WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Mar 2016 | Commentary

President Obama and the Disappeared

By Joe Eldridge, WOLA Senior Fellow, and Héctor Silva Ávalos

Forty years after the generals seized power in Argentina, installing a brutal dictatorship, President Obama’s plane has landed in Buenos Aires. On that 24th of March in 1976, the military detained President Isabel Martínez de Perón and so began what has come to be known as the “Dirty War” as Argentina descended into a maelstrom of state sponsored violence. While the military engaged in a brutal campaign that included arbitrary detention, torture and summary executions, the most notorious tactic used by the military were forced disappearances. Perceived opponents of the government were kidnapped from their homes and shops, and even picked up off the streets, and never heard from again. They seemingly disappeared in thin air. The international community took note of this outrage, as over the next eight years more than 30,000 people disappeared. The government achieved infamy and a new crime against humanity entered the lexicon – “desaparecidos “(disappeared).

Today, crimes of equally heinous proportions are happening in El Salvador and the international community appears to be unaware, or indifferent. Forced disappearances, at the hands of the security forces, are beginning to be reported. The government of El Salvador has launched an all-out battle with the maras, or gangs, in which police and army troops alike have been deployed in the streets.  Gang members are attacking police and soldiers, and security forces are responding with aggressive anti-gang raids, which sometimes involve pitched gun battles. In this context, there are disturbing reports of a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen since the end of the country’s civil war: young men being detained, and then disappeared or killed at the hands of the security forces.

The reports are just beginning to come in, and the documentation isn’t extensive, but some analysts think there have been up to 200 cases in 2015. Marina Ortiz, a Salvadoran lawyer who helped bring a case alleging that three young men had disappeared at the hands of the military, said last week in Washington that at least 10 percent of the total of disappeared can be attributed to the security apparatus of the country, including both the National Civilian Police and the Army. In her presentation, at the Kay Spiritual Center in American University on Wednesday March 16th, she charged that  Salvadoran authorities have admitted to this figure.

Whatever the exact numbers, the cases are piling up. One troubling case took place in 2014. Early that year, an Army Sergeant and five soldiers under his command detained five young men. Eventually, three of them disappeared, never to be seen again. Ortiz pursued a criminal case against the soldiers. In the early stages of the case, in 2015, a local judge labeled the disappearances of the three young as a crime against humanity. When a higher level judge acquitted the accused, Ortiz filed an appeal, which remains pending, and asked the courts to open an investigation into the possibility of corruption on the part of the appeals court judge. The three young men that the soldiers took, in February 2014, are still disappeared; their only apparent sin is that they lived in a gang infested neighborhood of Armenia, a gang controlled town in western El Salvador.

A similar case emerged in December of2015, when a Habeas Corpus petition was introduced to the Salvadoran Supreme Court on behalf of two young men taken by six soldiers in July 2014 in San Martin, a suburb of the capital city of San Salvador.

“The military group arrested the young men, searched them and started to beat them; then they took their shoelaces and with them they tied their hands around their backs. They walked them through the San Martín public marketplace in front of all the people… Afterwards the soldiers and their commanding officer took the teenager to a van with no license plates…” reads the Habeas Corpus petition. These two young men were never heard from again.

While there is not enough data yet to confirm that this is a trend within the Army, cases like these are profoundly disturbing.

While in Buenos Aires, on the anniversary of the Argentinean coup, President Obama talked about the disappeared, and visited a Memorial Park situated along the Rio Plata. The park is graced by sculptures, plaques, and a prominent wall on which is etched the names of all the disappeared. By his presence he is symbolically signaling the commitment of the U.S. government to the pursuit of essential human values.

There is no such attention to the disappeared in El Salvador. Some two thousand people go missing every year. In fact, in the last year, the numbers have swelled: From 1,248 in 2011 to 1,930 in 2014 according to the national coroner’s officer. Some of them are people who emigrate and disappear on the journey. Some of them are victims of gangs. And now, we fear that some of them have disappeared at the hands of the security apparatus.

Regardless, these cases are rarely investigated, and the perpetrators of these shocking crimes enjoy near-complete impunity. Many of the poor live in perpetual fear that they too will be victimized by gangs, organized crime or state police and military agents. They endure their suffering in obscurity as the both the government and the international community’s response fall short. Without accountability for these crimes, the slow anguish continues.