Author: Steve Fainaru, Globe Staff
SAN ANTONIO LOS RANCHOS, El Salvador -- Elsy Dubon Romero lost everything but her name one afternoon in 1982. As her mother cowered behind a thorn bush, and her father lay dead, a soldier grabbed the 7-year-old girl by the neck and loaded her onto a helicopter, which rose and disappeared into the blank sky.
Thus began her new life. From an army base, to a Red Cross shelter, she was shuttled finally to an orphanage near San Salvador, the capital. There she grew up, ordered never to talk about what had happened, and told that her family was dead.
Not until 12 years later, by then married and pregnant, did she learn the incredible truth: that her mother, Francisca Romero, was alive, along with five brothers and sisters who she vaguely remembered from a past that had seemed stolen from her.
"It all came back to me when I saw their faces," she said in an interview, quietly sobbing.
Four years after the end of El Salvador's civil war, the country is discovering the truth about what happened to scores of its lost children: they were seized from villages by the US-backed military, separated from their families, and falsely written off as war orphans, even as relatives spent years searching for them or clinging to hope that they were safe.
A Globe investigation over several months has found that many of the children were abducted by soldiers as part of a wider practice of retrieving children from battlefields, sometimes by wrenching them from their mothers' arms. The practice, unreported during the war, was known to as least one US military adviser, who now says he saw it as a humanitarian gesture.
Alone, the children were "disappeared" into a Dickensian world filled with the best and worst intentions. Some were doled out to wealthy Salvadoran families and military officers. Some were raised on military bases as mascots. Others were taken to so-called casas de engorde, literally to be "fattened up" for poorly regulated foreign adoptions that cost as much as $20,000.
Last month, the widening drama reached the United States.
In the first confirmed US case, a Boston-based group, Physicians for Human Rights, proved through DNA testing that the long-lost daughter of Jose and Victoria Lainez, two subsistence farmers, was living as a high-school senior in northeastern Ohio, her name changed from Imelda to Gina by the well-meaning Americans who adopted her under the belief that her parents had been killed.
The girl, now 17, was snatched from a bed when she was 6 during a 1984 attack on a clandestine guerrilla hospital. She wound up at a state-run orphanage, then was declared "morally and materially abandoned" by a Salvadoran judge during a 15-minute hearing with the American couple, who raised her in a comfortable Ohio suburb. Despite her adoption, the girl had long maintained that her parents in El Salvador were alive.
Until now, the missing children have been like footnotes from a Cold War conflict that killed 75,000 Salvadorans and about two dozen Americans and cost the US government $6 billion in its decade-long effort to help the Salvadoran government stamp out a Marxist insurgency. The issue has been buried under other human rights abuses linked to the Salvadoran military -- including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, the murder of six Jesuit priests and massacres that included childre n -- and a nationwide fear that only recently has eased.
`An error of the military high command'
Retired Gen. Adolfo Blandon, who ran the Salvadoran military's operations as chief of staff from 1983-88, acknowledged in an interview that children were taken from war zones, but that he was unaware of the scope of problem until recently. "I admit that I committed an error to not have complete control over these children," he said. "But . . . I never felt that it was a very big problem. I repeat: I believe it was an error of the military high command."
Blandon, who said he never discussed the issue of displaced children in his almost daily military strategy sessions with US advisers, now charges that the Salvadoran Red Cross, after failing to verify whether parents of children taken by the military were still alive, delivered them to wealthy Salvadoran families, military officials, orphanages and even US military advisers.
"This is a reality; it's not fiction," he said. "I know that various (US) advisers, especially couples that did not have children, took advantage of the opportunity to carry out these children."
Blandon refused to name any US advisers who adopted children. US officials who served in El Salvador confirmed that military advisers, as well as US Embassy personnel, were among the Americans who adopted 2,354 Salvadoran children during the war. But they said the adoptions were legal, and they did not know whether the children had been taken during military operations.
