“I still thank God because we have closure.”
Editor’s Note: The outcome of Lucy’s brother’s story is in direct contrast to Anna Diaz’s son’s story. Yet they are both active in Cofamide, [Committee of Relatives of Dead and Missing Migrants], the organization committed to support the families of migrants across Central America. That group is closely associated with CARECEN [ Central American Resource Center] that also focuses on the needs of the migrant/families.
Unfortunately Lucy’s story does not end with the recovery of her brother’s body. She and her family continue to live in fear.
Imagine being a member of a family constellation of nineteen, yes, nineteen children! I was born on April 29, 1972. Our 74 year old mother was quite ill with diabetes and was unable to purchase the necessary medications she needed to stabilize her health.
As is so typical in our country, often the youngest, unattached, most physically fit person in the family is urged to make the journey north for work opportunities to help pay the family bills because there are such limited economic options here in our country.
In our case this meant that my youngest brother, Jose Solomon (nickname “Ononchito”) Contreras, would be the one to go. Solomon was a fisherman in Olomega, La Union, along the Pacific Coast, and his earnings were very sporadic depending on the season. Fishing is an unpredictable living. Some days the catch is decent and profitable; other days you catch nothing.
Our driving force for this decision to send Solomon north was to improve the welfare of our mother. Her health was at great risk. We could see her deteriorating. We also hoped to be able to provide a small home to give her a better life. The family hired a “coyote,” who is an experienced guide, to help navigate Solomon along with a group of others across the terrain toward his goal to reach the U.S. to get a job. Solomon left on June 5, 2000. He was nineteen when he left home.
My mother was understandably very anxious during this time. We moved her into San Salvador with us so that she wouldn’t be alone during that time of stress and worry. Fearing she may misconstrue anything she heard to be bad news about Solomon, we went so far as to disconnect her T.V. so that she would not tune into the news.
The coyote informed us to expect a call in approximately fifteen days, the average time to make the journey. On July 1 the phone rang. The timing was right for the three-week trip, so I naturally assumed it was the good news that Solomon had reached the U.S. I put the phone on speaker for my mom to hear what I anticipated to be Solomon’s voice. That turned out to be a horrible decision.
It was the sister of another person within the same group traveling with the coyote. Her words will forever haunt me. “Lucy, Solomon has been killed.” I immediately threw down the phone breaking it to pieces along with my mom’s heart as she became hysterical. My brother had been killed on Saturday, and we received the news on Tuesday. Later the newspaper article reported that three Salvadorans were killed in Tapachula, a town in Chiapas, Mexico*. The two other Salvadoran victims were the guide and a girlfriend of one of the others in the group. Based on the evidence, it appeared to be a crime typical of drug gangs. I have photographs that show clearly that he was tortured before he was killed. His face had been destroyed. [*Chiapas is the southern most state of Mexico bordering Guatemala. Tapachula is a town located in the southern part of Chiapas.]
By taking documents and copies of Solomon’s fingerprints to the Mexican Embassy, I was able to verify his identity. Of course, our family wanted to claim Solomon’s body and bring him home for burial. I approached the Embassy and Mexican foreign minister for permission to do so. However, I was told that the victims had already been buried in a mass grave. When I asked for permission to exhume his body, the cost was prohibitive – 28,000 colones or about $3,200. I asked myself how to pay for this. Then I approached CARECEN [Central America Resource Center], an NGO aligned with migration issues, which offered to pay for half of this cost, but the other half was the family’s responsibility. CARECEN also helps families who are unable to recoup the body of a loved one by helping to pay for their transportation of family members to visit gravesites. My brother’s crime was one of the first ones solved by Cofamide/CARECEN.
The toll this all took on my mother was unfathomable. A mother’s pain is one of heartbreak. One of my brothers who is now a U.S. citizen did paperwork to move our mom into the U.S. to live safely with him. It has not taken away the emotional scar of Solomon’s death. On the recent 11th anniversary of his death, my mother needed to be hospitalized from emotional issues.
Cofamide is a wonderful support to me and to many other families. I am grateful to be working on their behalf. In Solomon’s case, as devastatingly final and gruesome as it is, I still thank God because we have closure; we have a body and a tomb. There are so many families of loved ones who have disappeared that know nothing. They are still waiting for an answer, still waiting for closure, for peace.
I owe much gratitude to the support of organizations such as Cofamide and CARECEN. I don’t know how an individual could possibly navigate through all the necessary steps in situations like this on his own without the guidance and network of support these organizations offer families in such high states of emotional anxiety. Also I am grateful that we have a safe place to meet and conduct interviews. Many families are even hesitant to come forward to report their loved ones as missing.
The insecurity of living in this country is the most difficult feature of life in El Salvador. My mother has asked me to come join her in the U.S. also, but my husband and four daughters are here. It would be much more difficult to do this now. We live in constant stress as the gangs move throughout our country. My girls are vulnerable, and I pulled them out of the public schools due to threats.
Although I lost my hope for El Salvador, I still hope for a change. This is such a beautiful country with beautiful people.
Editor’s Note: Who knows all the mitigating factors that drive these thousands of migrants throughout all of Central America to migrate to the north in such a fervent flow? Desperation, certainly. Besides the obvious economic opportunities they seek, some have speculated that the people have never recovered from such natural disasters as Hurricanes Mitch and other more recent disasters which continue to cause more poverty. Many predictions indicate that these storms will continue to bring devastation and, in fact, they may be expected to occur more frequently due to shifting weather patterns. Meanwhile, it appears the drug cartels along the journey north are profiting from the constant flow of traffic by kidnapping, stealing, and then leaving behind no chance of incrimination and justice.