El Faro: The Network that Exported El Salvador’s Children of War

By Sergio Arauz, originally published in El Faro, October 28, 2014.

With additional reporting by Fátima Peña. Authorized translation by Phil Neff for Unfinished Sentences.

During the early years of the Salvadoran civil war, thousands of child survivors of military operations were taken to places where lawyers received them and processed their paperwork to emigrate from El Salvador. Their identities were changed and they were torn from their families. The operations were carried out by lawyers with military contacts and foreign adoption centers flagged as part of the international black market.

Douglas Romero holds the photo that his father used to locate him, after finding the image in the office of a sub-lieutenant and recognizing his son, who had been stolen following a military operation. Photo: Fred Ramos
Douglas Romero holds the photo that his father used to locate him, after finding the image in the office of a sub-lieutenant and recognizing his son, who had been stolen following a military operation. Photo: Fred Ramos

The Exported Children

For two months, Douglas Romero lived the life of a child born in the United States. Short, chubby, and light-skinned, he was just over year old when he left El Salvador. Beforehand, he passed through a chain of unknown arms that took him far from the calloused hands of his father, a survivor whose prayers for death went unanswered during the massacre of Tenango, Cuscatlán. While Douglas was getting fat in the home of a family in the U.S., his father, Andrés Romero, resisted torture in the cells of the Treasury Police.

The Romero family’s torment began on Tuesday, February 23, 1983, the week during which the army carried out a counter-insurgency operation that appears in the history books as “the massacres of Tenango and Guadalupe”. According to the official account, during these operations the Armed Forces used helicopters to rescue children like Douglas from the subversives’ bullets. Douglas’ father tells the other side of the story. He remembers the day that he and his family fled from their home into the mountains, only to be met by a hail of bullets. He tells, also, how after this storm of lead, uniformed men carried him to a military helicopter, along with Douglas and other children. Somewhere in the landscape through which Andrés Romero fled from the military operation, the bones of his wife are still hidden. “It was the last time I saw them, all of them,” he says, after a detailed retelling that has turned him into a living symbol of the worst days of the Salvadoran civil war.

At the time, the national press didn’t publish stories like that of Douglas and his father. Military files consulted by El Faro reveal that the Armed Forces carried out “23 counter-insurgency operations between 1980 and 1983”. The names of these operations appear in officers’ service histories. The operation known as “the Guinda de Mayo”, during which many children disappeared, is recorded as “1982 Operation in Chalatenango”. The operation in which Douglas was torn from his father’s arms appears as Operation 10.

Douglas, now 33, keeps a photo in which he appears, dressed as a U.S. child. He is wearing overalls. The portrait is the only proof that he was in the U.S. in 1983. Thanks to this photo, his father realized that Douglas had been taken out of the country with forged legal documents. For two months, Douglas was no longer named Douglas. His father, the massacre survivor, doesn’t know who processed Douglas’ adoption, under what name he was adopted, or how he traveled to the U.S. without his consent. Nor has he sought answers to these questions.

The boy in overalls is one of 2,354 Salvadoran children who obtained visas to travel to the United States during the 80s. The Boston Globe journalist, Steve Fainaru, has written about corruption in adoptions of children of war. “Although most of the adoption-related corruption took place during the 1980s, the issue has resurfaced through the discovery that children who were seized by the Salvadoran military and passed on as war orphans were among 2,354 adopted children who received immigrant visas from the embassy during the war,” he wrote in a report that was published July 14, 1996.

The culprits of the corruption in adoptions of children of war were a group of Salvadoran lawyers who obtained permits from judges who, as representatives of the state, authorized the exportation of minors who were being sought by their parents, as in Douglas’ case. Behind the permits and paperwork there was money. During the decade of the war, U.S. citizens paid around $5,000 for adoption paperwork for a foreign-born child. Complaints by U.S. citizens who paid for the services of unlicensed adoption houses led a U.S. prosecutor to bring civil charges against the founder of an adoption center that fed on Salvadoran and Guatemalan children.

Lawyers in El Salvador charged around $3,000 for each child that they sent to the United States, according to an investigation carried out by the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador in 1983 and cited by The Miami Herald. Through the investigation, U.S. Consul Fernando Sánchez discovered that during a one-year period a single Salvadoran lawyer processed nearly 200 visa applications for Salvadoran children. Statements by Consul Sánchez do not specify in what year these applications were submitted. Over the years, the lawyer who was investigated by the Consul tried to become president of El Salvador, and now is an Evangelical pastor.

