Keeping up (dis)appearances in El Salvador

On the Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, this small nation reminds us of the perils of forgetting the past.

A procession in El Salvador on August 28, 2022, commemorating the disappearance of more than 150 children 40 years ago during the country's brutal civil war.
A procession in El Salvador on August 28, 2022, commemorating the disappearance of more than 150 children 40 years ago during the country's brutal civil war [Rodrigo Sura/EPA-EFE]

In her brief book Salvador, penned during the bloody Salvadoran civil war of 1979-92, Joan Didion reflects on the Spanish word “desaparecer,” meaning “to disappear”. She notes that its “flexibility” in Spanish as both a transitive and intransitive verb had “been adopted by those speaking English in El Salvador, as in John Sullivan was disappeared from the Sheraton; the government disappeared the students”.

Indeed, there was plenty of disappearing going on in the country — whether transitively or intransitively. The International Commission on Missing Persons, based in The Hague, estimates that about 9,000 people disappeared in El Salvador during the war. This is on top of the more than 75,000 people killed, with the majority of atrocities committed by the United States-backed right-wing military and associated death squads.

By coincidence, in 1992 — the year of the conflict’s ostensible end — the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. In 2010, the UN declared August 30 as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

But declarations and international days do not make missing people reappear.

Now, a full 30 years after “peace” was reached in El Salvador, the disappeared of the civil war have yet to be accounted for. It was not until 2017 that the Salvadoran government formed a commission to search for the missing, an effort that has yielded predictably anticlimactic results. Remains are exhumed here and there, but it’s not the sort of rigorous reckoning with the past that truth seekers had hoped for. Meanwhile, citizen groups that have formed to demand information about the disappeared have faced government indifference and abuse.

After all, in a small country saturated with clandestine graves and where impunity remains the name of the game, the political class prefers to leave the past dead and buried.

That’s harder to do for family members of disappeared persons, without the psychological closure of knowing what happened to their loved ones — even if the answer comes in the form of a skeleton in a mass grave. As is the case in Lebanon, Argentina and other places with track records of unsolved disappearances, family members are unable to commence the grieving process that is necessary for them to eventually move forward with their lives.

In El Salvador, furthermore, the past is present in more ways than one — and, under the current enlightened rule of the world’s self-proclaimed “coolest dictator” Nayib Bukele, disappearance is back with a vengeance.

To be fair, disappearances never really disappeared. In 2012, a government-backed gang truce led to an official drop in homicides but with a concomitant surge in people going missing as both gangs and state security forces reportedly started hiding corpses instead. According to El Salvador’s Foundation of Studies for the Application of Law (FESPAD), the Salvadoran attorney general’s office received more than 20,000 reports of missing persons between 2014 and 2019 alone. And yet — given the fear that permeates Salvadoran society and the frequent reluctance to bring such matters to official attention — even this figure presumably does not reflect the magnitude of the phenomenon.

El Salvador’s ongoing state of emergency — which was imposed at the end of March and has effectively eliminated any semblance of civil liberties in the country — has considerably facilitated the upbeat authoritarian president’s malevolent antics. More than 50,000 Salvadorans have thus far been swept up in a mass incarceration frenzy, thanks to which more than two percent of the nation’s adult population is reportedly now behind bars.

Bukele kicked off the state of emergency in response to a sudden spike in homicides. Under the guise of a war on gang “terrorists”, he is now presiding over a war on his own country — one that has entailed countless short-term enforced disappearances, as the state regularly denies prisoners’ families any information regarding the location of their imprisonment and other details.

Visiting El Salvador a few months ago, I had the chance to speak with a Salvadoran psychologist who had experienced the emergency firsthand when he was thrown into prison for six days in the country’s capital of San Salvador. Inside the severely overcrowded cell, his fellow “terrorists” had included a 16-year-old boy, an 84-year-old deaf man, and an assortment of street vendors whom the police had apparently summarily tagged as gang affiliates in order to fulfil their detention quotas.

The psychologist reckoned that, had it not been for his fair skin and relatively privileged status, his family would never have heard from him again. As we mark the International Day of the Disappeared, then, it’s as good a day as any to remember the thousands of less fortunate Salvadorans.

Obviously, the state isn’t directly involved in all missing persons situations in El Salvador. Many Salvadorans are disappeared by gangs and others while attempting to migrate to perceived safety in the United States. Many young girls are disappeared after undergoing horrific sexual violence.

However, it is crucial to note that the government is nonetheless largely responsible for maintaining the patriarchal socioeconomic oppression in which all disappearances take place. A heavy dose of blame must also be assigned to the friendly neighbourhood superpower — the US — for serving not only as the founding father of Salvadoran gangs but also as the source of the neoliberal ravaging of El Salvador that drives gang membership.

Shortly after Bukele assumed the presidency in 2019, the Washington Post described soaring disappearances in El Salvador as “the return of a Cold War nightmare”. Still, the publication detected a “new reason for hope” in the “charismatic young” leader, whose gung-ho attorney general Raúl Melara had shown an interest in investigating clandestine gravesites.

Fast forward to May 2021, and the charismatic young dude sacked Melara along with all five top Supreme Court judges. The Salvadoran nightmare goes on.

The UN explains that “enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society”, including when states invoke “counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations”. This is more or less exactly what Bukele is up to, as he peddles a heroic narrative of good versus evil to keep up (dis)appearances.

This August 30, it’s clear that the relevance of the verb desaparecer that Didion highlighted decades ago is not disappearing any time soon in El Salvador.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.