In 1993, the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador estimated that some 10,000 Salvadoran civilians were forcibly disappeared during the country’s armed conflict. To this day, no meaningful inquiries have been launched to recover their remains or identify those responsible for these crimes. In El Salvador, relatives of the disappeared have been demanding justice for decades. In 2014, the Mauricio Aquino Foundation launched a campaign called “Our Parents’ Bones,” led by children of the disappeared who now live in the United States. The campaign has hosted community events for children, family-members, and friends of the disappeared in cities across the U.S. With the support of the UWCHR’s Unfinished Sentences project, the Our Parents’ Bones campaign is also lobbying both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments to take action to uncover the truth about forced disappearances.
On April 14, 2016, the UWCHR joined the Mauricio Aquino Foundation, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the Due Process of Law Foundation in spearheading a Congressional briefing, hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives Central America Caucus and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. At the briefing, three family members of the disappeared shared their personal stories, alongside David Morales, El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman, who argued that the systemic disregard of such cases has hampered El Salvador’s ability to fight contemporary crime today. As part of the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, the Obama Administration intends a significant investment in rule of law efforts in El Salvador and neighboring countries; yet participants in this briefing insisted that absent indications of political will to tackle the tough cases—from the past and present eras—infusions of economic assistance will have little effect.
In addition to sponsoring the briefing, members of the delegation met with numerous Congressional offices and with key officers at the State Department, and hosted two public presentations with local organizations. In response, Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Norma Torres (D-CA) circulated two Dear Colleague letters on the topic of El Salvador’s disappeared. In total, 26 Members of Congress signed a letter asking the Obama administration to initiate a broad declassification of records pertaining to human rights in El Salvador; 21 Members of Congress also signed a letter to Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén soliciting the creation of a national commission in El Salvador to search for the disappeared.
There is reason to think that Our Parents’ Bones and Members of Congress’ call for a declassification order on El Salvador might be successful—earlier in 2016, the Obama Administration ordered government agencies to release files relating to U.S. involvement in the “Dirty Wars” in both Argentina and Chile. The UWCHR’s research, and our ongoing FOIA lawsuit against the CIA, underscore the importance of precisely such a measure to surmount the limitations of the existing FOIA process and provide access to information that can help families—in both El Salvador and the United States—heal the wounds of war.
The most compelling argument for further declassification and a renewed search for the remains of the disappeared, are the stories of those who lost family members to forced disappearance. Sara Aguilar, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and member of the Our Parents’ Bones campaign, told the story of her father Rodolfo’s disappearance in a video created by the UWCHR. Sara’s story was viewed more than 18,000 times and shared by hundreds of people, many of whom wrote emotional messages of sympathy and solidarity. Hundreds also took action after watching the video by writing to U.S. government officials with the power to influence declassification processes.
“Within my generation this happened.” Sara says, “As a US citizen, I feel like it’s the US’s responsibility to declassify documents…It’s time now, 33, 35 years after the fact, it’s time to know what happened, find some closure, and continue that process of healing.” Watch Sara tell her story: