Accounting for the Disappeared in El Salvador

El Salvador

The 1992 agreement that ended 12 years of civil war in El Salvador created conditions for  this country of just over six million people to move decisively away from conflict. A generation later, the casualty rate from gang violence exceeds 1980s levels.

Whereas the war pitted a land-owning class and its military allies against agricultural workers and urban intellectuals, today’s violence is sustained by competition among narco-gangs. In August 2015, after the end of a controversial truce between government and gangs under the presidency of Mauricio Funes (2009-14), the Supreme Court classified two of the most powerful gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, as terrorist organizations.

During the “truce”, the official homicide rate did go down, but critics argue that this was because gangs simply murdered more discreetly, burying victims in clandestine graves. The disposal of cadavers in secret locations is now well established as a precaution against possible prosecution.

In November 2015, El Salvador became the sixth country to sign the ICMP Agreement, the treaty by which ICMP attained the status of an International Organization. As a signatory state, El Salvador is able to bring its own experience to bear on the international response to the global challenge of missing persons. Thousands of families in El Salvador today live with the pain of not knowing the fate of a missing loved one, and civil society activists as well as stakeholders in the executive and the judiciary are striving to formulate an effective way of addressing the crisis.

As El Salvador’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, HE Aida Luz Santos de Escobar, noted at a conference organized by ICMP in The Hague in October 2015, “El Salvador’s experience in regard to missing persons has been decades long and extremely painful.” Among “the hard lessons” of this experience, she said, it is clear that addressing the issue of the disappeared “is fundamental to establishing and maintaining peace” and can only be done effectively “when all stakeholders – government and civil society – are actively engaged. The solution is a combination of political, social, judicial, and forensic activities that, when combined in the right way, can resolve large numbers of missing persons cases.”

In many countries, inadequate cooperation among institutions is a major obstacle to dealing with the issue of missing persons. ICMP proposes to work with government agencies in El Salvador to enhance institutional coordination. In recent years, for example, disagreements between the Supreme Court and the Legislative Assembly have complicated efforts to establish a single register of missing persons that can tabulate DNA profiles taken from the remains of victims and compare these with DNA profiles submitted by families of the missing. Such a list can be developed through the use of ICMP’s Identification Data Management System and Online Inquiry Center.

ICMP also proposes a series of initiatives to encourage the active participation of civil society. With training and support, families can organize effective campaigns to encourage members of the public to report missing persons cases and provide information on the circumstances of disappearances. Families can also develop advocacy techniques in order to access their rights more effectively.

In 2012 ICMP hosted a workshop for representatives from El Salvador’s judicial sector and civil society. ICMP is also taking part in a project with the Human Rights Center at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law and the Salvadorian organization Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos. The project assists DNA-based investigations, kinship analysis and database informatics on missing children. In addition, ICMP has participated in consultations organized by El Salvador’s State Prosecutor and Supreme Court, on a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a case related to crimes perpetrated during the civil war.

El Salvador’s Instituto de Medicina Legal reported at the beginning of this year that murders were taking place at a rate of one every hour. This level of violence has overwhelmed the police and judicial system, while the capacity for forensic identification of victims can cover only a fraction of cases.

The experience of other countries shows that social peace, achieved on the basis of a political consensus and the rule of law, can be fundamentally undermined if large numbers of missing persons cases are not addressed. If the authorities do not act, efficiently and transparently, to help citizens account for the disappeared, they are seen as being complicit in a systemic violation of human rights. Failure to act constitutes an abrogation of the government’s statutory obligations, and amounts to a public demonstration that the rule of law has not been fully established or maintained.

In the last decade, successive governments in El Salvador have sought to address the catastrophic rate of murders and disappearances through a variety of policies ranging from hard-hitting police measures to a more nuanced approach. The experience of other countries corroborates the lessons that have been learned within El Salvador itself, that the problem can only be solved through the right combination of political, social, judicial, and forensic activities, and that such a combination will only be applied effectively if the activities of government agencies and other stakeholders are properly coordinated and if they are carried out with the support and involvement of families of the missing.

El Salvador’s representation in the ICMP Conference of State Parties, is a clear signal of the desire of El Salvador initiate measures to sustainably address this problem.