A quarter century after the end of the civil war in El Salvador, families are still searching for information about the fate of as many as 10,000 loved ones who were forcibly disappeared during the conflict. Today, for the first time in years, there are signs of progress in their struggle. A new committee to investigate these disappearances has been announced by the Salvadoran government, demonstrating the true power of long-term dedicated activism.
From January 26-29 I traveled to El Salvador with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and his legislative director Cindy Buhl. In El Salvador, we witnessed a real step forward on this long-standing human rights issue. Then, on the trip home, we were surprised—and delighted—to be cheered as we came out of customs by hundreds of demonstrators showing support for immigrants and opposition to President Trump’s new executive order on refugees and visitors from predominantly Muslim countries. Both in El Salvador, and on the trip home, we saw signs of hope.
We had traveled to El Salvador to support the Mauricio Aquino Foundation, an organization of Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans with family members who were forcibly disappeared during the civil war. The UN-sponsored Truth Commission, reporting a year after the formal end of the war, had found that more than 5,000 people had been disappeared during the conflict—mostly political activists taken by security forces or by “heavily armed men in civilian dress”—and never seen again. Victims’ families say that number could be as high as 10,000. The Foundation, led by people who lost their parents when they were young, has long called on the Salvadoran government to establish a national commission to investigate the cases of the disappeared, and help bring truth, and a measure of closure.
WOLA had helped organize a congressional briefing last year in which children of the disappeared spoke about their plight, and Rep. McGovern, the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in Congress, had led a Congressional letter urging El Salvador’s president to establish an investigative body.
Now the Foundation, working with our colleagues at the Due Process of Law Foundation, had drafted a concrete proposal on the commission and done the advocacy work with Salvadoran government officials. We were accompanying them to attend a forum at which the families of the disappeared would publicly share their stories, and to participate in a meeting with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to present the proposal.
I wasn’t feeling hopeful going into the trip. It had been a depressing week for those of us focused on human rights and social justice in this hemisphere and beyond. President Trump was talking seriously about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and demanding that Mexico pay for it. He was talking about re-negotiating NAFTA, not to benefit workers and small farmers in both countries, but in service of a backward-looking and narrowly nationalist agenda. And he was talking about moves that would target immigrants, many of them Mexican and Central American immigrants, here in the U.S.
So it hadn’t been an encouraging week. And it’s been hard to see signs of hope in El Salvador recently. Though the current FMLN government has made some progress on reducing poverty, crime rates are high, migration driven by violence and lack of opportunity is high, the attorney general is only beginning to look at problems of corruption, and the government’s anti-gang strategy is beset by concerns about police abuse and extrajudicial executions. I didn’t go into this trip full of optimism.
And yet, I saw real signs of hope. The stories of the families, of people who had seen their parents, or spouses, or siblings, dragged away from them, never to be seen again, were deeply moving, and terribly painful. Their resilience, their determination to find out what happened to those they loved and give them a proper resting place, was inspiring. Nearly 300 people, many of them campesinos who had traveled several hours to come to the city, attended the forum. When the moderator asked who besides the eight speakers had had family members disappeared, nearly the entire audience raised their hands. The gravity with which they sat and received the testimonies of the speakers—four Salvadoran and four Salvadoran-Americans, was a testament both to their own pain, and to their hope and their commitment.
Beyond the inspiration and the commitment of the families, the trip brought hope because El Salvador’s president agreed in principle to establish the commission that the family members were seeking. The group—a dozen people from the Mauricio Aquino Foundation, Rep. McGovern and his legislative director, and me—met with President Sánchez Cerén for nearly an hour. Four of the family members told their personal stories, and asked the president to respond, and a representative of the Due Process of Law Foundation explained the details of the proposal. The president expressed his interest in the proposal and asked us to attend a meeting with a range of government officials to discuss the details of the proposal and the experiences of other countries.
We met with the President at ten in the morning, then we moved into the session with government officials and international experts. The Due Process of Law Foundation described the proposal, calling for a five member commission with investigative (though not judicial) powers, a technical team, and access to government and military files. By one in the afternoon, as we were finishing the meeting, the foreign minister announced that the government would review the proposal and draft an executive order creating a commission within the next several weeks.
We had made a very important step forward, though the forcibly disappeared are only one piece in the pattern of wartime human rights abuses in El Salvador that need to be addressed. There are the well-known and still unaddressed cases that the Truth Commission named—the murder of Archbishop Romero, the killings of the Jesuits and the church women—and there are major massacres carried out by security forces—El Mozote, the Rio Sumpul and others—for which there has never been any real accounting. But if the disappeared are only a piece of the pattern, they are an important piece, and taking a step to investigate these disappearances is a major and positive move. It will help bring peace and closure to many family members, shed light on the perpetrators of these disappearances, and advance the larger discussion about human rights abuses, truth, and justice.
Of course an announcement of a commission is only the first step. The details of a proposal have to be ironed out and approved by government officials. The budget, the staffing, and the powers of the commission need to be established. There will be a struggle about whether or not the Salvadoran military will open its archives to assist in the investigations.
So there is much more yet to be done. Still, we had made a major step forward, and I left El Salvador feeling that we had seen progress on an important human rights issue. As we landed in Washington at Dulles airport, Rep. McGovern was talking about the next steps we could take from here to move the commission proposal forward.
As we cleared customs, and walked into the airport, we were greeted by hundreds of demonstrators, applauding as each passenger came out of the security area, holding signs and balloons, welcoming the return of citizens and the arrival of visitors, and protesting the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee executive orders that President Trump had announced the previous day. It was a display of the best of the values of the people of the United States, and it was tremendously encouraging to see hundreds of people who had come out to stand with refugees and immigrants, rather than sitting silently in the face of policies and values that speak to our worst rather than our best instincts.
I don’t know what will happen in the coming months—will El Salvador create a serious, empowered commission, investigate these cases, and really bring acceptance and closure to these families? Will activism and political action by citizens in the United States make it possible for our government to treat immigrants and refugees in a humane and generous way? I don’t know the answers to either of those questions, but I do know I walked out of the airport buoyed by a sense of hope.