In a Massachusetts-sized country of six million people, the Association in Search of Disappeared Children is investigating 280 cases of children who vanished during the war. The group has located 29, including three cases confirmed by Physicians for Human Rights through DNA testing. It has traced 151 disappearances to the military, a figure comparable to the number of forced disappearances of children during the "Dirty War" in Argentina, where, between 1976 and 1983, security forces stole babies who were born to women in detention.
As the Association in Search of Disappeared Children, an independent group founded two years ago by a Jesuit priest after families approached him with claims of missing children, and Physicians for Human Rights expand their work across the country, the organizations say they expect the number of cases to double.
Some children ended up in the US, the groups believe, because of a lucrative, highly unregulated adoption industry that boomed during the war. According to people with experience in Salvadoran adoptions, the US Embassy was ill-equipped to deal with widespread abuses, including what Blandon alleged was the "complicity of everyone, from immigration officials to (Salvadoran) judges to unscrupulous lawyers."
As a result, well-meaning Americans adopted Salvadoran children whose backgrounds never were adequately checked. Sharon Hamilton, an Embassy nurse from 1982-83 who also worked with displaced children, recalled: "There was a war going on, and I guess we knew. I guess we knew that they weren't orphans, that they were being stolen. We knew. But, I mean, there wasn't any way to find their parents."
"What could we do?" she said. "The consular section was giving out visas to Americans who were coming down and taking little babies back. I really feel badly now that these kids were taken from their parents, but nobody thought they would be going to a bad place. They were being adopted into nice families. They would be well-taken care of."
In fact, the welfare of the children today, more than a decade later, has left many involved in the cases wrestling with the legal and ethical issues of reuniting families with children who have grown up in separate worlds. "It's a human mess," said Rev. Kenneth C. Myers, a Cleveland priest who runs an orphanage outside San Salvador.
Rev. Jon de Cortina, the co-founder of the Association in Search of Disappeared Children, said: "The only thing we want is for the lost children to know their identities, to know who they are and where they came from. And the family has a right to know how their child is."
De Cortina and others see the effort as a parable for El Salvador's post-war reconciliation. But it remains unclear whether ties that were severed so bluntly ever can be mended.
In 1982, a 6-month-old boy named Nelson Anivar Ramos was taken from his mother's arms and placed on a helicopter in Chalatenango, a poor, mountainous province that became the scene of savage fighting during the war.
Located by the Association two years ago in the same privately run orphanage where Elsy was found, the 12-year-old boy's name had been changed to Juan Carlos Serrano. He wore a fashionable haircut and jeans, listened to Michael Jackson and dreamed of becoming an accountant.
For the boy's mother, Maria Magdalena Ramos, who lives under a laminated roof in a hamlet called San Antonio Los Ranchos, about 2 1/2 hours away by four-wheel drive Jeep, the reconciliation was a godsend. She nearly collapsed.
Asked how he felt, Juan Carlos said: "I felt nothing. I felt no love for her. It is difficult to think of her as my mother."
In May 1982, like thunder rumbling through the mountains, Salvadoran military helicopters and trucks descended on Chalatenango, disgorging thousands of government troops in an offensive against Marxist rebels and their sympathizers. The operation is recalled locally as La Guinda de Mayo -- The May Massacre.
For a week, the troops killed hundreds of civilians, torched villages, burned crops and chased thousands of peasants into the mountains, where they survived on tortillas and salt and, when necessary, leaves. The operation included the 800-man Belloso Batallion, nicknamed "The Gringo Batallion" because of its training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
After days of fleeing with her mother and her 6-month-old son Nelson, Maria Magdalena Ramos, then 16, was awakened one morning by the sounds of soldiers and gunfire. Cradling her baby, she tried to run, but a soldier grabbed her by the arm.
"They took us up to a hill that they call Loma Pacha," she recalled. "There were already about 200 people there, and they were taking away the children that they had been carrying. Then they began to use their radios to call the helicopters and they began to take away the kids.
"The first (helicopter) filled up quickly and so did the second. It was in the second they took my baby. I had him in my arms and my mother threw herself over him, and we begged them that if they had to kill us to please kill us all with the baby. They told us: `No, the young ones don't have to suffer because of you.'
