Each day, thousands of mothers search for their lost children in the hospitals, morgues and clandestine cemeteries. Some never lose hope, others have no more tears to shed.
The last time Isela saw the face of her son was in a photograph. Denys was wearing a long-sleeved green shirt and purple trousers, the clothes he was wearing when, on that sad Monday, he left home saying he would soon be back.
The picture was sent by those who kidnapped her son. Denys disappeared in a zone under the control of the criminal band Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) in the centre of San Salvador. The kidnappers asked the family to pay $ 3,500, but gave no proof that he was still alive.
The forensic doctor Israel Ticas in recent weeks has exhumed more than 52 bodies of ‘the disappeared’ mostly found in clandestine pits. He says, “anyone who disappears and does not return within three days is to be considered dead”.
In his office he has a large-scale map with flags of various colours. A red flag shows where secret graves have been discovered while a yellow flag shows where there may be others.
One of the most difficult moments for the forensic doctor is when he has to accompany family members, especially the mothers of the disappeared, to those places where common graves have been found in the hope that ‘at least’ they may find the bodies of their children.
“Worst of all is when I have to give them the bones”, the doctor adds. Whenever the bodies are not recognised or claimed by a member of the family, after six days they are buried in a common grave. “Eight out of ten of the bodies exhumed are of people under twenty”, the doctor states.
This forensic doctor continues his never-ending search for more than eleven thousand disappeared. He criticised the lack of psychological support for the families and comments, “while many mothers weep, others sleep peacefully”. Many mothers do not report the disappearance of their children as they trust neither the system of justice nor the police.
Kidnapping people is one of the main activities of the largest criminal bands that operate in El Salvador, Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Barrio 18. It is a lucrative business.
“The families of the kidnapped have very little time to find the money among their relatives and friends and if they do not pay the money within three days, the person kidnapped may be killed. The kidnappers are very young. The control of the territory and the increasing number of members of criminal gangs facilitate this type of criminal activity”, says Eliezer Samayoa, a security expert at the University of San Salvador.
That morning, Isela had asked Denys to drop in to see his uncle who wanted his help to do a job. She says “He agreed and told me he would be back soon”. The hours went by but Denys never came back. His mother called him on her mobile but his was turned off. She called the uncle but Denys had not shown up. As time passed, her anguish increased and soon she was in despair. In her mind she could see the daily TV images of disappeared people.
Having phoned all her relatives and friends, she knew what she had to do – go to the police, like many other mothers before her. She was not surprised to see the police station crowded with people asking about their disappeared relatives, their eyes full of desperation and rage. One wall is covered with pictures of the disappeared. The police seem unable to do anything about this tragedy. One policeman announces in a loud voice “we have found a body; go to the legal medicine section to see if it is your son”. He sounded as if it was something he repeated every day.
Finally, it was her turn. The officer asked the age of her son. Eighteen, she answered. Smiling, he said “Many boys of that age leave home without telling anyone. Many others try to go to the United States. Soon afterwards, they come back with nice gifts for their mothers”. Isela lowered her gaze. She does not believe that her son went away without telling her. As a single mother, she had reared Denys and spent her life for him.
That day was the start of a long Way of the Cross for Isela, visiting the legal medicine centre, the hospitals, the homes of friends of her son and going back home hoping he was there waiting for her.
Between January 2009 and December 2016, the police received 11,252 reports of disappeared persons. The police confirmed that 65,2% of the disappeared are under thirty years of age; 23,5% are aged from 31 to 60 and 4,5% are over 60. In the last three years, the police received more than two thousand reports of missing students. Already, during the first five months of 2017, 867 persons have disappeared, 475 of these in the capital, San Salvador.
A week goes by and the long-awaited phone call is received. At the police station, mothers spoke of this sort of telephone call. The kidnapper sounds very young. He asks for $3,500 dollars. Isela, trembling, weeps and asks if her son is still alive. She wants proof that he is still alive. The kidnapper says she must trust him and that she must pay without delay.
Isela knows she has to go around collecting the money. She knocks on many doors but only a few answer. In a poor country like El Salvador where people live mostly on the money sent home by emigrants, it is not easy to find all that money, and especially not in such a short time. A few hours later she receives a second call. Isela tells the caller to wait as she has asked her relatives in the USA and they will soon send the money. Isela is desperate and again asks if her son is alive; she wants to hear his voice.
Isela never did manage to get all that money together. Sitting on a sofa looking at a picture of her son, she remembers how Denys promised he would paint the house with the first wages he earned. The telephone is silent. All around there is silence, so much silence. Isela is still waiting for her son to come home.
On an uneventful day, the body of Denys was found in a common grave. He was still wearing his green shirt and purple trousers.