Seattleites renew fight for justice in El Salvador’s dirty wars

An elder Salvadoran man who survived the armed conflict is preparing a poster memorializing slain family members for the annual “Encuentro de Victimas” (Meeting of Victims) in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

In the Eighties, Seattle was a hub for resistance to U.S. funded human rights abuses in Central America. With new hope for justice in El Salvador, some locals are back at it. 

The solidarity that distinguished Seattle’s relationship to El Salvador in the 1980’s is reigniting once again. Last Thursday, representatives from 10 organizations met at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Seattle in support of a renewed movement for justice in El Salvador.

The event, La Voz de la Justicia: Human Rights at a Critical Juncture in El Salvador, was organized through the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) and the Social Justice Committee of St. Patrick’s Church. It brought together groups with a long history of supporting human rights throughout the region.

So why now, more than 20 years after the end of official hostilities in El Salvador?

In early September, the Attorney General’s office in El Salvador announced that for the first time in the country’s history, investigations would be opened into the massacre at El Mozote and as many as 32 other wartime atrocities. A few weeks later, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court accepted a challenge to the constitutionality of the amnesty law.

A decision on the amnesty law is now expected literally any day,” says Angelina Godoy, Director of UWCHR. “These are things victims have been struggling to achieve for decades. There’s a sense of real possibility now, one that didn’t exist before.”

A man at the annual Encuentro de Victimas (Meeting of Victims) reads a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in Morazán province. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)A man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reads a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

From 1980 to 1992, over 75,000 civilians died in the bloody armed conflict in El Salvador. Thousands more were brutally tortured or “disappeared.” Hostilities officially came to an end with peace accords in 1992, and as part of the peace process, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission was tasked with investigating wartime atrocities. Their investigation found approximately 85% of the violence occurred at the hands of the Salvadoran government.

But just five days after the release of the Truth Commission’s report in March, 1993, the Salvadoran legislature passed an Amnesty Law that has since been used to effectively shield people in positions of power from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Salvadorans have been fighting for justice and reparations ever since.

The sad truth for Americans is that the armed conflict was heavily funded by our government. In an attempt to make El Salvador a leading example of Cold War policy, the U.S. provided the Salvadoran government upwards of $5 billion, despite awareness of government involvement in egregious human rights abuses.

But concerned citizens across the globe reacted strongly to these abuses and the subsequent involvement of the U.S. government.

Seattle, in particular, was front and center in the movement to stop the war. In 1983 voters passed the “Peace in Central America Initiative” which declared opposition to the United States support of the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and established a Citizens’ Commission on Central America that included over twenty local organizations like El Centro de La Raza, the Catholic Archdiocese, and the University of Washington. Many Seattle parishes participated in the sanctuary movement, providing shelter to refugees from the Central American conflicts.

University of Washington graduate students Dacia Sáenz and Ursula Mosquiera converse with a community member about life during the armed conflict in Arcatao, El Salvador. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)University of Washington graduate students Dacia Sáenz and Ursula Mosquiera talk with a resident of Arcatao, El Salvador about life during the armed conflict. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

Today, the University of Washington is back to supporting human rights in the region. Since 2011, UWCHR and The Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) in San Salvador have been collaborating on activities aimed at addressing core challenges to the rule of law in El Salvador.

Though there have been a lot of positive developments in El Salvador recently, there are also strong signs that those who oppose the justice movement are still willing to resort to criminality to protect themselves. At the end of September, 2013, the Catholic Church closed down one of the country’s main human rights organizations, leaving the victims in cases like the massacre at El Mozote suddenly without access to legal representation, and even without access to their own case files.

Even groups who search for missing children are being targeted. During a recent trip to El Salvador, we documented the emotional return of Marina Lopez (adopted name Marina Llewelyn) to Arcatao, El Salvador, for the first time since her childhood.

Marina had been taken from her family by the Salvadoran military, but was reunited through the human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda, who work to discover the whereabouts of disappeared children and reunite them with surviving family members. Pro-Búsqueda conducted research for over two decades to find Marina.

Video by Alex Montalvo and Dacia Saenz documenting Marina Lopez’s return to El Salvador.

Sadly, just three days after Marina’s reunion, Pro-Búsqueda was attacked and its offices firebombed, destroying some three-quarters of their files. These recent attacks are what prompted the recent “La Voz” event held at St. Patricks.

The City of Seattle is taking notice of local efforts for justice in El Salvador once again. Today, on International Human Rights Day, The UW Center for Human Rights is set to receive an award from the City. Godoy says she sees the award as recognition not just of the UWCHR, but of all the UW students, and the many people in El Salvador who have been involved in the effort.

“What makes our work so powerful is the way it’s rooted in partnerships with those on the front lines of human rights struggles, folks like the committee of survivors we just met with in Arcatao, El Salvador,” Godoy said. “I wish those women and men could also step up to the podium and be recognized, for they’re really the ones who are teaching us about what human rights mean.”

For more information about human rights in El Salvador, and to demand a full investigation into the attack on Pro-Búsqueda, please visit


  1. I’m happy got these organizations trying to help and get justice for all these war torn families just as my mom Maria M. Recinos and my 2 sisters Yesenia E. Recinos and Jasmin M. Recinos now (Jolie Peterson) were also victims. We are in a quest to find my sister Yesenia and have faith in God that one day we will reunite. We are so thankful to God that he has giving us the privilege to have found my sister Jolie. Keep up the great work!

    1. Lupita, thank you so much for your touching comment. I too want nothing more than for your family to reunite. It’s shameful that there has been no accountability for the injustices and human rights violations that occurred during the war (and after in many cases). We are incredibly motivated by stories such as yours, and hope the recent positive developments will triumph the attempts to block truth and justice. We’re trying to unite as many people as possible in this renewed momentum, and if you’d like to stay abreast of developments, be sure to visit for updates. I’m wishing you and your family continued strength!

    2. Hola Lupita,
      Creo que mi amiga Elizabeth McMaster es su hermana. Yesenia Elizabeth, nacio en El Salvador el 28 de Julio de 1978, fue adoptada en 1980 por una pareja de americanos. Por favor escribame!

      Maria Fernanda

      1. Gracias Señor porque tu eres grande!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Si esa es la fecha de nacimiento de ella!!!! Y si es el año que ella fue adoptada!!!!! Habla me lo más pronto posible. Mi numero es 417-355-4654 Muchas gracias! Estoy bien contenta!!!!

  2. Hi my name is Zaira I am looking for my bio mom. I was only a few months old she named me Paola we are from acajutla 1982.

    Hola mi nombre es Zaira estoy buscando a mi mama bio. Yo solo tenia meses mi nombre era Paola naci en acajutla 1982.

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