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The Murky Question of Disappearances in El Salvador: An El Faro Investigation

El Salvador's missing people El Salvador's missing people

Figures on the number of missing people in El Salvador are hard to come by, and even harder to trust. El Faro investigates, and finds a story of mismanagement and of statistics kept secret by the government.

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El Salvador has seen its number of murders cut by more than half since the beginning of a truce between gangs and the government in March 2012, in which the government granted concessions to imprisoned leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 in exchange for them cutting the level of violence. But despite the successes of the truce, there are suspicions that the drop in murders could be partially due to killers simply hiding the bodies of their victims.

The government, particularly the main architect of the truce, Security Minister David Munguia Payes, have denied that there has been any rise in disappearances since the truce began. Reliable statistics are exceedingly difficult to find, as investigative website El Faro set out in an in-depth report on the issue. The following is InSight Crime's translation of selected extracts from the report -- the full text in Spanish can be read at El Faro:

In El Salvador, 2012 will pass into history as the year that the number of murders plummeted, thanks to a truce negotiated between the government and the gangs (a ceasefire between the gangs in exchange for, at least, benefits for imprisoned members, and the promise of a comprehensive reinsertion plan). But while homicides slumped from 12 a day down to five, some began to speculate that, perhaps, people were being disappeared. This question can't help but arise in a country like El Salvador, where since 2004 there have been reports of clandestine cemeteries where the gangs bury their victims.

The suspicion that there are fewer murders because there are more disappearances keeps coming back, and is difficult to answer. For example, Ernesto Angulo of the ARENA party, who heads the National Assembly’s Security Committee, is convinced that murders have dropped not because they are no longer killing people, but because they are hiding the bodies.

Security Minister David Munguia Payes, has asked us to believe that, since March 2012, the number of disappearances has started to fall.

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For many years (since 2004, according to the national police; since 2005, according to the criminologist Israel Ticas of the national Attorney General’s Office; since 2008, according to government forensic institute Medicina Legal), hundreds of Salvadorans have lived with the anguish of not knowing what happened to their sons, their daughters, their husbands, wives, mothers or fathers.

And the official figures, at least those that have been aired publicly, speak of a large number of cases. In 2011, the police had a register of 1,267 missing people. In 2012, the number grew to 1,564, but the number of people who were still missing by the first week of January this year stood at 612. In 2011, families reported 2,007 cases in the department of San Salvador alone. But in 2012, the reports to Medicina Legal, at the national level, were down to 1,601.

Another figure: the criminologist Israel Ticas says that between 2005 and 2012 he found, below the ground, in different parts of the country, 655 bodies -- 655 people who were considered disappeared by their relatives.

There are no other numbers. The police recognize that the statistical handling of the problem was done very badly before 2012. “That is something that I, personally, want to fix,” said Security Minister David Munguia Payes.

For the time being, there are three sources of data on the disappeared: the reports taken by Medicina Legal, the reports made to the police, and the reports by Israel Ticas, the criminologist from the Attorney General’s Office. His is an informal list, disorganized, noted down on loose sheets of paper, in pencil, in pen, in small pieces of paper badly folded inside his wallet, or on five sheets of bond paper, filled up to its borders, that he keeps in the backseat of his car. He says that his diaries, old and new, have more records, but that he prefers not to speak of those figures because his data is not official, nor is it data that can be attributed to the institution he works for.

“It’s data collected by Israel Ticas, the human being,” he says. “The official data, the data that can be shared by Israel Ticas, as an official at the Attorney General’s Office, is that I have unearthed, between 2005 and 2012, 655 bodies of Salvadorans who had disappeared."

If all the cases reported to the police between 2011 and 2012 are considered valid, it would mean that in two years, the newly disappeared would be the same as the number of children who were victims of forced disappearance during the war, according to the estimates of the Association for the Search for Missing Boys and Girls. But the problem is that the cases reported between 2011 and 2012 are not reliable. In fact, the “reduction in cases” that the police and security minister speak of cannot be trusted.

Let’s try to solve this puzzle: the police have said that in 2011 there were 1,267 “reported cases.” And according to their records, in 2012 the number of “reported cases” rose to 1,564. From one year to the next, the number of reported cases went up. Let us follow through. The police have cleaned up the numbers on cases reported in 2012. They say that of the total reported cases, 820 were archived because the people reappeared. They also say that 132 people were found dead, and that, in the end, by the first week of January, 612 were still missing. From this clean-up of the numbers, the police and the Security Ministry draw the following conclusion: compared to 2011, there are 655 fewer cases. But the authorities are trying to force a piece of the puzzle that does not fit. The comparison is impossible, unless we want to compare apples and oranges, to compare “reports” with “people who are still missing.”