In 1983, a lawyer, supposedly representing Douglas’ parents or guardians, arrived at the offices of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador and filled out forms like the 924 IR-3 or the IR-4, classifications used by the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the U.S. State Department to process visas for orphaned children. In order to obtain these visas, it would be necessary to convince a U.S. Consul that a child like Douglas Romero had no one to take care of him “because of the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents”.

The lawyer also had to prove that, in the case one of the parents was living, the surviving parent was incapable of providing appropriate care and, for that reason, had irrevocably renounced, in writing, the child who would emigrate in order to be adopted. At that time the process could be completed with little more than a handful of notarized papers signed by witnesses, who in many cases were front men or even people who did not exist. When Douglas received his visa, it was under a different name.

In order to participate in the supply chain of children of war, one would have to first know where the children could be found. For this, one needed a contact in the Armed Forces who could give information about the dates of military operations. One would also have to know where the children considered orphans or abandoned were taken. Those interested in processing adoptions took photos of the child that caught their eye and distributed them to contacts with international adoption houses, whose role was to search for adoptive parents in the receiving countries.

The photo of the boy in overalls that Douglas holds today was found in the office of a sub-lieutenant that Andrés identifies as Machado Duque, whom he met in a barracks somewhere in San Salvador. “I went with Mariet, it was thanks to her that I found my children, I don’t know how she knew where they were,” Andrés, the survivor, says now. Mariet was a volunteer with the International Red Cross who got him out of prison and helped him to find three of his disappeared children, including Douglas. The survivor has not followed the trail of the military officer who had the photo of his son, nor that of the Swiss volunteer who freed him and took him to the office of the sub-lieutenant.

El Faro visited the offices of the Red Cross Volunteer Women to request information about the case, and about the volunteer Mariet. At the office we were told to present an official request to Carlos López Mendoza, spokesman for the Salvadoran Red Cross. Carlos López Mendoza states that the Volunteer Women once managed information regarding adoptions, but that the records no longer exist. “Everything was lost in the 1986 earthquake, there is nothing left from the earlier archives,” he says.

The official journal of El Salvador contains entries referring to a sub-lieutenant Machado Duque. His name is Boris. Neither Andrés nor his son knew that Boris Machado Duque had been promoted, and that by January of 2000 his rank was lieutenant coronel. Nor did they know that in 2009, Machado Duque’s rank was coronel, and that the Defense Minister had given him an army decoration for 30 years of service.

Andrés, like many parents still searching for their children who disappeared during the war—and who were possibly adopted in the United States or Europe—does not seek to judge or to find those who are guilty of the disappearance of his children. He is not interested in determining whether the officer who had the photo of his son wearing overalls was a participant in a child trafficking network. “I found him, and that is enough,” he says.

Andrés Romero is an iconic survivor of the massacre of Tenango. He found three of his children after being imprisoned and tortured by the Treasury Police. He is still searching for his wife, who disappeared during the same military operation in which he lost his three children, who he later recovered. Photo: Fred Ramos
Andrés Romero is an iconic survivor of the massacre of Tenango. He found three of his children after being imprisoned and tortured by the Treasury Police. He is still searching for his wife, who disappeared during the same military operation in which he lost his three children, who he later recovered. Photo: Fred Ramos

The Exporters

Somewhere amidst a mountain of papers in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court is a page listing the names of a group of lawyers who processed the majority of the adoptions of children of war. This mountain of papers is made up of almost a dozen files from a habeas corpus investigation that El Faro was allowed to access. The files also contain a list of 637 children reported disappeared, the majority between 1980 and 1985. These 16 pages of names are followed by a series of memos in which the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office requests information about adoption records from the Public Prosecutor’s office.

One of these memos flags the names of several lawyers as culprits in the authentication of papers used to allow children like Douglas Romero to leave the country through irregular adoptions. These adoptions are considered irregular according to the database of Pro-Búsqueda, a Salvadoran NGO specializing in the search for children disappeared during the war, which requested information from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office in order to locate several disappeared people. According to the typewritten memo, Roberto del Cid Aguirre is perhaps the lawyer who processed the greatest number of adoptions during the early years of the war. His name also appears in three investigations published by Pro-Búsqueda. The lawyer’s name also appears in the 70 page summary of a civil trial in the Superior Court of Suffolk County in Boston. Rudolph Pierce, the judge presiding over the case, fined Suzanne Champney, founder of an adoption house called “Los Niños del Amor, Inc.”, and prohibited her from processing adoptions.

