Reckoning With the Children Disappeared During El Salvador’s Civil War

The Salvadoran civil war didn’t just see US-trained-and-financed far-right forces commit endless war crimes — it also ripped children from families, an unknown number of whom never found their way back to their parents.

A man holds a picture of his son as part of the commemoration of the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30, 2019 in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Camilo Freedman / APHOTOGRAFIA / Getty Images)

Between 1980 and 1992, the United States financed, armed, trained, and advised the Salvadoran military dictatorship’s war against a leftist insurgency. The conflict’s toll is usually accounted for in over seventy-five thousand deaths and ten thousand forced disappearances, the guerrilla forces responsible for only 5 percent of that violence. Lesser known are the traumas borne by hundreds, perhaps thousands of families who were torn apart during the violence, mostly by the US-backed military, through abductions of the children of peasants targeted in their scorched-earth campaigns across the Salvadoran countryside.

In the foreword to a forthcoming book by Elizabeth Barnert, anthropologist Philippe Bourgois refers to these abductions as “the demographic crime against humanity of a ‘disappeared’ generation of poor rural children” in El Salvador. These children were often delivered to the Red Cross and placed in orphanages or put up for international adoption. Many were raised by loving foreign families who believed they had rescued victims of the violence. Others bounced between abusive homes and institutions. Most never knew their true names or birthdays and believed that their biological families were lost.

Decades later, one group is tirelessly working to reunite these missing children with their biological relatives. Pro-Búsqueda, the subject of Barnert’s Reunion: Finding the Disappeared Children of El Salvador, was founded in the years following the Peace Accords that brought a negotiated end to the twelve-year civil war. By 2020, Pro-Búsqueda had resolved 443 of 994 cases registered with the organization, while demanding reparations from the perpetrators of these crimes.

Searching for Truth

Pro-Búsqueda, which translates to “pro-search,” was founded in 1994 by Father Jon Cortina and dozens of relatives of disappeared children from El Salvador’s so-called repopulated communities. These highly organized villages were founded by families displaced into Honduran refugee camps during the war, who reentered the country to establish settlements in territory controlled by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the organization of Salvadoran leftist guerrillas. Many of these families were survivors of guindas, the sometimes weeks-long escapes through the mountains from scorched-earth military invasions and massacres. Many, even most of such families, were missing children.

Cortina, a Basque-born Jesuit priest of the liberation theology tradition, survived the 1989 massacre of his colleagues at the Central American University after military checkpoints prevented his return to campus that night from Guarjila, the repopulated community where he ministered to parishioners on weekends. He founded Pro-Búsqueda after helping several families locate children who had been lost in the notorious 1982 Guinda de Mayo, when a deadly counterinsurgency operation drove hundreds of rural families into flight through the northern mountains.

Barnert reproduces the testimony of Francisca Romero, one of the first mothers reunited with her missing child, who watched helplessly with her two young children as her daughter, Elsy, was captured by soldiers and taken away in a helicopter. Romero spent the first two years of peacetime searching for her daughter. In 1994, Elsy and two other children lost in the guinda were identified, having spent the remainder of the conflict in a San Salvador orphanage. Elsy describes how she witnessed soldiers murder and mutilate her father before they kidnapped her, together with over fifty other children.

“I was never told that my family might still be alive,” she remembers.

Barnert began her collaboration with Pro-Búsqueda as a graduate student, volunteering to collect DNA samples from searching families and inquiring adoptees in 2005. By then, the group had located 281 missing children and facilitated 162 reunions. Most were identified living in El Salvador, but dozens more had been adopted in the United States and Europe, and a handful elsewhere in Central America.

“Father Jon suspects that the military and the Salvadoran Red Cross trafficked kidnapped children as international adoptees,” for up to $20,000 per child, writes Barnert. Some thirty thousand Salvadoran children were adopted during the war. The United States alone issued twenty-three hundred adoption visas to citizens for Salvadoran children in that period.

Unbeknownst to the adoptive families, many of these processes were fraudulent or coerced. Barnert shares the story of María Inés, a Pro-Búsqueda employee, who was told by a lawyer that her children would be returned to her in six months. The boys were eventually located in Italy as young men, adopted by separate families.

Pro-Búsqueda was inspired by the work of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who fought for truth and justice for their disappeared children under the military dictatorship. But rather than force found children back into their biological families as the Madres did — potentially causing further trauma — Pro-Búsqueda leaves the decision of what kind of relationship they want with their relatives to the jovenes encontrados (found young people).

These decisions are not easy, and the reunions that Barnert helps facilitate are often fraught and contradictory. One former FMLN combatant who was ordered to leave her daughter with others by her superiors was pained that she continued to live with her adoptive parents after their reunion. Often, searching families remain wracked with guilt and shame, or fractured by recriminations. Most are burdened by tremendous trauma from the war.

These conflicts can be even more acute in the case of international adoptions, which generate sharp class and cultural divides. In the final section of the book, Barnert relays the story of Angela, a US adoptee raised by a loving family in Berkeley. She accompanies Angela through a process of “ambiguous reunification,” in which Angela navigates feelings of discomfort and anger after her impoverished biological mother makes repeated appeals for money.

