This year, Ernestina and Erlinda Serrano Cruz should be celebrating their 38th and 34th birthdays surrounded by relatives.
But no one knows where they are. And the people who might hold a clue remain silent.
31 years ago, the then 7 and 3 year old girls were snatched from their family in the municipality of San Antonio de la Cruz, northern El Salvador.
It was 1982, and the Central American country was going through the bloodiest period of an armed conflict that lasted from 1980 to 1992 and took thousands of lives.
Across the country, army battalions fronted scorched-earth campaigns, killing anyone and anything they came across, burning houses and razing crops.
When the soldiers arrived in their town, like many others, the Serrano Cruz family fled for their lives and were split up amid the chaos and panic.
After three days without anything to eat or drink, Dionisio Serrano, desperate to keep his children alive, left Ernestina and Erlinda while he searched for water.
Their older sister, Suyapa, hid in the bushes a short distance from the little girls, afraid that her six-month-old baby’s crying would endanger them by revealing their whereabouts.
Terrified, Suyapa heard a soldier approach her sisters’ hiding place, and asked another soldier whether or not to kill the two little girls.
“Take them with us,” she heard the second soldier reply.
And with that, Ernestina and Erlinda were taken from their family.
As the conflict came to an end and survivors could finally speak out, thousands of stories of loss and horror came to light. Hundreds of children had been disappeared, thousands of people had perished in massacres. Torture, and sexual violence were pervasive.
Searching for the truth
It is estimated that 75,000 people died during the internal armed conflict in El Salvador, which ended with the signing of a peace accord in late 1992 and the establishment of a UN-backed Truth Commission.
The Commission presented its report on 15 March 1993, which documented thousands of killings, disappearances and torture, and set out a series of recommendations. Recommendations included calls for investigations to be carried out and for those responsible for human rights violations and abuses to be brought to justice.
But just one week after its release, the authorities in El Salvador passed an Amnesty Law with the express intention of undermining efforts to bring those responsible for human rights violations during the war to justice. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly demanded the repeal of the Amnesty Law.
Two decades on, those who committed such terrible crimes have never been held to account. The military files, which could contain vital information to uncover the truth about what happened, remain closed. The crimes of the past stand in utter impunity.
Benjamin Cuellar is the Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University and was a member of one of the organizations consulted by the UN when they produced the report.
“We had great expectations and it was a good report. Despite the fact that it didn't include all cases, because of logistical issues, the report recorded what happened, the disappearances, the extrajudicial executions, massacres and torture,” he said.
“However, the most important recommendations, related to the issue of national reconciliation, of recognizing the need for material and moral reparations, they were never fulfilled. There were general apologies, but nothing else.”
Thousands of questions unanswered
Lawyers and human rights activists in El Salvador say that the authorities’ disregard of the UN-backed Truth Commission’s recommendations has condemned thousands of survivors and victims’ relatives to continue suffering pain and anguish. 20 years on, they continue to be denied the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and live with the fact that those who killed or tortured them are walking free.
Amongst other violations, the UN Truth Commission documented several of the many massacres committed by the Salvadoran armed forces – particularly in areas of the country they considered to be guerrilla strongholds.
One of the emblematic cases to appear in the report was the massacre of El Calabozo. In late August 1982, more than 200 people -- from babies who had not yet even taken their first steps, to elderly grandparents – were killed in cold blood by Salvadoran army troops.
Hundreds of villagers in the northern San Vicente region had tried to escape a military operation aimed at “cleaning the area” but were cornered by soldiers on the banks of the Amatitán River, and executed. Some women and girls were raped before they were killed.
Since then, survivors of the El Calabozo massacre have tried to take their case through the Salvadoran courts. The case was last re-opened in 2006, but has still not progressed to a trial.
“I ask that the Attorney General applies national and international human rights law to these cases and removes the cloak of impunity from perpetrators of human rights violations, this is what victims and civil society demand,” said Carolina Constanza, one of the lawyers representing “El Calabozo” survivors.
Cuellar says massacres were not uncommon in El Salvador during the internal conflict.
“In El Salvador there’s no justice because there’s a lack of political will to do something and because there hasn’t been international attention. El Salvador is a monument to impunity.”
In what is seen as one of the few positive steps taken recently, the government of El Salvador finally recognized state responsibility for another massacre – soldiers tortured and killed more than 750 men, women, young children and elderly people at El Mozote in 1981.
The authorities also started a programme of reparations to the survivors of El Mozote after being ordered to do so by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
“20 years on from the Truth Commission report, however, the perpetrators of this crime, and the thousands of other crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict must also be investigated and brought to account. The truth about what happened must be revealed, and reparations and justice provided for all victims and survivors. Further, the authorities must comply with the Inter-American Court demand for the Amnesty Law to be repealed,” said Esther Major, Central America researcher at Amnesty International.
“The survivors and relatives who pinned their hopes on the implementation of the Truth Commission’s recommendations, cannot afford to wait another 20 years.”