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Soldiers stole children during El Salvador's war

Friday - 2/22/2013, 9:06pm  ET

In this photo taken Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, Gregoria Herminia Contreras, 35, poses for a photo in Guatemala City. Contreras was four years old when she was separated from her parents by a Salvadoran soldier, who then registered her under a new name and forcibly adopted her during the country's civil war. The non-governmental agency Pro Búsqueda and the National Search Commission for Missing Children say they have documented at least ten cases of missing children who were abducted by Salvadoran military to raise as their own or to offer them for adoption in exchange for money. The agencies believe case numbers would be much higher if the military disclosed their national security archives. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) -- One of Gregoria Contreras' first childhood memories was the moment she last saw her parents.

Fighting between government troops and guerrillas had broken out around the 4-year-old girl's family home in the countryside of this Central American country. The soldiers took advantage of the confusion and seized Contreras and her two siblings, who were under the age of 2.

"We all fled the house and suddenly it all ended because they captured us and our parents disappeared," said Contreras, now 35 and living in neighboring Guatemala.

Contreras was just one of hundreds of children who disappeared under a variety of circumstances during El Salvador's brutal, 13-year civil war, which left some 75,000 people dead and thousands more missing. In most cases, the parents have yet to find out what happened to their children, while a few hundred of the missing have been identified after giving investigators DNA samples and other evidence.

Now, a human rights group, Probusqueda, is uncovering another macabre, and mostly unknown twist to the tragedy. In Contreras' and at least nine other cases, low-to-mid-ranking soldiers abducted children in what an international court says was a "systematic pattern of forced disappearances." Some of the soldiers raised the children as their own, while others gave them away or sold them to lucrative illegal adoption networks. In Contreras' case, an army private spirited her away, raped her and gave her his own surname.

The crimes make El Salvador the second Latin American country proven to engage in such child abductions during internal Cold War-era conflicts. Argentina's military kidnapped hundreds of children of political opponents, and the prosecution of those responsible three decades later led to the indictment of top officers, including army Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, then-head of Argentina's military junta.

No one has revealed the full scope of the child abductions in El Salvador. The number of confirmed abductions will likely rise if the country's Defense Department makes public files from the civil war era.

Contreras and the families of five other victims of military abductions successfully sued their government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, demanding the military release more information. Three years later, the military hasn't turned over the requested files and the mostly retired officers suspected of adopting stolen children have refused DNA tests.

"Without those files we can't say this or that officer is responsible," said the country's attorney general, Oscar Luna.

President Mauricio Funes has tried to made amends for some civil war-era crimes, said Probusqueda director Maria Ester Alvarenga. The president belongs to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party, which began as the guerrilla force battling El Salvador's U.S.-backed government, and could be expected to pursue such prosecutions.

"But it's surprising to me that he isn't making the military archives available," Alvarenga said. "I'm frustrated that nothing's been done at these levels."

Military officials refused to talk to The Associated Press about the cases, despite repeated requests for a meeting. Spokeswoman Vilma Quintanilla told the AP, "The request is in the hands of the chiefs, but still I don't have a response."

Several Latin American countries have hit stiff opposition from the military when they've tried to prosecute soldiers and officers for human rights abuses. In the cases of Argentina and Chile, prosecutors have succeeded in indicting and jailing top officials.

In El Salvador, Alvarenga said, the military "is a real power."

So far, the initial investigations have hinted at the possible enormity of the abuses.

Over the past 20 years, Probusqueda has received 921 reports of children who went missing during the war, with many killed in combat and others orphaned when their parents died. The human rights group has identified the parents of 382 of the missing through DNA tests, and of those, 235 have reunited with their families. Another 95 are waiting to meet their parents, while 52 have been found dead.

The majority of the cases, 529, remain unsolved.

A government missing-persons commission created in 2010 by order of the Inter-American court has also received 203 reports of missing children, with some of those cases likely duplicating Probusqueda's. Just last year, the commission investigated 124 cases and found 15 of the missing. Two of the children were located in Italy, and another was in the United States. Investigators found the corpses of eight children who had been killed and buried during the war.

According to Contreras and other sources, she, her siblings and nine other children were seized in 1982 as the U.S.-trained anti-guerrilla Atlacatl battalion clashed with rebels. A helicopter took away the boys, while the girls were driven away in trucks.

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