Searching for El Salvador’s disappeared

Families of disappeared persons have little recourse in finding their loved ones as gang violence remains rampant.

San Salvador, El Salvador – Inside their tiny home in a poor neighbourhood of San Salvador, Ana Elizondo and her husband hold religious celebrations for their friends and neighbours, singing and praying several times a week.

It’s a chance for them to find comfort through their faith. Outside Elizondo’s front door, street gangs run the neighbourhood, and maintain their grip through fear and violence as they do in many other communities throughout this country. “My children are running a risk every day but I can’t lock them up. They must confront the life we are living every day. And that is, you go out and may never return,” Elizondo tells Al Jazeera. 

That is what happened to her son over three years ago, when 14-year-old Josue went out and never came back. “Someone was going to introduce him to a girl,” Elizondo says about the day her son left.

She began her frantic search that night and hasn’t stopped since, despite threats from gang members. She and her family believe the meeting with a girl was a trap set by the gangs, and that Josue was killed because he refused to join their ranks. He has yet to be found.

‘The lawyer for the dead’

Standing in front of a map dotted by the secret graves he has discovered throughout El Salvador, Israel Ticas tells Al Jazeera, “This is their modus operandi.” According to Ticas, who works as a forensic archaeologist and criminologist for the main prosecutor’s office, the violent gangs’ strategy is a simple one: “If there is no body, there is no crime.”

From every wall of his office, faces of the dead look out. The graphic images consist of people disappeared by gangs, most of them dismembered, and all of them hidden until Ticas and his team finds them. He has exhumed thousands of bodies at over 800 grave sites. 

Israel Ticas searches for the remains of disappeared persons [Matt Chandler/Al Jazeera]

A collection of soil samples from different sites sits on one shelf in Ticas’ office. In a jar, a small, dismembered hand of a young woman is almost perfectly preserved; her nails are still painted red. Ticas tells Al Jazeera that 75 percent of the gangs’ victims are women. “A woman in my country is more vulnerable,” he says. “First, because of the culture. A woman is a sexual symbol, an object, and the degree of barbarity used to kill a man is often not as extreme as that used to kill a woman.”

On his Facebook page, under the name “el abogado de los muertos”, or “the lawyer for the dead”, he posts pictures of clothing, possessions and any clues he discovers to help families identify their dead. Many come to the sites where he digs. “They tell me please find at least some of my child’s bones so I can die in peace.”

Others phone him and urge him to search in specific places, but he says he cannot unless they have made a criminal complaint and the case is under investigation, which many families won’t do. “People say nothing,” he says. “People are afraid.”

In this tiny nation of just over six million, assistance in helping families search for their loved ones has not been a priority due to fear of reprisals. According to police figures given to Al Jazeera, crime related violence has claimed the lives of an estimated 21,394 people since 2009, and the majority were victims of gang related violence.

Police also say at least 2,166 people have gone missing since the beginning of 2013. But with so many graves still to be discovered, and not all families reporting a missing relative, those numbers are likely to be much higher.

“In reality it’s very difficult to give a concrete number,” El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales says. He is critical of the lack of support for suffering families, and adds that “for decades the state has not made victims a priority”.

“In El Salvador, historically, victims have been discriminated against; the victims of armed conflict, of political violence after the civil war and victims of violent crime,” he adds.

‘Tortured and dismembered’

As a result, families and mothers in particular have now become the primary point people in searching for the missing. They go from hospitals, to the police and prosecutor’s offices, and to the morgue, photos in hand, to plead for information.

These are things that only we know. I can't explain it to you. It's a rule of the gang.

by - Alfonso, member of 18th street gang

At San Salvador’s morgue, Maria Eugenia Ayala is looking for her son, who has been missing since January. Another parent, Jorge Alberto Perez, says he and his wife have looked everywhere for their daughter. “We are looking for her, whether she’s alive or dead. And if she’s dead, I want the authorities to turn her over to us,” he tells Al Jazeera, 

Inside the morgue, at least 80 boxes are stacked in two small rooms, each containing the bones of a person. Oscar Armando Quijano, who manages the morgue, says identifying the remains is a challenge. “We can see they are tortured and dismembered, so we can only find body parts. By doing this, the criminals are sending the message of what they are capable of doing.”

In a cell at the back of a local police station, 18th street gang member Alfonso tells Al Jazeera that he can’t comment on the disappeared. “These are things that only we know. I can’t explain it to you. It’s a rule of the gang,” he says. For the second time in two years, the 18th street gang and its rival, Mara Salvatrucha, agreed to a truce on August 31. But their pledge to stop the killings didn’t include an offer to help find the dead.

“Before the [last] truce we had 12, 13 murders a day nationally, and then it dropped to five,” says Howard Cotto, the deputy police chief. He also adds that when the murders started to drop, the cases of disappeared persons began to rise. 

Meanwhile, on a bus ride to her local prosecutor’s office, a journey she makes every two weeks, Ana Elizondo has little hope investigators will bring her news of Josue’s whereabouts. “The authorities tell me to be patient, nothing more,” she tells Al Jazeera, as her meeting once again yields no results.

“Each time they tell me to bring them some new information, but I don’t know anything.” 

Source: Al Jazeera