"Then they hit my mother in the face and pushed her to the ground. The baby was crying because they were pulling him and I was pulling him. They got him loose and I ran to try to find him inside the helicopter. I was looking and looking for him in the window but I couldn't see him with all the children. The helicopter was completely full and he was the smallest one.
"A soldier grabbed me by my belt and threw me down. I ran to the other side but I couldn't see him from there, either. Then the helicopter took off and I was left underneath it. It was green, almost black, and when it took off with my baby a soldier said to me: `Don't cry. . . those children, they're going to serve the government.' "
The Association in Search of Disappeared Children has what it calls credible evidence of 36 cases of children taken from their families during the May Massacre, and believes the number is significantly higher.
After initially denying that children were separated from their parents, Salvadoran military officials now acknowledge that some children were evacuated from battlefields for humanitarian reasons, but only after being abandoned. Association members acknowledge that some children were taken from battlefields by soldiers out of concern for their safety.
But Association members also believe that the military's purpose overall was more sinister -- to inflict terror and prevent the emergence of another generation of guerrillas without resorting to the murder of children, as had occurred during other infamous government massacres of the era such as El Mozote and Sumpul.
"They committed crimes, and now they're trying to hide the crimes," said De Cortina, co-founder of the Association in Search of Disappeared Children. "They are shading these crimes with a humanitarian tint. I'm not saying that that did not happen in some cases, but it wasn't that way in all of them."
Enlistment of children
During the war, both the US-backed military and the leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the FMLN, tried to enlist children in their causes.
Army brigades threw parties for children with pinatas and soldiers dressed as clowns. They handed out soccer balls, ice cream and candy and, when boys reached their teens, often forcibly recruited them off the streets.
One problem for the military, however, was that boys barely taller than their assault rifles fought for the guerrillas, often under coercion. The rebels employed small children as sentries, mules and scouts.
Children encountered during military operations presented a dilemma, said Gen. Blandon, particularly during the early stages of the war. "For the first few years, everything that moved in the countryside was the enemy," he said.
Field commanders ordered troops to evacuate children rather than kill them, military officials claim. Retired Col. Sigifrido Ochoa Perez, an outspoken commander who operated in Chalatenango and the neighboring province of Cabanas, said the children became "a logistical problem" during large-scale operations.
"The mission of the armed forces is not capturing children, but this began to happen," Ochoa said. "Small units -- squadrons or battalions -- were carrying off children."
Col. Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, a legendary Salvadoran field commander who later was killed, "kept five or six little kids that he treated like they were his own," said Walt Cargile, a former US Special Forces sergeant major who served in El Salvador. Cargile said he assumed the children's parents either were dead or had fled.
Cargile said he knew the military rounded up children. "I never did follow up," he said, "because I knew the military went out of their way to make sure the kids were safe."
Alberto de Jesus Quijada, a former sergeant with the First Military Detachment of Chalatenango, also known as DM-1, said troops received orders from their commander, Col. Jose Dionisio Hernandez, to collect all children under 12. The children were to be turned over to the Red Cross, he said, although about a dozen were kept on the base as "assistants."
Unlike their parents, many of whom supported the FMLN, the children had not been "contaminated by Marxism," said Quijada. "Those kids who were 5, 6, 7 years old that we brought into the army, they didn't have these ideas yet. We were able to save them."
All males and females in the countryside between the ages of 12 and 50 were treated as guerrillas, he said.
Rafael Calles, the investigations coordinator for the Association in Search of Disappeared Children, said he believes that the children were taken as a way of easing the consciences of the troops.
"It was demoralizing to the troops to kill children," he said. "And it was safer to have them on the side of the government, rather than giving them up to the guerrillas. It also made the families more afraid: It showed them that they had no rights to anything, even their own children. They were taken away as little animals."
As the May Massacre continued into June, 1982, Francisca Romero and her family fled north toward the Honduran border. But they were cut off by government troops. In the chaos of bullets and helicopters and screams, Francisca hid behind a thorn bush with her 2-year-old son and watched in horror as a soldier grabbed Elsy by the neck and dragged her to a helicopter along with several other children.