On June 23, 1983, Roberto del Cid Aguirre’s name also appeared in a special investigation by the U.S. Embassy cited by the Miami Herald newspaper. An official with the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador called the telephone numbers of nine people listed by the lawyer as contacts for the mothers who supposedly had authorized the adoptions of their children. He discovered that they were all fake. “Many were for stores, and others were post offices. No one knew anything about the mothers,” a consular official told the Herald’s reporter, in relation to the investigation.

That same year, Roberto del Cid Aguirre and his brother Rubén were also accused in a Salvadoran court of stealing three children. At that time, the lawyer’s brother admitted to a judge that he had paid $480 to a mother who regretted giving three children up for adoption. Rubén served in the army and now lives in the United States.

Suzanne Champney, del Cid Aguirre’s primary contact in the U.S. adoption market, had stated before a judge in Suffolk County Superior Court that Roberto del Cid Aguirre was her primary provider of children from El Salvador and Guatemala. The case began at the instigation of prosecutor Francis X. Bellotti, who accused Champney of charging $2000 each to 25 couples seeking to adopt Guatemalan children.

“SUCCESS OF SALVADORAN ADOPTIONS GENERATES BLACK MARKET OF BABIES”, read the headline published by the Miami Herald on June 26, 1983. The founder of “Los Niños del Amor, Inc.” is now dead, and along with her the chance to shed light on the fates of many of these children, now adults. Judge Pierce ordered her to return the money she received from parents in the U.S, and prohibited her from carrying out further adoptions.

30 years after these revelations, the lawyer Roberto del Cid Aguirre is now an evangelical pastor living in El Salvador. In 2008 he tried to enter the world of politics, trying his luck under two different flags: he registered as a presidential pre-candidate with the ARENA party, and a few months later, after being rejected when the party proposed Rodrigo Ávila, he sought the presidential candidacy of the Christian Democratic Party, which governed during the civil war and the years when he was accused in both the Salvadoran and U.S. courts. He lives in a walled residence in a discrete and exclusive semi-urban neighborhood south of Santa Tecla, in the department of La Libertad. The house keeps several guard dogs.

The man in the suit is Roberto del Cid Aguirre, one of the lawyers who sent more than 300 children to an illegal adoption center in the United States. Photo courtesy CoLatino.

In El Salvador, Del Cid Aguirre is a familiar name in the Public Prosector’s office. Though the institution denies links with the lawyer’s presumed business deals, he visited frequently to request the notarization of documents that he would later bring to the U.S. Embassy to solicit visas for children. “The majority of the time he would go to the juvenile courts, we didn’t have much of a role, the Public Prosector’s office only gave its opinion when a judge requested it,” says Johana de Pineda, Secretary General of the Public Prosecutor’s office. She adds that Del Cid Aguirre was one of the notaries who processed the greatest number of adoptions.

Other lawyers recognized by the Public Prosecutor’s office as “legal representatives of children of war” include Pedro Carballo Álvarez and Alicia Zelaya Quintanilla. According to Pro-Búsqueda’s records, Pedro Carballo Álvarez has been the subject of a dozen legal complaints for “adoptions arranged by means of trickery”. In one study, the NGO took the testimony of María Graciela Ruiz, who stated that the lawyer had convinced her to give up her four daughters for adoption. The lawyer’s notarial protocols also record that Ms. Ruiz authorized the adoption of two children to whom she did not give birth. Carballo Álvarez’s notarial license is currently valid. El Faro visited the address in which he has asked to be notified of Supreme Court rulings. El Faro also visited the residence where he is listed as the owner of an apartment, according to information from the National Registry. This newspaper also made inquiries with the bar association, but no one admitted to knowing him or his whereabouts.

Pro-Búsqueda’s files also name Alicia Zelaya Quintanilla as one lawyer who had contacts with European adoption houses. She is now a professor for the public University of El Salvador. Alicia Zelaya Quintanilla also did not reply to an interview request delivered to her office assistant at the University law faculty.

During the early years of the war, Roberto del Cid Aguirre and the other two lawyers had ample room to maneuver. El Salvador’s Adoption Law did not require living witnesses, just signatures. There were no machines to verify fingerprints, and DNA tests were impossible. This made it easy for Douglas, the son of the farmer and massacre survivor who is still searching for his wife, to be sent to the United States. The lawyer who represented him knew how to pass through the screening process to procure visas for children of war who, far from being abandoned or orphaned, had been torn from their parents’ arms.

