Lead forensic geneticist Patricia del Carmen Vásquez, from the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos de El Salvador, was at her computer searching for El Salvador’s missing children when she ran into a “cold hit”—a moment of discovery that can make your heart skip a beat. The term is used in the United States when a DNA profile comparison links a person to a crime scene or, in this case, to a member of his biological family.
Vásquez’s discovery linked Serapio Cristian Contreras Recinos to María Maura Contreras, his biological mother, whom he hadn’t seen in 30 years.
In 1982, at the age of two, Serapio Cristian and his sisters, Gregoria Herminia and Julia Inés, were captured by military personnel and taken from Maura during a military operation in eastern El Salvador. Like hundreds of Salvadoran children, they were sent away through irregular adoptions. Twenty-four years later, Gregoria Herminia, then 28, was found living in Guatemala and reunited with her family in El Salvador.
Last August, Serapio Cristian, who had been living under the name of Mario Ulises Carballo in the department of San Vicente in El Salvador, was reunited with his sister Gregoria and his parents, Maura Contreras and Fermín Recinos—thanks to Pro-Búsqueda’s use of DNA evidence in the search for and identification of children who went missing during El Salvador’s civil war. The joyful ceremony was only clouded by the continued absence of little sister Julia Inés. Where might she be, under what name might she be living, and with whom?
Of the more than 900 Salvadoran children who were abducted and given up for illegal adoption during El Salvador’s civil war, only 382 have been found in Central America, the U.S., or Europe, while more than 539 have yet to be located. So far, Pro-Búsqueda and the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law, where I work, have located 61 missing children (now young adults) in the U.S., of whom 22 have elected to meet their biological families.
Such progress notwithstanding, the search for missing children is being conducted at a huge disadvantage. Despite repeated requests, the Salvadoran authorities have failed to open military records that could provide important leads on the laundering of children during the civil war.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who is now a little more than a year away from the end of his term, could profoundly impact this search. As General Commander of the Armed Forces, he could give Pro-Búsqueda, as well as the National Commission of Missing Children—which was established by President Funes himself in early 2010—access to military documentation that has remained hidden from scrutiny. This documentation may reveal critical information about the early tracking of missing children from the war. Chapter and verse, Article 28 of the Constitution of El Salvador states that the President of the Republic and Commander of the Armed Forces exercises “…the political-military direction of the Armed Forces, through the Minister of National Defense.”
During El Salvador’s civil war, the United States issued more than 2,300 adoption visas to American parents, allowing them to bring Salvadoran children and toddlers to the United States. Privacy regarding these visas is important and could continue to be respected even if the State Department were to proactively inform U.S. parents about the international effort to reunite families severed by El Salvador’s civil war.
In her final days as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton could make a powerful gesture to help heal some of the wounds of war. She could direct the State Department to provide the families that adopted Salvadoran children with the information they need to locate biological relatives with Pro-Búsqueda's expertise—should they choose to do so.
Clinton’s action would be a gift to the Salvadoran parents who have spent more than two decades searching for the children they lost during a conflict that was heavily funded by the United States.
The immediate and relatively simple actions of President Funes and Secretary of State Clinton, along with the power of forensic genetics, could mean finding Julia Inés Contreras Recinos and others, before it’s too late.