Salvadoran group dogged in search for children missing years ago in civil war

By Ken Ellingwood
July 24,2011 / The Bellingham Herald

Her name is Milagro, or it was before her mother's heart broke into a million bits.

The girl was 4, dark-toned and skinny. On the day soldiers took her away, she wore a violet dress with short sleeves and tiny pleats. She had no shoes.

"They took my girl and said, 'Go, old lady!' " recalled her mother, Enma Orellana. The woman ran in fear, looking back just once, when the girl cried, "Mama!" 

That was 29 years ago, when El Salvador waged war with itself and left hurts that have never healed. In the turmoil, more than 800 children disappeared, often into the hands of Salvadoran soldiers who used brutal tactics to battle leftist rebels and sympathizers.

The youngsters, including some whose parents had died, often ended up in orphanages under made-up names. Many were funneled by unscrupulous lawyers into a lucrative international adoption market or kept by the same military officers who took them. At least 400 remain missing.

Two decades after the end of the civil war, many Salvadoran parents - and, often, the children themselves - still search for loved ones, despite dimming memories and a trail that grows fainter each day.

For many, the only hope is a determined organization that uses shoe-leather detective work, modern tools such as Facebook and plenty of pluck to solve the wartime disappearances. It succeeds more than you would think.

Orellana's dream to see her daughter again rests with the group, called the Association for the Search for Missing Children and known as Pro-Busqueda. Over the years, it has located nearly half of the disappeared, with the largest number in El Salvador and the second-most in the United States. Adoptees have been tracked to Italy, Mexico, Germany and Belgium.

A nephew of Orellana's was tracked to France a few years ago. He had gone missing during the same army sweep in the northern province of Chalatenango in May 1982 that caught Milagro.

Encouraged by the discovery of the young man years after the war, Orellana, 60, a former schoolteacher, prays more than she eats and still allows room for happy news about Milagro, whose name means "miracle." Her memory freezes Milagro in childhood. She has no photos of her daughter, not even a scrap of her clothing. So many years later, unanswered questions keep Orellana tossing at night.

"One suffers so by not knowing," Orellana said, dabbing her eyes with a pink hand towel. Outside her spare block house in the forested hills of Chalatenango, chickens scratched in the gravel.

In just the last two years, Pro-Busqueda, founded in 1994 by a Jesuit priest, Jon Cortina, and funded mainly by European foundations and aid agencies, has found nearly 30 of the missing "children." By now, they're grown up, often with families of their own.

The searches are aided by DNA testing - the University of California at Berkeley's Human Rights Center helped create the database for making matches - but still require old-fashioned grunt work.

Investigators hunt leads in dog-eared adoption files and photos from orphanages that operated during the conflict. They tramp onetime conflict zones to trace last known steps and prod residents to recall traumatic, long-ago events. They venture into the most remote corners of the countryside, despite the presence of drug traffickers and dangerous gangs.

"Anyone who wants to think they can solve these from a desk is lost," said Ester Alvarenga, 46, the group's feisty coordinator.

On a recent day, Alvarenga met with Orellana in the rural hamlet of Guarjila, about two hours drive from the capital, San Salvador. During the visit, Alvarenga hit upon a possible way to reinvigorate the search: by finding childhood pictures of one of Milagro's grandmothers, whom the girl closely resembled.

Orellana, who sells some eggs to survive, takes comfort in the daily embrace a 6-year-old granddaughter, Enma Joceline, whose mother migrated to the United States. If she is still alive, Milagro is the girl's aunt. But leads are few.

"I dream that one day before I die, I might see that she has been found," Orellana said.

Alvarenga's main investigator, Margarita Zamora, understands the torment of those who have no answers. Her mother and four brothers and sisters have not been heard from since that sweep in 1982 when Milagro also vanished. During the same operation, at least 50 children are thought to have disappeared while fleeing army troops.

"I am living the same situation they are - the same uncertainty, the same anguish, the same hope," said Zamora, a petite former health worker who joined Pro-Busqueda in 2003.

The group's other successes sometimes make Zamora's own hopes jump, then reality kicks in. Pro-Busqueda has unearthed nearly 50 children's bodies over the years - a chilling reminder that these stories often end sadly. She concedes that the chances her mother is alive are "nil."

Zamora has developed an encyclopedic mastery of case files, memorizing dates, places and faces of the missing. She knows that a person's eyes or angle of cheekbone can lead to hunches that lead to breakthroughs that lead to long-awaited embraces.

Zamora helped locate Orellana's nephew in France after tripping across his photo in a forgotten Pro-Busqueda case file and recognizing the eyebrows of his mother, who had been looking for him. "I knew immediately," she said. He was tracked down through records from the orphanage where he had been taken and contacted in France by a French-speaking intermediary.

The young man, now 35, was at first enthusiastic about meeting his biological family, but has since cooled to the idea, Zamora said. "We're giving him space," she said.


Serendipity also helps. When a woman came into the group's office last month to launch a long-delayed search for her two daughters, Zamora could barely hold back her glee: One of the daughters years earlier had begun searching for the mother, who was long believed dead. The stories jibed, Zamora said, leaving her certain that the pending DNA test would confirm a match.

Lives can turn like that - people show up even now after learning about Pro-Busqueda, which is still relatively unknown outside El Salvador. When Alvarenga appeared on Spanish-language television in the United States recently, callers provided her with 10 new cases before she was off the air.

Wartime circumstances make these cases different from many other tales of adoptees reuniting with their biological families.

"You have to not only deal with the fact that you were separated from your family, but how you were separated is often hard to grasp," said Nelson de Witt, who was adopted by a couple in suburban Boston after his mother, a Salvadoran rebel, died in a raid in Honduras in 1982. De Witt, now 30, was located by Pro-Busqueda and a U.S. human rights group in 1997.

Despite a language gap at first, De Witt said he has developed a close long-distance relationship with his family in Central America and is working on a documentary film about them.

Sometimes class and cultural differences between adoptees who grew up in relative comfort abroad and impoverished relatives in El Salvador can be hard to bridge. De Witt said he learned of one adoptee brought up in the United States who was shocked by the tin-shack conditions of her birth relatives.

"She just couldn't relate and never went back," he said.

Salvadorans with missing relatives were thrilled when Mauricio Funes, a leftist backed by the former rebel movement, was elected president in 2009. Many believe that important clues to the whereabouts of their loved ones rest in sealed military files and want the Funes government to open the archives. But that has yet to happen.

Meanwhile, advocates for the families have turned to international courts. A case involving the disappearances of six children during army operations is currently before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Panama.

In 2005, the tribunal ordered the Salvadoran government to pay $285,000 in restitution to the family of Ernestina and Erlinda Serrano, sisters who vanished in the 1982 Chalatenango sweep. The girls, then 6 and 4, have never been found.

"We saw them alive. They went away alive. The faith in us says they're alive," said another sister, Suyapa Serrano, who was a teen at the time.

Serrano, now 48, recalls an air of panic that day. Her mother, Maria Victoria Cruz, made it through an army cordon and was separated from the father and girls. The father went to fetch water. As soldiers neared, Suyapa hid her younger sisters in some bushes and fled.

It would be weeks before Cruz learned that her little girls had disappeared. And it would be years before she stopped blaming her husband and Serrano, the older daughter said through tears. Cruz died in 2004.

Her mother's accusations only worsened the heartache for Serrano, who pleaded over the years that the disappearance wasn't her fault. At last, she was able to shed the guilt.

"Finally, she said, 'I recognize you're not to blame because it's the war itself - such things happened,' " Serrano recalled her mother saying. "In the end ... she told me I was forgiven."


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