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U.S. Team Transfers DNA Database to Salvadoran Group Searching for Children Who Disappeared in Civil War

For Immediate Release

A DNA database to reunite families torn apart during El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war will be turned over this week to a San Salvador­based group that is leading the charge to track down some of the 2,500 children orphaned or adopted during the conflict.

Untold numbers of babies and youngsters were snatched by Salvadoran soldiers from their families—in some cases as war trophies—during counter-insurgency operations conducted in rural areas during the conflict. Some were raised on military bases. Others were placed in orphanages or foster homes. Many of the younger ones were adopted by families in the United States, Canada and Europe who were led to believe the children had been orphaned by the war or abandoned by their parents. In the absence of birth records in many of the cases, DNA identification has been the only way to reunite missing children with their surviving parents and siblings.

The DNA Reunification Project database, which holds more than 700 genetic profiles of Salvadorans who have reported missing children, was developed by the California Department of Justice, the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

At a press conference in San Salvador on Thursday, July 6, U.S. partners in the project will officially turn over the database to Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Association for Missing Children), an organization started by the late Jon de Cortina, a Jesuit priest, and families who have been searching for their missing children, most of whom are now young adults. Confirmation of at least one DNA match may also be announced.

The handover of the database is expected to advance the confirmation of DNA matches as well as the healing process of those piecing together their broken histories and identities.

"The DNA database is important because it can establish a very high probability of family relationships and confirms scientifically that children were abducted," said Marco Perez Navarrete, staff psychologist for Pro-Búsqueda. "The database will help rescue memories of families and help young people shape their identities. The DNA database will assist hundreds of people in El Salvador who are seeking justice."

"Scientific and documentary research to reunite missing children with their families requires openness and cooperation on the part of all parties concerned, " said Stefan Schmitt, International Forensic Program Director of Physicians for Human Rights. "The launching of this DNA database offers a unique opportunity for the government of El Salvador to release all pertinent civilian and military documentation related to the disappearances of children, and their subsequent adoptions. To date, the Government of El Salvador has not been as supportive in this endeavor as the Government of Argentina. Sharing this information with Pro-Búsqueda could bring enormous relief to many families torn apart by the conflict more than 20 years ago and still suffering today.”

In the last decade, Pro-Búsqueda has located at least 300 of the more than 700 children reported missing. With revelations about the military abductions emerging in newspapers and on Web sites, Salvadorans who were adopted internationally have contacted Pro-Búsqueda, DNA matches have been made and reunions arranged. Among them are:

  • Peter Cassidy, born Ernesto Sibrian, was adopted by a New Jersey woman after his biological mother was killed by a soldier during the civil war in El Salvador.
  • Sisters Imelda Auron and Maria Cebollero were raised by separate adoptive families in Massachusetts. Their biological parents were shot by gunmen who burst into their home in the middle of the night during the war. They were reunited with their siblings and extended family in El Salvador in 2005.
  • Juan Carlos Serrano grew up in an orphanage near San Salvador and was reunited with his biological mother, Maria Magdalena Ramos, through DNA testing, in 1995.
  • Gina Craig, born Imelda Lainez, was adopted by an Ohio couple. Her biological parents are Jose and Victoria Lainez. As a child in El Salvador, she was injured during a military raid and taken to a hospital. The Salvadoran army attacked the hospital and she was eventually handed over to a state-run orphanage. DNA testing confirmed her relationship to her biological family in 1996.

The first DNA sampling and identifications were conducted by PHR's former executive director Eric Stover and PHR's senior forensic pathologist, Dr. Robert Kirschner, who continued to support the project from the University of Chicago until his death in 2003. Dr. Kirschner traveled on several occasions to El Salvador with teenagers adopted as infants by American families so that they could reunite with their long-lost relatives.

In 1996 Stover expanded the project to UC Berkeley, where he directs the Human Rights Center, and invited forensic scientists at the California Department of Justice DNA Lab in Richmond, Calif., to provide DNA analysis on a pro bono basis.

"Results from the DNA database can provide families who have been searching desperately for their missing children finally with a sense of relief—that their child is alive and well and they may be able to see their child again," said Rachel Shigekane, senior program officer at the Human Rights Center, which does research on war crimes, among other abuses. "DNA analysis offers the best hope of positively identifying these children."

Evenings and weekends, volunteer forensic scientists add profiles to the genetic family database at the Department of Justice lab so that when a missing child is located, his or her DNA can be run through the database. When a child is located, emotions range from feelings of abandonment to fulfillment, said Liz Barnert, a medical and public health student at UC Berkeley and UCSF who has witnessed reunions, or reencuentros, between missing children and their Salvadoran relatives.

As a Pro-Búsqueda volunteer and fellow with the Human Rights Center last summer, Barnert assisted in the collection of DNA samples from all over El Salvador. An excursion would typically entail a three-hour drive, one hour of it on a bumpy road, and a trek through one or more cornfields.

As a result of that collection effort, the database is close to complete. Now, Shigekane said, efforts must turn to tracking down and collecting the DNA of children who were adopted internationally. In addition to transferring the database itself, U.S. partners will also train Pro Búsqueda staff in the forensic procedures and methods needed to maintain and build the database.

Funding and resources for the DNA project have been provided by Physicians for Human Rights and UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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