Court orders El Salvador to investigate children’s disappearances

October 10, 2011 | 4:22pm
REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY — Human rights advocates are hailing an international court decision ordering the government of El Salvador to fully investigate the cases of hundreds of children who disappeared during the nation’s civil war three decades ago.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San Jose, Costa Rica, found rights violations in the cases of six youngsters who vanished after being taken away by soldiers in 1981 and 1982.

One of the six children, Gregoria Contreras, 4 years old when she disappeared, was reunited with her family many years later after being tracked down by a Salvadoran group, the Assn. for the Search for Missing Children, also known as Pro-Busqueda. The group’s enduring search for children who went missing during the conflict was chronicled earlier this year by The Times here.

In its ruling, issued to the parties late last week, the court found what it called a “systematic pattern of forced disappearances of children” by army personnel battling leftist rebels. Many of the children, seized during raids, were placed into the lucrative international adoption market and raised abroad. Since 1994, Pro Busqueda has received reports of more than 800 children who vanished during the war. The group has located nearly half of them.

“The court recognizes the truth that was for years denied to relatives of the hundreds of [missing] children,” Pro-Busqueda’s director, Ester Alvarenga, said in a statement.

Salvadoran military authorities impeded investigations into the cases for many years. The leftist government of President Mauricio Funes, elected in 2009, has promised to investigate cases, but rights advocates say it has done little because of a lack of funds. Moreover, they say, few cases are likely to be solved unless the military is ordered to open files from the wartime period.

“One of the main difficulties in determining what happened to the disappeared children is obstruction by military forces when authorities charged with the investigation try to get information,” said Gisela De Leon, a lawyer for the Center for Justice and International Law who argued the case on behalf of the children. “The state will have to adopt measures to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

The case before the inter-American tribunal involved three sets of children who disappeared separately during the early 1980s.