September 22, 2000

20 Years Later, New Report Brings Hope For Missing Guatemalan Kids

By Mary Jo McConahay

SANTA ANITA LAS CANOAS, GUATEMALA — Twenty years ago something in Luis Curruc-hich died. Soldiers took away his three-year-old daughter, Aura Marina, and he has not seen her since.

Only very recently, Curruc-hich has dared to believe he might see his daughter once more. A new report, by the Roman Catholic Church's Human Rights Office, blames the army for the disappearance of hundreds of children and says they are likely to be alive — in Guatemala or adopted into families abroad — and that reunions are possible.

Curruchich wavers between resignation and the new feeling that "there is some hope," which led him to participate in meetings that led to the 205-page report.

Venerable Hernandez, stepdaughter of Luis Curruchich, explains how her mother who is a member of GAM (an organization that looks for Guatemala's disappeared) has searched in vian for her father who disappered during the war. Photo by Nancy McGirr.

He remembers clearly the day young Aura Marina disappeared.

"Whenever army entered like that we knew they just killed. So we ran, children and old people too, we didn't wait," recounted Curruchich.

This village like hundreds of other Maya Indian settlements was judged "subversive," and soldiers came firing machine guns and lobbing grenades. In the chaos, Curruchich and others hurled themselves into a shallow ravine.

"The hour helped us — it was about five in the afternoon — and it began to rain. They threw grenades into the ravine, but they didn't search."

There was nothing he could do for Aura Marina and another daughter, Amalia, 5, also taken away by soldiers. An infant girl, not yet named, disappeared, too. His wife Maria Transito, 25, was buried in a mass grave still visible on the edge of the village with thirteen others who died that day.

For two years, Curruchich's mother Maria combed orphanages in the capital and other places where she heard captured children were kept, until she recovered Amalia and two other grandchildren.

Acquaintances said they had recognized Aura Marina at the municipal building in the county seat, apparently "adopted" by a local woman, but the trail was lost.

Meanwhile Curruchich, suddenly without family, branded as an outlaw — like thousands of other highland residents enrolled in self-help peasant leagues in the l970s — fled to join guerrilla combatants.

A team of social workers and psychologists closely examined a sample of 86 cases for a year. They kept a low profile, to avoid being "overwhelmed" with relatives searching for the missing.

They concluded that hundreds, perhaps thousands of children vanished. The report, financed by a children's welfare foundation based in Switzerland, says most disappearances were at the hands of the military. Some infants were given to soldiers who could not have children or wanted to increase the size of their families. Others placed them in orphanages or trafficked them in international adoptions.

At times children were used as bait, their photos distributed on fliers to entice their families to surrender themselves to army garrisons.

But the study includes seven cases in which children were reunited with parents or other living relatives.

The Church report calls on the government of President Alfonso Portillo to establish a commission with access to state archives, including re-cords of the army, which maintains overweening power. There has been no response from army or government.

The next generation of children from Santa Anita Las Canoas, a site where children were disappeared during Guatemala's turbulent 80's. Photo by McGirr.

"It's risky, a report like this," admitted Roberto Cabrera, administrative director of the rights office. Cabrera was one of the team which worked four years on a l998 study cataloguing hundreds of massacres and other violence. Within 48 hours of its ceremonial presentation, office director Bishop Juan Gerardi was discovered bludgeoned to death.

It is nearly four years since guerrillas and government signed a peace treaty, but an atmosphere of distrust persists. Relatives fear reprisals if they look for children taken by the army.

In the rural settlement where Luis Curruchich lives, families may know each other's histories and even help search for lost children. But in the tin-roofed squatters' houses clinging precariously to the deep canyons around Guatemala City, where thousands fled from the violence, people are much more guarded.

Some of the separated children may not even be Guatemalan any more, but living as young Americans or Frenchmen. From l979 to 1983, some 438 Guatemalan "orphans" were adopted by U.S. citizens according to the State Department. Cabrera feels the search for children should be a government priority, to help bring reconciliation. A medical doctor, he said crippling feelings of guilt affect surviving relatives — children who have been found often cannot overcome a deep sense that parents have abandoned them.

Beyond a healing sense of closure and reconciliation, the search for children could have enormous legal repercussions. The report argues that taking minors is an instance of "forced disappearance," a serious crime under Guatemalan and international humanitarian law and one which cannot be considered a political crime. Other rights activists have joined in the search for disappeared children. Often they identify for personal reasons with those who lost small children — because they themselves lost a child or family member.

"They feel about their children the way I feel about my brother, that you see them through smoke, not knowing if they are dead or alive" says urban community organizer Francisca Osorio, whose 22-year-old brother disappeared from a military detention center in 1982. "To this day I sleep with the door open, in case he appeared and someone was chasing him, so he could enter quickly. You never forget."

Mary Jo McConahay lived and worked in Central America for over a decade.

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