"There was one old fat soldier and he was shouting that they should kill them," said Francisca. "But another one said: `No, no, we have to take them.' "
Francisca crouched with her infant son, paralyzed by fear and helplessness. She wanted to rescue her daughter but knew she would be killed trying. As she watched, sobbing, the helicopter disappeared with her daughter.
"You can't imagine how one's heart can be crushed to see these kinds of things," she said. "It's a wound that doesn't heal. It never heals."
Elsy was 7 at the time and remembers how government troops shot her father in the heart, and, as she stood crying over his body, scooped her up and carried her away.
She remembers flying in a helicopter to Chalatenango city, where for two months she slept on the floor of a shelter with about 50 other children.
"The Red Cross people told us we shouldn't tell anyone what happened to us," said Elsy, who, at 21, is married with a 2-year-old son and was reunited with her mother two years ago.
Salvadoran Red Cross as courier
The Geneva Conventions, in a section addressing "fundamental guarantees" of victims of non-international armed conflicts, states: "Children shall be provided with the care and aid they require, and in particular: all appropriate steps shall be taken to faciliate the reunion of families temporarily separated."
But the Salvadoran Red Cross, an organization that prides itself on humanitarian neutrality, did not assume that role. Instead, it acted as a courier for children who were picked up by the military, delivering them in vans to private and state-run orphanages without attempting to locate their families.
Critics charge that the organization allowed children to disappear into the vortex of war. Its role has led to inquiries from the International Committee of the Red Cross, an independent organization that works with national Red Cross organizations during conflicts.
The Salvadoran Red Cross was a natural choice for the job of ferrying the children at the military's behest, many believe, because of its close ties to the armed forces. Janice Elmore, a US Embassy political/military officer from 1986-90, said both the ICRC and the Salvadoran Red Cross, despite proclamations of neutrality, sided with the military during the war.
"The Red Cross was not exactly an unbiased observer," Elmore said, declining to elaborate.
It fell to the Ladies Auxiliary, a small branch of the Salvadoran Red Cross composed of volunteers -- some of them married to military officers -- to pick up children at military bases and shelters, treat those who were sick or malnourishished, then deliver them to orphanages.
Rev. Myers, the Cleveland priest who housed 300 children at an orphanage called Community Oscar A. Romero, recalled that children were dropped off by Maria Isabel de Novoa, the president of the Ladies Auxiliary. "They would just show up and ask if you could take three or four kids that they had found," he said. "They never had any papers. We always took them, because we knew they had nowhere else to go."
The Association in Search of Disappeared Children has tried to obtain records of children transported by the Red Cross. But the Red Cross has provided little except general information about its work at the time. Officials said a 1986 earthquake destroyed most of the records.
Shortly after the May Massacre, minutes of a Ladies Auxiliary meeting reported: "We have made five trips (to Chalatenango) . . . and have brought back a total of 52 children that vary between the ages of recently born and 12 years old . . . Each trip we have changed groups to avoid fatigue."
De Novoa acknowledged in a meeting last year with the Association in Search of Disappeared Children that the Ladies Auxiliary transported more than 100 children from Chalatenango alone at the request of the Salvadoran military, according to association representatives who attended the meeting.
De Novoa declined to be interviewed. Oscar Morales, executive secretary of the Salvadoran Red Cross, said the responsibility of checking the children's background resided with the ICRC and the Salvadoran government.
"Unfortunately, for us, legally, it is not our function to look for the parents, only to deliver the children into the hands of state entities," he said. "We carry out the function of unifying families in moments of natural disasters. But in this case, which (was) a disaster caused by man, the function corresponds to the responsibility of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the government."
Catherine Martin, a former ICRC delegate in El Salvador who heads the Americas department of the organization's Central Tracing Agency in Geneva, said ICRC has encouraged the local Red Cross to cooperate in the search for missing children.
But she added that it was not considered unusual that civilians, including unaccompanied children, were evacuated from war zones by the army and turned over to civilian authorities. Martin said she was doubtful of claims that children were abducted.
