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A Mother and Child Reunion
April 9, 2007

A recent story originating from both Boston and the tiny village of Cacaopera in El Salvador resonated with Blood of Paradise this week, focusing light on the practice by certain elements within the Salvadoran military during that country's civil war of abducting the children of poor campesinos and placing them on the international adoption market. (This was a practice that the Argentine military also employed during its Dirty War; Argentine advisors actively assisted the Salvadoran military until the Falklands War in 1982.)

Suzanne Berghaus, a twenty-six-year-old social worker from the Boston suburbs, reunited with her birth family earlier this month, after having been taken by a Salvadoran officer during field operations near Cacaopera in 1982. The officer saw the infant, who was fourteen months old (and was at that time named María), playing in a hammock. He told the child's mother he liked the little girl, and asked if the mother was willing to give the child up. The mother knew it was not a question, but twice she told the officer no. Of course, her wishes meant nothing, and the officer took little María away (along with two other village children that day). The little girl was subsequently adopted by a family in Wilmington, Massachusetts, where she grew up.

Human rights groups such as Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, a Salvadoran organization dedicated to finding children abducted during the civil war and reuniting them with their birth families, have documented almost 800 such cases, and have resolved 323 of them; about half of those have resulted in reunions such as the one Suzanne Berghaus enjoyed with her birth parents, siblings and cousins earlier this month.

Pro-Búsqueda is assisted by Physicians for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley, and that assistance is crucial given the obfuscation, stonewalling, and outright deceit too often exhibited by the Salvadoran government. Officials routinely block efforts to review military records that would help reunite more families by revealing the names of soldiers involved in wartime missions. The government, as it has done with calls for retraction of the general amnesty law that granted impunity to all those involved in human rights abuses during the civil war (about which I'll write next week), contends that it is focused more on building for the future than dwelling on the past, but the refusal to redress the crimes of the war only creates a cancer that continues to afflict this small, impoverished country.

Sometimes Pro-Búsqueda has had to pursue cases all the way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as it did in a celebrated case involving Erlinda and Ernestina Serrano Cruz, who were 3 and 7 when they disappeared, also in 1982. The court issued a ruling in 2005 condemning the Salvadoran government for its handling of the case. Even so, no progress has been made on finding the two young women since, despite the passage of two years, the Salvadoran government continues to refuse to comply fully with the nine major demands made in the court decision.

Those who have read Blood of Paradise know that this market in abducted children plays a major role in the plot, and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes continues to be a major problem in El Salvador. The refusal by the government to commit itself to a full and honest effort to reunite families who suffered such losses only adds to the criminal legacy of the government, and serves to undermine the supposed focus on the future it claims to want.

For news accounts of the reunion of Ms. Berghaus with her birth family (from which I drew the preceding account), check out the following links:

NY Times
Boston Globe

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