The State That Lost the Children

Photos like these were published in national newspapers. The photos allowed lawyers to justify the “abandonment” of minors before a judge who endorsed the custody of minors by third parties. Photo: El Salvador Human Rights Commission
Photos like these were published in national newspapers. The photos allowed lawyers to justify the “abandonment” of minors before a judge who endorsed the custody of minors by third parties. Photo: El Salvador Human Rights Commission

During the majority of the war, the Salvadoran State had so little concern for the custody of Salvadoran children that it allowed many minors—who, like Douglas, had been taken from the areas scorched by the military—to be held in barracks under the “care” of the Armed Forces. The book Historias para tener presente, published in 2002, tells the story of two children for whom the military was able to obtain birth certificates reading “child of unknown parents”, thanks to an Attorney General whose name is not mentioned.

In the early 80s, David Munguía Payés, now General and Minister of Defense of El Salvador, was a major in the army. Now, as the highest official of the Armed Forces, he explains that the terms “human rights” and “forced disappearance” were not in vogue at that time. “We didn’t hear anything about them, and we weren’t trained in anything like that,” says the General in his office.

In a brief interview with El Faro, Minister Munguía Payés insists on providing context for those years. “It is important to clarify that at the time there was no institutionality, there was no oversight, there was no notion of respect for human rights. I’m talking about prior to 1984…it wasn’t until 1983 that they began to educate and train members of the army in the topic.

When asked about the network of lawyers with military contacts that exported children of war, he says he is aware. He recognizes that there were cases like Douglas’, and that lawyers and military officials profited from the exportation of these children. “There were also cases like the ones you mention, but I can’t say that I was a witness to situations like those you describe”.

Munguía Payés claims that he saw children in caves while he was on the battlefield. “It was chaos, it was a crisis situation that had to be resolved immediately. What the army did was remove children from the most conflictive zones, often they were taken by the International Red Cross”, he says. He claims that, many years ago, he helped the founder of Association Pro-Búsqueda to resolve several cases. “I knew Father Jon Cortina, I helped him solve at least 10 cases of disappeared children”.

The post-war governments of the right and left have shown little difference in their stances on the topic in regards to truth and justice. During nearly 20 years of ARENA governments, the state tried to prove before international courts that the claims of children disappeared during the war were false. During the last five years, under FMLN administrations, the state has recognized responsibility for past atrocities, but it has been lukewarm in its compliance with sentences of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has ordered the state to deepen its investigation of forced disappearances.

However, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has received and is prosecuting a case. It has in its hands a report prepared by a special judge. Judge Antonio Durán was named on February 7, 2014 to study six dossiers relating to habeas corpus requests for 11 people, including an unborn child, all of them disappeared during the “Guinda de Mayo”, from late May to early June 1982, when hundreds of villagers in Chalatenango fled a military operation. The defendants in the case are the Minister of Defense and the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces. The plaintiffs want the state to reveal the whereabouts of these 11 people, presumably taken by the military during the operation.

Minguía Payés believes that this is not the right way to resolve Pro-Búsqueda’s concerns. “I worked very well with Father Jon Cortina, because he was a serious, responsible person with whom I was able to communicate well”.

The names of lawyers accused of processing the adoptions of children of war appear in the files held by the judge appointed by the Constitutional Chamber. Judge Antonio Durán explains that his specific role in this case is not related to the network of lawyers that sent children to the United States. In its resolution, the Chamber charged Durán with seven tasks: to verify what the Armed Forces’ archives say about the war during 1982; to identify the military objectives of the operations carried out in Chalatenango between May and June 1982; to determine which military battalions participated in the actions, and who was in charge of them; to look into the documentation presented with the case; to determine what actions the Battalion Ramón Belloso carried out during May 1982; to verify whether the archives contain information about detentions by the Armed Forces of children or adults who were transported away from the zone of operations and to verify the specific location to which the 11 people were transported, and who ordered their detention; and, finally, to copy and authenticate any information that might be found relating to these military operations.

Because the judge’s investigation is confidential, he cannot reveal the results of his report, which has been delivered to the Constitutional Chamber. But he reveals that some of the victims named in the lawsuit were not taken into custody by the military, as was the case of a pregnant woman taken to a hospital in a civilian vehicle, possibly belonging to the Red Cross. “So, how can you claim that the military is responsible, when the plaintiffs’ own complaint says that she was taken to a hospital?”, the judge asks. Does he have information about the network of lawyers, military officials, and adoption houses? “They called them fattening-up houses. It was a business. These topics are extremely important for the country,” says the judge, after explaining that more information is needed in order to go deeper into the subject.

