Seeking Answers for Families of Disappeared Migrants
A report from the International Human Rights Clinic examines the reasons why so many Central Americans head north, why thousands of them go missing each year, and what regional governments can do to help solve the problem.
More than 160,000 people migrate from Central America through Mexico each year, many on their way to what they hope will be a better life in the United States. But thousands of those men, women, and children never arrive anywhere. Instead, they disappear.
A soon-to-be published report from Boston University School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic may help change that. Drawing on four years of field research, the report, Disappeared Migrants from Central America: Transnational Responsibility, the Search for Answers and Legal Lacunae, examines the social, economic, and political conditions behind people’s decision to leave their home countries; the reasons migrants disappear en route; and the laws and policies governing investigations, repatriation of remains, and reparations. Clinical Professor Susan M. Akram says her clinic agreed to examine the issue at the request of advocates on the ground, including the family members of missing or disappeared people. According to the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano (Mesoamerican Migrant Movement), between 72,000 and 120,000 migrants went missing between 2006 and 2016.
“A big piece of the effort was understanding in each country what the families are demanding and what the problems are so that we could fashion recommendations,” Akram says.
The report focuses on three countries in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. More than a dozen BU Law students have worked on the project over the past four years. In teams of two or three, under Akram’s supervision, they have traveled to each of the countries to interview family members, speak with relevant government agencies, and collaborate with local and regional civil society organizations that have been trying to raise awareness of the issue, including the Foundation for Justice and Democratic Rule of Law. In the 2018–19 academic year, the three-member student team—Jesus Zelaya (’20), Taylor Mielnicki (’19), and Adela Perez-Franco (’20) focused their efforts on El Salvador.
Personnel from that country’s Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos (Human Right’s Office) told the students that there are 326 cases of disappeared Salvadoran migrants registered in its DNA bank, which was established in collaboration with government agencies and nonprofits with the goal of identifying remains of disappeared migrants and returning them to their family members.
The students learned the three main reasons for migration from the country. First, El Salvador suffers from extreme poverty. Second, violence is systemic. Although the ongoing violence can be traced back to the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, the more recent causes are gang activity, heavy-handed government efforts to stamp out gang-activity, and the corruption that fuels trafficking, smuggling, and other illicit activities. These factors led to 2,929 internal disappearances in 2018, according to the Policia Nacional Civil (National Civil Police). Representatives from another group, Asociación Comunicando y Capacitando a Mujeres Trans con VIH en El Salvador (Association for Communication and Capacity-Building of Trans Women with HIV in El Salvador), told the students that women, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA individuals, and young males likely to be recruited by gangs are the most vulnerable to violence. Finally, many Salvadorans are leaving to reunite with relatives who fled to the US during the civil war.
“All these factors are interrelated,” says Zelaya.
Akram adds that country conditions are influenced by everything from trade agreements (which can drive down wages) to private interests (corporate development can force people off their land).
“There are so many factors to this story,” she says. “That’s why we are so strongly focused on a transnational solution. This is not a problem that can be addressed by one single country on its own.”
When someone goes missing, the law has so far been an ineffective tool. Perez-Franco spent months researching El Salvador’s Special Law on the Protection and Development of Salvadoran Migrants and their Families. The law has a fund for reparations and repatriation of remains, but it has no provisions for filing a report or making a claim for a disappearance. It designates one agency to oversee such cases, but the agency is underfunded and has no clear mandate for action.
“I couldn’t help but think that it really wasn’t saying much at all,” Perez-Franco says of her research into the law. When she met with an attorney at Grupo Monitoreo International El Salvador (International Monitoring Group), that suspicion was confirmed.
“He described it as ‘dead letter,’” she recalls.
There are so many factors to this story. That’s why we are so strongly focused on a transnational solution. This is not a problem that can be addressed by one single country on its own.
Another major obstacle in any investigation or search is the lack of coordination among the responsible government offices and even a lack of consistency in the terminology used to describe such cases, according to the students.
“If one agency, family collective, or NGO uses a term, but other agencies don’t, you can’t have uniformity of the law,” Mielnicki says.
The imprecise terminology can also make it hard to hold people accountable. In Latin America, the terms “disappeared” or “missing” are different from “enforced disappearance,” which has a specific connotation dating back to brutal dictators who committed crimes against their own citizens. But Velasquez-Rodriguez v. Honduras, a 1988 case from the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, defined enforced disappearances as “a systematic and selective practice… carried out with the assistance or tolerance of the government,” meaning a government has a responsibility to prevent human rights violations from occurring, to investigate them when they do occur, and to prosecute those responsible, no matter who is involved.
“Velasquez-Rodriguez says, if there is a pattern of disappearances and the evidence doesn’t point to any other actor, then the state is complicit,” Akram says. “That’s what states are trying to avoid, because it places immediate obligations on the state to investigate, prosecute, and compensate.”
For families, that means it can be difficult to find answers. The students spoke to one father whose two sons left home to find work. One was forced into a gang and later killed in a car crash while traveling on a narcotics route; the other came home but then the family had to work with the governments of both El Salvador and Mexico to repatriate the deceased son’s remains.
“There are times when you can have international cooperation, but it’s so rare,” says Mielnicki. “The father had to push so hard to get these agencies involved. That shouldn’t be his job.”
For many of the migrants’ families, enduring the emotional pain of losing a loved one is just the beginning: Often the missing migrant is the family’s primary source of income.
“Now that they’re gone, the resources are even more limited and that just really plunges the family even deeper into poverty,” Perez-Franco says.
For Zelaya and Perez-Franco, the work on the report was personal as well as professional. Zelaya’s mother and father immigrated to the United States from Honduras and El Salvador, respectively. Perez-Franco’s parents are from El Salvador.
The report “allowed me to see a different side of El Salvador that I had not been exposed to growing up,” Perez-Franco says. “This really opened my eyes to the challenges the country is facing. It was humbling to be able to amplify the voices and efforts of the very motivated individuals and organizations who have committed to searching for these disappeared migrants.”
Indeed, amplification of those voices is now the clinic’s priority. After distributing Spanish-language versions of the report to the families and organizations that assisted in the research, Akram plans to submit the findings to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and ask for hearings on the issue. The report may also be used in existing or future litigation.
“That’s the next phase of the work—moving forward on some of the potential avenues for remedies,” Akram says.
January 21, 2021: This article has been updated with the title and link to the final report.