Thousands of families have no information on family members disappeared during El Salvador’s civil war. The US government is withholding crucial information that could offer additional insight into the cases.

Security personnel monitor the surroundings of the US Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 23, 2011. (Jose Cabezas / AFP via Getty Images)

On July 28, 1982, three people were illegally captured and violently disappeared by Salvadoran military and state security agents: Patricia Emilie Cuéllar Sandoval, a US and Salvadoran citizen; her father Mauricio Cuéllar; and Julia Orbelina Pérez, a household worker in the Cuéllars’ home. Had Patricia survived the dictatorship, she would have been my aunt.

Forty-two years after their disappearance, our families still have no answers as to their whereabouts or the location of their remains. All we have left to remember them is their names, along with those of twenty-five thousand other victims of the armed conflict, in the Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador.

Patricia and her daughter Maite. (courtesy of author)

Like thousands of Salvadoran families, for decades, the family of Julia Orbelina and our own have sought truth and justice without finding answers in the Salvadoran judicial system. Finally in 2024, after a lengthy and arduous judicial process, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) declared the Salvadoran state responsible for the forced disappearances of Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina Pérez.

The IACHR ruling marks a crucial milestone on the road toward justice in cases of forced disappearances during the civil war. Nevertheless, the Salvadoran state’s policy of impunity persists as President Nayib Bukele’s government denies the history of civil war, refuses a transitional justice law for the victims, and blocks investigations related to war crimes by the military. The United States is also guilty of contributing to this culture of impunity. The US government, which played a role in and condoned the atrocities committed during the military dictatorship, is withholding crucial information that could offer additional insight into the case.

Where are Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina?

Patricia Emilie Cuéllar Sandoval was born in the United States in 1958 to Salvadoran parents, who later relocated to El Salvador. Patricia was actively engaged in Catholic youth movements and basic ecclesial communities, grassroots organizations linked to the Catholic Church. She worked as a human rights defender at Socorro Jurídico Cristiano, an organization founded by Jesuit priest Segundo Montes and closely supported by Moseñor Óscar Romero. These activities were deemed reasons to label Patricia as a subversive and communist, and, as a result, she was disappeared and possibly tortured, raped, and murdered by the repressive forces of the Salvadoran state.

Years before the disappearance, Patricia and her family were subjected to military operations that involved several raids in their homes, interrogations, persecution, and intimidation by both military and state security agents. Just days before her violent detention and disappearance, Patricia informed the offices of Socorro Jurídico Cristiano that she had been followed by police officers dressed in civilian clothes.

In the afternoon of July 28, 1982, a group of members of the army and Salvadoran state security agents intercepted and illegally captured Patricia. Alerts that something had happened to her were raised when she failed to pick up her children from kindergarten that afternoon. That same night, between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., another combined group of about ten military and security forces raided the home of Patricia’s father, Mauricio Cuéllar, in San Salvador. After ransacking his house and retrieving documents and belongings, they violently took him and Julia Orbelina Pérez, who was working as a housekeeper in the Cuéllar home.

The case of Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina is one of thousands of cases of forced disappearances and human rights violations committed by state forces during the civil war in El Salvador. Patricia’s case, in particular, is an example of the systemic practices of persecution and political violence exercised by state security forces and death squads that at the time acted in a joint and coordinated manner, with the protection and tolerance of the Salvadoran state.

The El Salvadoran state is not solely accountable for the thousands of cases of human rights violations during the war. For decades, different US administrations trained, advised, funded, and supported the military dictatorship in El Salvador as part of their counterinsurgency strategy aimed at hindering the spread of communism and maintaining political hegemony in Latin America. For instance, the School of the Americas, created by the United States in 1946, was instrumental in indoctrinating military forces in the region with an anti-communist agenda. Thousands of security and military agents involved in death squads and emblematic cases of human rights violations during the war were trained in this institution. Also, from 1980 to 1992, the United States spent billions of dollars in military aid and economic assistance to support the dirty war in El Salvador.

With the money, training, and complicity of the United States, the repressive forces of the Salvadoran state kidnapped, disappeared, tortured, raped, and murdered thousands of people for political reasons, including Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina. These crimes have left a lasting impact on Salvadoran society, resulting in persistent migration waves to the United States as the country struggles to address the wounds of the war.

IACHR Court Ruling: 42 Years Seeking Justice and Fighting Against Impunity

For twenty years, Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina’s families sought justice from El Salvador’s legal system without success. In 2004, they took their case to the IACHR in Washington, DC, and after a long legal process, the IACHR scheduled a hearing for November 2023. On May 16, 2024, the IACHR found the El Salvadoran state responsible for the forced disappearances of Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina, bringing a glimpse of justice and hope to their families and victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador. The court also concluded that the disappearance of Patricia constituted a violation of the right to defend human rights, which sets a significant precedent in a context where the Bukele-led government is, once again, committing grave human rights violations and criminalizing human rights defenders and organizations.

The US government, which has never admitted to or publicly acknowledged its involvement in the atrocities committed during El Salvador’s civil war, is also accountable and owes explanations to the families of Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina. Francisco Álvarez, Patricia’s husband, disclosed during his testimony before the IACHR that he discovered approximately twenty thousand declassified and digitized CIA documents, which named Patricia, during a visit to the National Security Archive in Washington, DC.

These documents show that the CIA, FBI, and US State Department conducted confidential investigations into her disappearance. In one of the documents dating from November 1983, the State Department alleges that Patricia was murdered, and years later her name would be included on a commemorative plaque at the US Embassy in San Salvador, In Memory of Those Americans Who Lost Their Lives in El Salvador.

(courtesy of author)

However, much of the crucial information about the case in the documents discovered by Álvarez is redacted, and despite his request for the release of the uncensored documents four years ago, the US government has not responded, perpetuating its habit of involvement and concealment of notable cases of human rights violations, such as the El Mozote massacre or the assassination of the US Maryknoll nuns.

In his testimony before the IACHR in November 2023, Álvarez stated:

I would ask the court to urge the US agencies involved at that time in the investigation to release the information and contribute to the clarification of the truth. For us, the families of the victims, the fundamental thing is to put an end to impunity and to know where our dead are. Statements are not enough, a monument is not enough.

As I write this piece, I think of Patricia and the new authoritarian government in El Salvador, which continues to violate human rights and persecute those who defend them — mirroring the practices of the 1980s — and which has decided to uphold a policy of impunity for war crimes.

To break this historical cycle of impunity for the case of Patricia, Mauricio, and Julia Orbelina, as well as thousands of others, the US government can play a vital role by releasing the unretracted archives related to Patricia’s case and initiating the declassification process for all other archives that could shed further light on the crimes committed by the Salvadoran military dictatorship. This includes information on who was responsible for these crimes and what happened to many of the victims. It is the US government’s historical duty and moral responsibility to the victims and their families to take action.

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