The Attorney General’s office, which is the principal institution charged with safeguarding adoptions to ensure that children are provided with the best possible conditions and that the process is carried out according to law, denies responsibility for the manner in which children of war were taken to other countries in these cases. “At the time the law was not on our side, the judges and guardians of the minors had the power,” says Candy Acevedo, Deputy Attorney for Family, Adoptions, and Mediation.

During the early 80s, judges had the power to validate the abandonment of a child. In order to prove abandonment, the Salvadoran lawyers who were paid to send children abroad presented photos of the child alone in the home or center to which he or she had been taken. Although the Attorney General’s office claims it is not responsible, it does have information about the network of Salvadoran lawyers. According to two researchers with Pro-Búsqueda and the testimonies published in the book El día más esperado, the lawyers changed the children’s identities and lied about the origins of children of war who are being sought by their families.

About a month ago, the Attorney General’s adoption office prepared a special report on the adoptions of nearly 500 children who ended up in homes in the United States, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Canada. The Attorney General’s office confirmed to El Faro that Roberto del Cid Aguirre’s name appears in several of the adoption cases in the report. The Deputy Attorney for Family, Adoptions, and Mediation declined to reveal the details of the report. “It is one of the Public Prosecutor’s cases, so you can submit a freedom of information request and we’ll see what the law says,” she said, by way of excuse.

The Public Prosecutor’s office holds in its archives the names of lawyers who carried out legal proceedings to send thousands of children abroad for adoption. Each code in the second column identifies a file in which one can find the names of lawyers, judges, and other individuals who were responsible for minors who disappeared in conflict zones. Photo: El Faro
The Public Prosecutor’s office holds in its archives the names of lawyers who carried out legal proceedings to send thousands of children abroad for adoption. Each code in the second column identifies a file in which one can find the names of lawyers, judges, and other individuals who were responsible for minors who disappeared in conflict zones. Photo: El Faro

No One Seeks Justice

A little less than a year ago, during the early morning of November 14, 2013, three armed men broke into the office of Association Pro-Búsqueda. The armed men ransacked the office for more than 40 minutes, stealing computer equipment and destroying papers and files. Before leaving, they poured gasoline and set fire to the office. Judging by the testimony of employees who were held hostage, the attack was carefully planned, and it left Pro-Búsqueda with a partially destroyed office, damaged archives, and a pile of files consumed by flames.

Three of the burned files were related to the lawsuit currently under the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Chamber, which seeks the whereabouts of the 11 people who disappeared during the “Guinda de Mayo”. The authorities have not reported any advances in the case. Eduardo García, interim coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda, explains that all their efforts are focused on reuniting families. “We have a different approach, I can tell you that the people who are seeking to be reunited are not interested in criminal justice,” he says.

Lucio Carrillo is an orphan whose parents died during the war. He was reunited with his sister in 1995, and is one of the stars of the book Historias para tener presente, which recounts Pro-Búsqueda’s cases.

Like Douglas, the boy in overalls who could have grown up in the United States, Lucio grew up in a country whose institutions did not guarantee his rights. Unlike the conciliatory rhetoric of many victims of disappearance, torture, imprisonment, and murder by the state security forces, Lucio does call for justice and the identification of those responsible for condemning him to the life of an orphan. “I can’t forgive anyone, because no one has asked me for forgiveness. It’s not that I want them put in jail, I want to know who did what,” he says.

Douglas, his father Andrés, and Lucio have all collaborated with NGO research projects working on the topic of historical memory; basically, the cruelest episodes of the Salvadoran war. Each of them, with distinctions, has searched for precise information about their personal histories, but they stress that they don’t want to see anyone imprisoned. Andrés is searching for his wife, and for information about the massacre of Tenango. Douglas supports his father’s cause, and wants to know how he could have been sent to the United States.

El Faro visited Roberto del Cid Aguirre’s home and both of the churches he attends to request more information about the adoptions which he carried out during the 80s. Via his son, the lawyer declined to speak about the children who he sent to the United States. His son, Roberto, explained that his father was undergoing medical treatment and could not be interviewed.

A report on disappeared children compiled by the El Salvador Human Rights Commission during the civil war. The report is one of the main sources for investigations of the Salvadoran war.
A report on disappeared children compiled by the El Salvador Human Rights Commission during the civil war. The report is one of the main sources for investigations of the Salvadoran war.