Video

The Disappeared Children of El Salvador

 

As the debate ensues about the confirmation of Assistant CIA director Gina Haspel and her role in condoning torture, I’m again reminded of the role the US government and military has historically played in numerous human rights abuses abroad.

In 2015, I traveled to El Salvador as a Teaching Assistant with a group of outstanding undergraduate researchers and budding filmmakers in the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies Task Force program. My role, as part of a digital media fellowship at the UW Center for Human Rights, was to lead a student team, under the direction of professor Angelina Godoy, in the production of two videos for Pro-Búsqueda, the indomitable Salvadoran Human Rights organization dedicated to reuniting surviving family members with their children who were forcibly disappeared by the Salvadoran army during the Civil War (1980-1992).

Evidence overwhelmingly indicates the US military trained and supported Salvadoran generals in counterinsurgency tactics that included torture. A policy of brutality and extermination, executed at the highest levels, resulted in countless human rights atrocities, including the forced disappearance of children.

During this trip, we heard dozens of stories of how children were literally taken from the arms of their parents–many of whom were tortured and murdered–and given up to adoption in the United States and abroad. Over many years Pro-Búsqueda has painstakingly followed fragmented trails of information and evidence, and against numerous threats, to find the whereabouts of these disappeared children. To date Pro Búsqueda has reunited or found closure in an astounding 435 cases.

In the recent Senate Intelligence committee hearings, Haspel remarked how,  “The C.I.A. did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country, given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”

Is torture ever be something subject to shifting public opinion or definitions of legality? While accountability for the various forms of torture should not lie squarely on Haspel’s shoulders–the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report extends culpability up the chain of command to President Bush–should we consider as director of the CIA someone who defers culpability to prevailing attitudes and legal authorization?

When it comes to questions of torture and one’s moral compass, the answer should be clear in the faces of those who have suffered under these policies.

To learn more about the Salvadoran Civil War from the account of survivors, visit the Unfinished Sentences’ Testimony Archive.

 

Video

Education for Change

Repost from UW’s Jackson School of International Studies

At the UW Center for Human Rights, student researchers use the Freedom of Information Act (also known as FOIA) and state public records laws to investigate local and international human rights issues, in partnership with human rights organizations working for justice and accountability.

The work that UWCHR student research interns do has real-world impacts. Through the Unfinished Sentences project supporting human rights groups in El Salvador, declassified CIA documents obtained by UW researchers have been accepted as evidence in a court case seeking two young girls who were forcibly disappeared during a military operation in 1982. UW student researchers are also piloting an innovative program to use declassified U.S. government documents as a tool in the healing process of war survivors, as way to allow them access to information about wartime operations and to speak back against official narratives of the war. All of the declassified documents obtained by UW researchers regarding the conflict in El Salvador are freely accessible via the UW Libraries.

Student researchers are also turning their freedom of information expertise to local issues through the UWCHR’s Human Rights at Home initiative. The first report from this initiative, “Don’t Ask, Do Tell,” used public records requests to analyze Washington State law enforcement agencies’ policies regarding collaboration with federal immigration enforcement activity. The report’s findings were cited by the ACLU of Washington and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in a letter to police and sheriff’s departments across the state, urging them to revise policies which could result in civil rights violations. The UWCHR’s student research interns continue to file FOIA and public records requests regarding ICE and CBP activities in Washington State.

I worked with the UW Center for Human Rights to capture their superstar student Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) research team in action, and discuss the lasting impact their work is having on their education and advancing human rights.

Roles: Videographer, Editor, Producer

Human Rights, Video Work

Education for Action: Student Berry Boycott Organizer Celebrates Farmworker Victory

When workers at a Washington State berry farm went on strike for their right to form a union, University of Washington alumna Jessica Ramirez joined the fight alongside Familias Unidas por la Justicia, coordinating a national boycott against the largest berry company in the world.

