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‘Children ripped from their mother’s arms.’ Researchers uncover CIA documents about El Salvador

The lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, VA
Flickr Photo/Global Panorama (CC BY-SA 2.0)/
The lobby of CIA headquarters in Langley, VA

Kim Malcolm talks with University of Washington professor Angelina Godoy about the settlement of a lawsuit against the CIA. The UW's Center for Human Rights has been seeking information about U.S. involvement in the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980's.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Interview Highlights", "style": "wide"}]]On sharing these documents with survivors in El Salvador:

Godoy: The most powerful thing ever is to share them with survivors of atrocities. In particular, people who have lost loved ones to forced disappearances. Because those people are still looking for their loved ones. They're still looking for any piece of information that might contain a clue to where they are, or where their bones may be buried.

The thirst and hunger they have for that information is something that's impossible to convey in words, and it's impossible to describe.

Some of the most powerful moments I've ever had in my career are sitting across the table from people who lost loved ones and saying ‘well you know this document doesn't say X marks the spot where your father is buried. But it might have some information that you didn't have before.’

And time after time in those kinds of situations people have told me ‘you have no idea what this means to me.’ And that's what gives me the energy to keep on searching.

How was the U.S. Government involved in El Salvador’s civil war?

The bottom line is the United States heavily supported the Salvadoran government with both dollars and also training and equipment. The United States had boots on the ground, too.

That’s why we have access to this information, because the United States government did retain records about operations in El Salvador and received a great deal of communications from its Salvadoran partners throughout the war.

What do you hope to learn from these secret documents?

Sadly, although the war ended in 1992, there still has not been one person held accountable in a court of law for giving the orders that led to the commission of crimes against humanity.

There are people in El Salvador not only waiting for justice in a formal court of law, but also waiting for the chance to heal those wounds. The chance to know where their loved ones are buried. The chance to perhaps recover their remains and bury them again in accordance with their religious traditions. So this isn't about opening wounds or digging up the past. It's about helping people heal from things that happened decades ago, but have never been laid to rest.

Can you give us an example of a specific event that you're hoping these documents can shed some light on?

In August 1982, a military operation led to multiple massacres, and children were forcibly disappeared. In some cases, they were literally ripped from their mother's arms. Remarkably, some of those children have been found alive – having been adopted by other families within El Salvador or abroad.

And there's hope that if we could uncover the truth of what happened in detail, perhaps other children could be found, and other families could have answers.

Why is it important to re-examine this chapter of history?

The kinds of things we're looking at in El Salvador are really the worst things that mankind can do to one another. I lack the words to convey fairly or adequately the depth of suffering that people have shared with our research team.

This is the worst of humanity. Yet sadly, these kinds of things continue to happen around the world.

And if we always turn the page and say ‘well it was a long time ago and now we're focused somewhere else’ - not only are we doing a grievous wrong to those victims who are still searching for their family members, but we're also doing a grievous wrong to mankind by continuing to repeat the same errors.

So I think we have to learn our lessons from history. And that's why we're doing what we're doing.

Year started with KUOW: 2006
Year started with KUOW: 2013