disregarding victims’ demands, including:

  • Rejecting the petition to officially recognize August 30 as National Day of the Victims of Forced Disappearance.
  • Discarding legislative proposals to create a System of Disappeared and Unidentified Persons and a National Genetic Data Bank–both of which had been proposed by victims’ advocates as tools in the ongoing struggle toward truth and justice for victims’ families.

Legal and human rights organizations used the day to announce the launch of a new initiative called “We Demand Justice for Our Disappeared.” The effort will include a database to which people can send photos and data of missing persons–information that will be compiled and presented collectively to the Attorney General’s Office to demand a response.

In addition to justice for past victims of forced disappearances, a central demand of their families has long been “measures to guarantee non-repetition.” The active violation of this demand under the Bukele administration has made victims and advocates renew it with alarm:

“In the first five months of 2022 alone, 577 people are known to have disappeared. And beyond those are many times more people currently incarcerated under the State of Exception without due process and without any information as to their whereabouts … The uncertainty generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared person, but also affects his or her community and society as a whole, precisely because it is a strategy designed to instill silence and terror. “ Working Group for Missing Persons in El Salvador

These echoes of the civil war era resound loudly for a population that is still traumatized by that war and that is still seeking truth and justice for victims. “For us, this reminds us of the past,” said “Mother Vicky” of CO-MADRES. And even as the Bukele administration touts a drop in homicide rates (which itself has been cast into doubt given the manipulation of data, altered definitions of “homicide,” and restrictions to public information), disappearances continue to rise. In the last years, El Salvador has seen the discovery of numerous mass, clandestine graves. And preceding the 577 cases mentioned above, between January and October 2021, more than 1,500 cases of missing persons were reported. 

Despite the atmosphere of “intimidation, persecution, and fear of reprisals” that this reality creates, families and organizations continue the struggle:

As victims of the armed conflict, sons and daughters of people murdered, survivors of torture, massacres. . . innocent victims, civilians of all ages, children, old men and women, unarmed men, some living outside our Salvadoran homeland, we resolutely accept the challenge of carrying our struggle until we fulfill our objectives,” the Committee of Ex-Political Prisoners of El Salvador (COPPES) said in a statement.

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