Still, Pro-Búsqueda’s work is constantly rewarded by beautiful moments. Barnert translates for a tearful reunion with a fourteen-year-old US adoptee who arrives with her adoptive parents to meet her biological mother for the first time. She witnesses a mother speaking by telephone to her biological son in Italy for the first time; he tells her he’s learning Spanish, she tells him his real birthday.

US Legacies

Barnert is no radical. She has little difficulty assimilating the religious fundamentalism she encounters in postwar El Salvador but struggles with the revolutionary politics of many of her Pro-Búsqueda colleagues. Unsurprisingly, the concept of “imperialism” is absent from her account. Its fingerprints, however, are everywhere throughout.

One of the book’s most penetrating insights comes as the author relays the story of a young man who migrated to the United States from the repopulated community where he lived after being reunited with his biological mother. His tale of scattered corpses and lost children in the desert is strikingly similar to the horrors recounted of the guindas. In these recurring cycles of family separation and state violence, US intervention looms large.

Barnert makes these connections explicit, using her expertise in DNA matching to help reunify migrant families separated by the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance regime at the US southern border. She notes that “thousands of new family separations occur each day in the United States due to mass incarceration,” as well as foster care interventions.

Barnert’s book is moving, her dedication and connection to the work of Pro-Búsqueda palpable. But perhaps its most extraordinary contribution comes via Bourgois, who pens the publication’s foreword and supplies two appendixes. In his introductory remarks, Bourgois reflects poignantly on the question of trauma and survivor’s guilt, having barely escaped alive from a military operation in El Salvador’s northern Cabañas province as a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in 1981. The first appendix contains his field notes and photographs from that harrowing eleven-day guinda.

“Shit it’s midday now and I’m stretched out scared in the cave again, ‘cause the mortars are falling close now,” his notes begin on November 10, 1981. “How the hell are we gonna get out of here and what is going to happen to us all?” Bourgois describes writing goodbye letters to his loved ones, making provisions for his notebooks and camera to be sent to his mother in the event of his death, and staggering through gunfire and explosions past the wounded and the dead as FMLN guerrillas fought to guide the some fourteen hundred civilians he was trapped with past the military cordon to safety.

His photographs include a US-made, US-provided Huey UH-1H helicopter passing overhead on day five: “Outrageously, the US State Department claimed in 1981 that these Huey helicopters were ‘non-military, human rights assistance,’” he writes. “The only difference between ‘nonlethal’ helicopters and military-grade ones was the removal of the external machine-gun parapet with its 360 degree pivot. Instead, the gunners had to open their side door when strafing civilians from their human rights helicopters during this Cabañas invasion.”

Bourgois now understands that he had the “bad luck at being in a transition moment in US-Salvadoran military tactics.” Participating in the invasion was the first batch of Salvadoran officers from the infamous Atlácatl battalion, fresh from training at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“FMLN commanders did not yet know how to keep a step ahead of these new rapid flexible Atlácatl patrols and their onsite US Green Beret Special Forces advisers.” Incredibly, Bourgois and his fellow survivors were spared when a Today Show news crew accompanying Bianca Jagger on a visit to a Honduran refugee camp heard the bombardments from across the river, their approach causing the military to retreat in fear of international scandal.

The final appendix includes drawings collected from children in refugee camps by Bourgois in subsequent visits. With the uncanny innocence of a child’s hand, they depict unspeakable atrocities. These devastating testimonies illustrate the conditions under which hundreds of the children Pro-Búsqueda has located were separated from their families, at the hands of US-backed security forces.

No Closure

Jon Cortina, who passed away in 2006, made repeated and unanswered calls for the Salvadoran military and Red Cross to open their archives to aid investigations for missing children. Pro-Búsqueda continues to pressure the Salvadoran state to collaborate with the search and provide restitution through claims in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 2005, Barnert translated a letter written by Cortina to the US Congress, requesting monetary reparations to fund the search. “Father Jon feels that, since the United States financed the war that tore families apart, it has a moral obligation to assist El Salvador’s disappeared children.” Instead, the United States has continued to fuel the separation of Salvadoran families, most recently through its merciless pursuit of mass detention, deportation, and exclusion of asylum seekers.

Barnert’s narrative falters somewhat toward the end; the author seems unsure how to bring the book to a close. Like the family reunifications she helps facilitate, these stories resist closure. Pro-Búsqueda’s work continues apace, despite harassment from military and other reactionary elements intent on sabotaging their investigations. Working-class Salvadorans remain beset by the twin US progenies of gang violence and mass incarceration, and US capital persistently resorts to force to subordinate Salvadoran labor to its demands on both sides of the border.

“Tell people what happened here,” Francisca Romero told the author. “Let them know the reality of El Salvador — how the war was and how the children were lost, so that young people in other countries can be in solidarity with us.” Barnert found a way to mobilize her solidarity through her technical expertise. She now honors the struggle of people like Romero with her book, which reveals how the violence of empire is reproduced at scales at once geopolitical and profoundly intimate.