She's Finding El Salvador's Lost Children

Why you should care

As Margarita Zamora reunites families shattered by her country’s civil war, she searches for answers to her own personal tragedy.

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As a brother and sister reunite after more than two decades apart, Margarita Zamora lingers on the periphery at a church in Cantón Jicarito, El Salvador. Upon seeing each other again, both begin to cry and share a long overdue embrace. The siblings reminisce about childhood memories, before the 12-year civil war that ripped this country apart. Zamora has organized hundreds of these reunions for family members forcibly separated as children during a conflict that ended in 1992. But this one, in particular, was “emotional and striking,” she says.

Why? This reunion three years ago brought back memories of her own siblings. Because even though Zamora has been able to bring so many families together as part of her work as an investigator for Pro-Búsqueda, she’s still searching for answers about her own.

The wound won’t heal while we don’t know the truth about what really happened.

Margarita Zamora

In 1981, when Zamora was 16, fighting broke out between guerrillas and the Salvadoran military in her hometown of San Antonio Los Ranchos, forcing her family to flee. In the chaos, her mother and four youngest siblings — José Mauricio, 8; Germán Rutilio, 5; José Orlando, 3; and Carla Catalina, 9 months — were separated from the rest of the family. They were never seen again, their bodies never found. And yet when Zamora, 53, solves mysteries for others, there’s no bitterness — only motivation to continue her work.

“Helping others helps me,” Zamora says. “The moment of the reunion for me is a way of recharging my batteries. It’s like a vitamin injection. I get stronger because I know that the work I have done and the pain that I shared with the family bore fruit.”

At least 5,000 people were forcibly disappeared during El Salvador’s civil war, according to a U.N. Truth Commission. Activists have identified even more cases and believe the number could be closer to 10,000. During the war, at least 75,000 people were killed, including two of Zamora’s brothers, an uncle, a cousin and other extended family.

After the war ended, families were frantic and frustrated when they couldn’t find help searching for loved ones. In 1994, Father Jon de Cortina, a Spanish priest working in El Salvador, founded Pro-Búsqueda with three human rights researchers to search for these missing children — many of whom had been adopted in the United States. Since then, the organization has solved more than 440 cases, with 275 resulting in reunions between family members. The organization is launching a campaign in the coming weeks to increase its DNA data bank to continue to find more cases by encouraging Salvadorans abroad to submit their DNA for testing.

Meanwhile, Pro-Búsqueda is fighting a legal battle to gain access to military archives that would aid their cases and help victims seek justice. For decades, military officers were protected from prosecution under the country’s amnesty law. But in July 2016, the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, and Pro-Búsqueda is supporting families who seek justice. The Supreme Court ordered the military to open the archives, and the military has refused, often by saying that these files don’t exist. Pro-Búsqueda is filing an appeal to the court and will take the case directly to the president if they have to, the group’s director, Eduardo Garcia, tells me.

Mike Allison, professor of political science at the University of Scranton with an expertise in Central America, calls Pro-Búsqueda and its NGO brethren “indispensable” and still urgent. “We hope that the search for truth and justice will foster greater respect for the rule of law and the strengthening of democracy in El Salvador today.”

The country of 6 million is plagued by corruption, economic woes and vicious gangs that fuel one of the world’s highest murder rates. Some Salvadorans believe Pro-Búsqueda is preventing the country from moving on and distracting from the problems of the present. Some ask Zamora: “Why do you want to open these wounds if it’s something of the past? Why remember it if it hurts?” She replies: “The wound won’t heal while we don’t know the truth about what really happened.”

Zamora began working with Pro-Búsqueda as a volunteer on a committee for family members after her father opened a case in 1997. In 2003, one of Pro-Búsqueda’s founders, Ralph Sprenkels, who has since left, approached her to see if she would work for the group full time. At the time, the organization was weighing whether to hire family members of disappeared children. Lived experience might help them connect with other families but could also be emotionally draining or lead to biased investigations.

Sprenkels says he decided in favor of Zamora “because she combined, and still combines, three special qualities: a keen mind for research, strong empathy with the relatives of disappeared children, and extraordinary stamina based on healthy realism and a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude,” Sprenkels says.

For the past 15 years, she has collected testimony and documents to track each family’s case. She doesn’t always tell her clients that she is going through the same search. “But because of her way of listening, she earns a lot of trust,” says Zamora’s investigative unit colleague Theresa Denger. The cases live in Zamora’s “heart and mind,” Denger says, praising her colleague’s infallible memory for details of each case.

Her own memories can be haunting. Zamora still remembers how her 8-year-old brother José Mauricio used to lay down underneath the hammock that hung outside the family’s home while her oldest brother rested there, prompting her mother to scold him for acting like a dog. She vividly recalls the scar on her other brother’s arm from when they were playing near hot water. But their faces are starting to fade in her memory. If she does ever see them again, it would likely be as tearful as the siblings in the church.

“I have my kids. I have a grandson now. I have my reasons to move forward. I have my father and two living siblings,” Zamora says. “But no one substitutes for another. The space that my four siblings held continues to be the most painful, because I don’t know what happened.”

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