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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Unfinished Sentences: UWCHR’s Project in El Salvador

November 26, 2014

(An excerpt from our 2013-2014 Annual Report)

By Angelina Godoy
As Baltasar Garzón argues in the essay that opens this Annual Report, the need for justice in El Salvador remains urgent, despite the decades that have passed since the conclusion of the civil war. The urgency and importance of this work was brought home to us in recent weeks, when in commemoration of International Right to Know Day we released a research report examining the Yellow Book, a 1987 document from the secret files of Salvadoran military intelligence, on September 28, 2014. The first such document ever to be made public, it identifies almost two thousand Salvadoran citizens as “delinquent terrorists,” providing photos and identifying information about each one. They include human rights advocates, labor leaders, and political figures, many of whom are known to have been victims of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial execution, and/or forced disappearance.

UW CHR researchers spent many months corroborating the document’s authenticity and analyzing its significance, connecting research conducted by our students to the world’s leading experts in the field of human rights and information. Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive, whose analysis of secret Latin American military documents has broken new ground in the quest for justice in multiple nations, helped corroborate the authenticity of the Yellow Book; Patrick Ball from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, whose expertise in quantitative analysis for human rights has informed truth commissions, criminal tribunals, and UN missions, determined the degree of overlap between names in the Book and four different databases of Salvadoran human rights victims. As a team, we drafted a report on the Yellow Book to be published alongside the document itself on our websites. While there are many questions we have yet to answer about how the Book was used, in making this information public we hope to begin – not end – a conversation about the ongoing need for truth about the crimes of the past in El Salvador.

And indeed it did. The response was overwhelming: in less than three days we had over 80,000 page views to our website, and a short promotional video we posted on YouTube had been viewed over 11,000 times. The report was covered in front-page stories in the Salvadoran newspapers, on the radio and on TV on Latin American networks. But more powerful than any press coverage were the personal entreaties that began to pour into our inboxes. Some were from people sharing information about cases in the Yellow Book, writing against the oblivion into which too many such stories have slipped; others were from families still seeking information as to the whereabouts of their lost loved ones, hoping that somehow we might be able to help.

Although these crimes took place decades ago, in recent years human rights efforts have entered a critical phase in El Salvador. The release of the Yellow Book is just one in a series of ongoing collaborations underway at UW CHR. Over the past year, our faculty and students have worked in partnership with Salvadoran advocates and victims to support the country’s burgeoning movement for human rights in innovative ways. Our work has three central focuses:

1. Efforts to secure legal justice in the wake of crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict.
2. Processes of preserving historical memory.
3. Public education about wartime violence and contemporary justice efforts, to enable new generations to learn from this painful past and prevent its repetition.

Legal justice
Working under the supervision of both Angelina Godoy, UW CHR director, and Baltasar Garzón, UW’s Puffin-ALBA Visiting Lecturer in Human Rights, a team of undergraduate and graduate students conducted research throughout the 2013-14 school year to strengthen the preparation of legal cases brought by our partners at the Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA). These cases included the 43 cases of crimes against humanity in which criminal complaints were presented to the Salvadoran authorities in March 2013; a criminal complaint filed in November 2013 naming Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez as responsible for the 1981 massacre of Santa Cruz; and the 6 cases of mass atrocities presented in March 2014 at the Restorative Justice Tribunal hosted by IDHUCA and the UW CHR in Santa Marta, Cabañas, El Salvador.

Much of our research concerns the use of declassified documents. Since the US government provided billions of dollars of support to the Salvadoran state throughout the conflict, thousands of US government documents exist that pertain to Salvadoran affairs. Some of these may shed light on specific human rights cases, yet only a fraction have been made public, and they are not easy to understand or readily accessible. Our student team has located documents relevant to specific cases amid the tens of thousands of pages of documents that have already been declassified; requested, and in some cases, obtained, the declassification of other documents which have not previously been publicly available; and analyzed documents to identify relevant information and share it with victims and their advocates in El Salvador.

Alex Montalvo trains digital test

Puffin Fellow Alex Montalvo (with headphones) trains IDHUCA partners in collecting digital testimonies

Historical memory
In fall 2013, we launched a pilot project in Arcatao, Chalatenango, working with local survivors of the armed conflict organized into a Committee of Historical Memory to document their oral histories in writing and on video. This project was designed in response to conversations sustained with these survivors, and with our partners at IDHUCA; in Arcatao, as in many communities that survived the scorched earth campaigns, survivors are now reaching old age and feel a sense of urgency about transmitting their experiences in a format that younger generations will appreciate. Beginning in November 2013, a fieldwork team began twice-monthly visits to Arcatao to record survivors’ testimonies on video, providing psychosocial support throughout the process. We are now in post-production, processing selections from the footage to be included in an online digital archive designed in collaboration with scholars at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.

In addition, additional support was provided for the community’s participation in exhumations of some of the mass graves surrounding Arcatao, and for the finalization of construction of the sanctuary where the remains recovered from these gravesites will be reburied. These activities, while not yet complete, have been very deeply appreciated by the community.

Throughout our work in El Salvador, we have been struck by the generosity of many Salvadoran victims in sharing their experiences with us. We consider it our obligation to carry their stories forward to share with a broader audience, in both the United States and El Salvador. The education component of our work is therefore an essential part of what we do – in the spirit of “never again.”

At the University of Washington, we have worked to integrate this project into broader undergraduate education. For example, we arranged a videoconference with Salvadoran survivors in the context of a one-hundred-student course taught on human rights at UW; this experience allowed the students in the class to learn about torture directly from those who had experienced it, and along the way to understand the specifics of the Salvadoran conflict much better. In fact, a large number of students voluntarily decided to write thank-you notes to the Salvadoran survivors, which we delivered personally during a March 2014 visit.

Marina Llewelyn

Marina Llewelyn (center right) reunites with her family after being forcibly abducted and sold into adoption.

We have also produced materials to facilitate the sharing of this information in other contexts. For example, in 2013-14 we released two short films produced by our students, one on the question of “What is justice?” in the context of postwar El Salvador, and one exploring the personal story of Marina Llewelyn, a woman who was forcibly abducted by the military at the age of 4, sold into adoption and raised in the United States by a loving family unaware of the circumstances under which she had been separated from her family. We were fortunate enough to be in Arcatao on the day she returned for the first time since 1982, and to have a chance to record her reunion with family members and interview her on camera about her experiences. The resulting story provides insights into the Salvadoran conflict through the window of one woman’s experience. To view these films, to read about the Yellow Book, or to learn more about our ongoing work, please visit our project’s website at

Read Full 2013-14 Annual Report