The erroneous comparison between “cases reported in 2011” and “all people missing in 2012” was something that Raul Mijango, the negotiator of the truce between the gangs, let slip on December 11, 2012, in a meeting with the representatives of the National Assembly's the Public Security Committee. Mijango presented this “reduction in cases” as one of the truce’s achievements that year. Mijango and the police said that this was official data, which comes from the national police (PNC) itself. The only difference between the data which Mijango presented and the data which the police shared in January 2013 was that by then, the numbers had been updated. 

After explaining the inconsistency of the comparison to Security Minister David Munguia Payes, he recognized that they made a false comparison.
“What happened is that before we arrived to the police, there were some factual errors in statistics which we are now correcting,” he said.
“But you are comparing cases reported in 2011, that is to say, the total number of cases, with cases cleared in 2012. We should use the number of cases cleared in 2011 for the comparison to be valid.”
"Yes. There is no comprehensive data from 2011. From 2012 on it has been cleaned up, and we have refined the statistical procedures, so that today we will be able to make comparisons with what happened in 2012 and with what is going to happen in 2013," answered the minister.

For two months, El Faro asked the police for the data of reports of disappearances in 2011 -- and the two previous years -- but by the time of going to press there had been no answer. On being consulted, the head of the Unit on Special Crimes, inspector Jaime Ramirez Palma, explained that his bosses had authorized him to speak about everything, except the figures.
“At least let’s clarify one thing. Those figures exist?” El Faro asked him.
“Yes, they exist. They have to exist,” he said.
"Have you seen them?"
“No. But I’m going to explain something to you: 2011 was characterized by an increase in murders. It occurred to me (and it is an observation, I’m not telling you it was like that) that it was not a priority to go looking for disappeared people when there were that many murders. The priority in that moment was to go and catch killers. That was the priority.”

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How many disappeared people are there in El Salvador? The answer to that question is a resounding mystery, or, if you like, a question that has been only partially answered. The police can only give as an official number the 612 cases registered in 2012, of 612 people who are still missing (plus the 132 cases of those who went missing and were found dead). But the cases of the previous years are a mystery. In 2011 there were 1,165 cases reported, but the real number of disappeared is not known. Before that, the data (if indeed it exists) is either archived in the country’s official buildings, or is a secret that the police don’t want to reveal. However, in the absence of information, it can’t be said that there are more or fewer disappearances today than yesterday.

In short, the saga demonstrates one of the main weaknesses in the management of statistics (which are used for analysis, to formulate plans of action, and so on), something that has been considered a serious problem in El Salvador for many years.

But this failure is not just that of the police. In June 2012, the director of Medicina Legal (IML), Miguel Fortin Magaña, said that there were more disappeared people than the police had reported. Between January and April, according to the institution, in the province of San Salvador alone, there were 876 reports, against the 397 given by the police. Miguel Fortin Magaña says that he has never tried to present his figures as the absolute truth. In fact, after the disagreements between the Security Ministry and the IML, he always maintained that the data of the IML should not be considered as remaining static over time. “We don’t know if a person was found again two days after a relative came to report them missing. That is a matter for the police."

For Fortin Magaña, it was necessary to divulge his data on disappearances in order to “register a phenomenon that seemed serious to me, and  which the country should pay attention to.” But what Medicina Legal did not make public in those debates, is that that they also said something that did not fit, or that was not backed up by the numbers. In 2011, the Academic and Statistics Department (DAE) informed the press of 2,007 reported disappearances in the province of San Salvador alone.

It was an alarming report, reproduced in various news media. However, in the first trimester of 2012 the DAE found that among that data were duplicate reports, and that sometimes the same missing person had been reported by two or more relatives, without this second report being erased.

Upon realizing the error, the DAE corrected it, and digitalized all the reports in order to detect duplication. “It’s a serious error. But now we have corrected those from 2008, 2009, 2010. We still have not done 2011, but I can assure you that the figures from 2012 will not have this error, because we corrected our method of collecting information.

Between January and December 2012, the IML registered 1,601 cases “free of errors.” The IML has not cleared the data for 2011, and the institution suspects that the error did not exceed 100 reports. Still, what is certain is that in 2012 the reports from the IML did not only drop in comparison with other years, but that during the year the figure fell from month to month. This is confirmed in the annual report that the institution presented in January 2013. Thanks to what the institution says in this report, the IML also corrected the data that it had released in June, when it said that in the period January to April last year, it had registered 807 reports of missing people. According to the balance at the close of the year, in that period only 640 reports were registered.

This text has been translated and re-published with the authors' permission. It can be read in its original Spanish at El Faro's Sala Negra.

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