"You know how it works in Central America," she said. "It's very common to abandon a child . . . Attachment to children, especially in the countryside, it's not what we expect from our own education and so on. I mean, what I want to say is it's not for them such a big tragedy to lose a child as it is for us. This is true especially in a situation of war."
Without Red Cross records, tracing missing children has been painstaking. They were cast into a chaotic wartime atmosphere that made "paperwork seem astoundingly irrelevant," a US official recalled.
"There was no control," said Myers. "There were no lists of who, where, when and what."
Children have been located as far away as France and Italy and as near as the main Salvadoran Air Force base outside San Salvador, where two brothers grew up in an infirmary while their relatives searched fruitlessly. In the village of Llano Grande, residents said troops poured over a nearby mountain one day and handed out children they said were freshly orphaned.
"An officer came by -- I don't know if it was a captain or a lieutenant -- and he told us they were looking for help from the community," said Benjamin Casco Palma, a 63-year-old farmer. "They said the children they had were orphans. Their parents had been killed."
At Children's Village SOS, a private orphanage in a San Salvador suburb, where investigators discovered eight missing children, two girls grew up believing they were cousins, only to learn their true relationship 12 years later: they were sisters, and their father was alive in Chalatenango.
Still unclear is how many of the children ended up among the thousands of Salvadoran children adopted during the war. In addition to Gina, the 17-year-old Ohio girl, Physicians for Human Rights has confirmed that a brother and sister adopted by another Midwestern family had Salvadoran relatives who had searched for them for more than a decade.
Whether a child was adopted often depended on the orphanage's policy. Some, such as Children's Village SOS, part of world-wide network, maintained a no-adoption policy, turning away the lawyers who showed up constantly, some carrying lists with the physical characteristics of the children they were seeking.
Life in Children's Villages
With its gardens, immaculate pavilion and two-story bungalows lined up like suburban condominiums, the Children's Villages are far removed from the concrete houses and dirt floors of Chalatenango. In fact, for the children who were delivered there by the Red Cross, that world disappeared, replaced by one which, in hindsight, now seems almost perverse.
"The principle of the Children's Villages is to give the child a mother, brothers, a home and a small community," said Maria de Garcia, the president of the organization's board of directors in El Salvador. The children referred to Marcial Borja, the village director, as "Papa."
But while the children adjusted to their new lives, their parents continued to flee the terror of their old ones. After losing her infant son Nelson -- later renamed Juan Carlos Serrano -- Maria Magdalena Ramos escaped to a refugee camp in Honduras. Still able to breast feed, other refugees begged her to feed their hungry children.
"I did it, but I cried and cried because it was my own baby's milk," she said.
For the next 12 years she had a recurring nightmare about her son: "I remembered (the soldiers) told me he was going to serve the government, and all the time I was counting his birthdays in my head," she said. "I thought that if this war doesn't end, and he joins the army he could come here armed and kill me without knowing that I'm his mother. I couldn't sleep thinking about that."
But the torment didn't end even after she was reunited with her son. On that day in Chalatenango, Juan Carlos Serrano stepped out of a van, onto a dirt road. He was sullen and disoriented; he didn't recognize his mother, who had last touched him when he was ripped from her arms 12 years earlier.
Juan Carlos hung his head until Maida, as she is known, saw the face of her late husband in the face of her son, rushed to him and cried the tears of a lost decade.
No longer Nelson Anivar Ramos, the boy stared at his mother: "Why did you abandon me?" he asked.
At US Embassy, critics say, a failure to safeguard adoptions
SAN SALVADOR -- As Americans were adopting Salvadoran children by the hundreds throughout much of the country's 12-year civil war, the US Embassy failed to screen children despite widespread reports of child-trafficking, falsification of papers, bribery of judges and other abuses, according to people with experience in Salvadoran adoptions.
Although most of the adoption-related corruption took place during the 1980s, the issue has resurfaced through the discovery that children who were seized by the Salvadoran military and passed on as war orphans were among 2,354 adopted children who received immigrant visas from the embassy during the war.
Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based organization, and the Association in Search of Disappeared Children say they have located three children -- a 17-year-old girl adopted by an Ohio family and a brother and sister adopted by a Midwest family -- who had relatives searching for them in El Salvador.
Other missing Salvadoran children have been located in France and Italy.
Although apparently unaware of the military's practice of collecting children in war zones, US Embassy officials received repeated warnings about a variety of improprieties -- many involving Salvadoran adoption lawyers -- but did not take action until the late 1980s, when the Embassy began employing an anti-fraud investigator to verify adopted children's backgrounds.
"The Embassy had to keep quiet," said Rev. Flavian Mucci, an East Boston priest who runs an association of humanitarian projects in El Salvador called Agape. "There are things the Embassy can't deal with; it's petty stuff to them, small things. I would say to them: `Do you know the kind of abuses that are going on?"
Rev. Kenneth C. Myers, a Cleveland priest who ran an orphanage and sometimes arranged adoptions, also recalled warning the Embassy about the corruption.
"I told them, `You don't investigate. You know darned well the (adoption) papers aren't telling the truth,' " he said. "They didn't feel any moral responsibility to correct the situation. I think they were just as conscientious as you or I are, but somehow, it's a career, it's a job."
Although groups tracing the children said it is too early to tell, they believe potentially significant numbers of children who were separated from their families wound up in the US. From 1983-85, when many of the cases of "disappeared" children occurred, the Embassy issued 924 IR-3 and IR-4 visas to Salvadoran children in the process of being adopted, according to the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
To obtain the visas, parents had to show both a declaration of "moral and material abandonment" issued by the Salvadoran courts and a document giving the parents provisional custody of the child. The documents were easily obtained through a variety of methods, including falsification and bribery, said people familiar with the process.
Edwin G. Corr, the US Ambassador to El Salvador from 1985-88, said the Embassy followed strict guidelines to ensure adoptions were legitimate. In fact, he said, the Embassy "received more than the normal amount of complaints that we were overly cautious and were taking too much time and were too reluctant to sign off on these kids."
"This is answer you would expect," he said. "But I do not believe the American Embassy was looking away from anything. The consul general is no different than newspaper reporters, they care for children, too. I can't believe the Embassy was looking away."
However, after several Salvadoran lawyers were prosecuted for child-trafficking in the late 1980s, the Embassy began to rely on its own background checks, US officials said. The anti-fraud investigator now verifies paperwork, takes babies' footprints and can order DNA testing to confirm the child's identity.
"We really wanted to make sure that they were orphans and abandoned children," said a US official, adding that the safeguards appear to have worked. "We really feel that once we instituted the new policy, the bad cases started going to other embassies."
In part because of widespread abuses, the Salvadoran government last year also enacted stricter laws limiting foreign adoptions. US officials said not a single American family has adopted a child under the new laws. Because of the difficulties, the Embassy now advises families against attempting to adopt in El Salvador.
While acknowledging that some of the "disappeared" children probably slipped through the adoption process, US officials said it would have been impossible to screen the children amid the upheaval of the war.
Sharon Hamilton, a former Embassy nurse who also worked with displaced children, said US officials were aware that child-traffickers were stealing and selling children but that it was impossible to determine which adoption cases were legitimate.e wasn't the means to check."
A US diplomat who worked in El Salvador said the Embassy should not be blamed for trying help people to do something good for children. "You had orphanages that were overflowing," he said. "There was no reason to think or know that a baby had been stripped from somebody's arms. What's the more moral act, to keep the child in a state-run orphanage in El Salvador? I don't think so."
The Embassy has yet to respond to a request from Salvador's human rights ombudsman for information about missing children who may have been adopted by Americans. US officials said they doubted the government could assist in locating the children.
All immigrant visa records are automatically deleted from the Embassy files after two years, oneofficial said. And attempts to seek information in the US probably would be met with privacy restrictions.
"It wouldn't be very easy no matter where you look," said the official. "Too much time has gone by. The records are spread from here to kingdom come