On March 14, José Cortez Lemus, 20, and his brother Omar, 19, opened the rickety front gate of their home in western El Salvador and walked up the hill with a neighborhood acquaintance. Two days later, Flor María García, 33, left her house in Cojutepeque just east of San Salvador and took a bus to the capital to buy some supplies for her husband’s dentist practice. A few weeks later, on April 30, Benjamín Mejía, 43, was driving back to San Salvador on his usual work route when his truck was stopped by armed assailants.
None of their families have heard from them since.
“Where could they be? What did they do to them?” asked Ana Estela, 48, José and Omar’s mother.
“They don’t tell us anything,” said Flor’s nephew Jorge García, referring to the Salvadoran authorities.
“You wake up with the desire to find out anything, whether it’s good or bad,” said Benjamín’s wife Mirna de Mejía, 36.
José, Omar, Flor, and Benjamín are part of an alarming wave of increased disappearances in El Salvador since the start of this year. More than three people disappeared each day on average during the first four months of the year, more than double the number of disappearances during the same time period in 2020, according to data from the attorney general’s office. Social media is awash with photos of missing people, as family members search for their missing siblings, children, and spouses. Some of the disappeared are just teenagers. Others are parents who’ve left young children grappling to understand their absence, like José’s 1-year-old son, who often points at the gate yelling “Pa!” But no one is there.
An estimated 20,000 Salvadorans have been reported missing since 2014, according to a recent report by the Salvadoran organization Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law, or FESPAD. The phenomenon dates back to at least 2005, but it really took off around 2012 when the government entered into negotiations with gangs to decrease homicides, according to the report. Gangs started hiding the bodies instead. Now experts believe that other criminal groups, security forces, and abusive partners all use disappearances to evade authorities.
“There’s no body, so there’s no crime, so there’s no conviction,” said Reina Ponce, a journalist with Salvadoran feminist media outlet Revista La Brújula, who has extensively covered disappearances.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has claimed that his administration has ushered in a new era of a safer El Salvador, crediting his security plan, known as Plan Territorial Control, for a 45 percent decrease in murders during his first full year in office, which ended with 1,322 homicides. But revelations from Salvadoran investigative media outlet El Faro that Bukele’s government has negotiated with gangs suggest that a backdoor agreement could be the real reason for the decline. Official statistics of disappearances declined from about 3,200 in 2019 to 2,250 in 2020 but still exceeded homicides for that year.
A disturbing discovery last month has made the phenomenon of disappearances nearly impossible to ignore. On May 8, authorities found a mass grave in the home of former police officer Hugo Ernesto Osorio Chávez in the town of Chalchuapa, about 50 miles west of San Salvador. There could be eight bodies or 15 or 40; authorities have issued official declarations with varying accounts. Osorio Chávez and another 10 people implicated in the case have been arrested as part of an ongoing investigation.
Bukele also claims that migration has “notably declined” as a result of his security policies. But apprehensions of Salvadorans at the U.S.-Mexico border have spiked in 2021 after a downturn during the pandemic. Border crossings of Salvadorans are on track to reach the same numbers as in 2019, which saw a surge in migrants at the U.S. border, particularly from Central America.
“It’s important that those in the U.S. who are paying attention to migration know how to be able to determine when a government is lying,” said Celia Medrano, a Salvadoran human rights defender who has worked with migrants and victims of violence. “It’s clear that there are two lies: that Salvadoran migration has dropped and that it’s because of the success of Plan Territorial Control.”
Disappearances in particular complicate the government’s narrative, which relies on official homicide statistics — just one indicator of violence — to support its alleged security gains.
In Chalchuapa, where the government has been forced to reckon with disappearances, officials have painted Osorio Chávez as a “psychopath” and serial killer. Experts say that the focus on a single perpetrator or mass grave could be an attempt to minimize the larger problem of violence in the country.
“We run the risk of only focusing on the case,” said Krissia Aquino, a member of the rapid response team for Proyecto Raquel, an initiative to track and publicize cases of women who have disappeared since 2019, “and then you don’t see the social and structural violence that exists.”
Because of a lack of statistics documenting in detail the reasons people migrate, it is hard to quantify how many cases of disappearances have led people to flee El Salvador. But recent local media reports and experts working in migration say they know of cases of families forced to flee their homes after family members disappear. In other cases, people who have disappeared may have been making plans to migrate when they vanished, as was the case of Flor, the 33-year-old mother of two who went missing in March.
She was in the process of applying to migrate to the U.S. through her father, who is a U.S. citizen and has lived in the U.S. since the 1980s. When Flor’s mother was gunned down after leaving her restaurant in 2009, many members of the family followed, including her nephew Jorge. Now, those who remain are doubting their safety in El Salvador.
“My hope is that one day hopefully everyone can leave,” Jorge said.
“The official discourse of the government has been to minimize and say that they aren’t people who have disappeared.”
After Flor’s husband called the family the night of March 16 to say he hadn’t heard from her, her relatives sprang into action to retrace her steps from the bus stop to the dentist supply store. But no one had seen her. Jorge said that the authorities have not been proactive, expecting the family to share information rather than investigating Flor’s disappearance themselves.
The only theory local officials have presented to the family is that Flor may have migrated or escaped with a lover.
“That isn’t true,” Jorge said. “She has two little kids. She can’t just pick up her bags and leave one day.” Plus, she was waiting for an answer to her immigration application, so she wouldn’t have migrated illegally, he added. The local police could not be reached for comment on the case, and the public prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Photos: Fred Ramos for The Intercept
“The official discourse of the government has been to minimize and say that they aren’t people who have disappeared,” said Silvia Aquino, another member of Proyecto Raquel. “They talk about displacement or migration. They say they’ve left and they haven’t told anyone.”
An official government press release on May 10, days after the discovery in Chalchuapa, said that many reported disappearances are in fact just kids running away from their parents. Recently, the security minister asked family members to stop reporting disappearances online, urging people to contact the authorities instead.
Denying that women disappear also minimizes the problem of femicides in the country, said Aquino. Last year, El Salvador’s attorney general’s office registered just over 100 femicides, defined as the killing of a woman because of her gender, and more than 500 disappearances of women. The majority of the victims in the Chalchuapa mass grave were women, and authorities said the bodies showed signs of sexual violence.
Amid the denials from authorities that people are going missing, the family members of the disappeared are left searching for closure.
“When a few days had passed and the answer was the same, the anxiety of thinking, ‘What should I do?’ came back,” said Mirna de Mejía, whose husband went missing.
As she has searched for him at the morgue and hospitals, she’s also had to grapple with how to explain to her daughters why their dad hasn’t come home. “When we find him, it could be one way, or it could be that they did something bad to him,” she tries to explain gently. But both are anxious to see their dad.
When Ana Estela, José and Omar’s mother, went to the local police station to report her sons missing in March, she treaded a familiar path. Six years ago, she reported the disappearance of her husband, who never came home one day from working at the nearby market. Ten years ago, her oldest son was murdered at the age of 16.
“It was different from when I went to get my oldest son and we had a vigil,” she said at her home in western El Salvador. “But now I don’t know anything about these two.”
The day after the brothers disappeared, Fatima Flores, José’s 17-year-old girlfriend, who was eight months pregnant, began feeling stomach pains. She looked down and saw that she was bleeding.
After rushing to the hospital, Flores gave birth to her second son, Anderson, that night — two weeks before her due date and barely 24 hours after his father went missing. More than two months later, Flores still wonders if her newborn son will ever meet José.
“My hope that they’ll come back alive has almost run out,” she said. “But I do still have some hope that one day they’ll return.”
Salvadoran families have endured such pains since at least the 1980s, when the country experienced a bloody armed conflict that left at least 5,000 disappeared. A United Nations truth commission later identified Salvadoran security forces, which were funded by the U.S., as the main perpetrators of violence during the conflict.
The country had yet to identify the thousands missing from that period, many whom were never heard from again, and others who were illegally adopted, when disappearances shot up again.
Despite the country’s past history with disappearances, authorities remain largely unprepared to handle the issue. The country only has a single criminal forensic scientist to excavate bodies from mass graves for the attorney general’s office. It wasn’t until 2018 that the attorney general’s office published a protocol for dealing with these cases. And the country still doesn’t have an official database of disappeared people or a DNA bank for their relatives.
Since 2019, civil society groups have pressured lawmakers to create this database and DNA bank, but legislators who took office in May recently shelved the proposal.
Bukele’s government continues to promise to improve security and combat impunity in the country, but it has not published a detailed security plan, leaving questions about whether the temporary reduction in homicides will hold and what steps the government is taking, if any, to reduce other forms of violence. Neither the president’s office nor the Ministry of Justice and Security responded to an interview request.
In Chalchuapa, information has also been scarce, as authorities have not publicly identified most of the victims. The reports about the mass graves, however, reignited some searches for people who disappeared years ago, and family members have been visiting the site of the mass grave hoping to find answers.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Amelia Celina Portillo Hernandez, 38, arrived with her sister Elba Marlene Portillo Hernandez, 40, clutching an orange folder with a photo of her older brother Pedro Alejandro, who disappeared in August 2017.
“So many things run through my mind, and we just want to end this doubt,” said Amelia Celina.
Soon a police officer waved them over, and they ducked under the yellow police tape and headed toward the home. But they came up empty once again. Pedro Alejandro is not known to be one of the victims. So they keep searching.