Jessica’s work was supported by the UW Center for Human Rights’ unique Osheroff-Clark Fund, which provides financial resources for undergraduate and graduate students to support human rights projects that promote social change through direct action.

Learn more about the UW Center for Human Rights’ funds for students and instructors

Learn more about Familias Unidas por La Justicia

Roles: Producer, Videographer, Editor

Video

Make Your Voice Heard: Fighting Islamophobia

 

In 2015, reported hate crimes against American Muslims increased 67%, reaching the highest levels in our nation’s history. Responding to this rapid increase, The Muslim Association of Puget Sound  (MAPS) and Kids4Peace Seattle collaborated with local journalists, activists, judges, artists, and concerned citizens to produce the workshop “Make Your Voice Heard.”  The workshop set out to empower Muslim and non-Muslim youth to use media to tell positive personal stories about American Muslims and fight the mischaracterization of Muslims in mainstream media. In this video you’ll hear directly from Muslim youth about their stories, and experience a snapshot of the day’s event, held at Seattle University on January 15, 2017, Martin Luther King Day.

Roles: Videographer, Editor, Producer

Video

Amanda Castro: Daughter of the Disappeared

Twenty-five years after the end of the armed conflict in El Salvador, thousands of families like Amanda’s continue searching for their forcibly disappeared parents, children, friends and relatives. The President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has committed to form a National Commission to Search for Disappeared Persons to investigate and clarify these crimes against humanity. The Commission should be granted the legal authority and resources necessary to investigate these cases, with the goal of locating and identifying the remains of the disappeared, and where possible, identify those responsible for these crimes in order that they be brought to justice.

Join Amanda. Send a message to thank President Cerén for his commitment to surviving family members of the disappeared, and ask him to follow through on the creation of the Commission:

Unfinishedsentences.org/Take-Action

This video was created in partnership with the UW Center for Human Rights and the Center for Human Rights at the Universidad CentroAmericana.

Roles: Coordinator/Producer, Editor

Video

Salvadoran-American Children of the Disappeared Search for “Our Parents’ Bones”

Originally published by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights

In 1993, the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador estimated that some 10,000 Salvadoran civilians were forcibly disappeared during the country’s armed conflict. To this day, no meaningful inquiries have been launched to recover their remains or identify those responsible for these crimes. In El Salvador, relatives of the disappeared have been demanding justice for decades. In 2014, the Mauricio Aquino Foundation launched a campaign called “Our Parents’ Bones,” led by children of the disappeared who now live in the United States. The campaign has hosted community events for children, family-members, and friends of the disappeared in cities across the U.S. With the support of the UWCHR’s Unfinished Sentences project, the Our Parents’ Bones campaign is also lobbying both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments to take action to uncover the truth about forced disappearances.

On April 14, 2016, the UWCHR joined the Mauricio Aquino Foundation, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the Due Process of Law Foundation in spearheading a Congressional briefing, hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives Central America Caucus and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. At the briefing, three family members of the disappeared shared their personal stories, alongside David Morales, El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman, who argued that the systemic disregard of such cases has hampered El Salvador’s ability to fight contemporary crime today. As part of the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, the Obama Administration intends a significant investment in rule of law efforts in El Salvador and neighboring countries; yet participants in this briefing insisted that absent indications of political will to tackle the tough cases—from the past and present eras—infusions of economic assistance will have little effect.

In addition to sponsoring the briefing, members of the delegation met with numerous Congressional offices and with key officers at the State Department, and hosted two public presentations with local organizations. In response, Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Norma Torres (D-CA) circulated two Dear Colleague letters on the topic of El Salvador’s disappeared. In total, 26 Members of Congress signed a letter asking the Obama administration to initiate a broad declassification of records pertaining to human rights in El Salvador; 21 Members of Congress also signed a letter to Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén soliciting the creation of a national commission in El Salvador to search for the disappeared.

There is reason to think that Our Parents’ Bones and Members of Congress’ call for a declassification order on El Salvador might be successful—earlier in 2016, the Obama Administration ordered government agencies to release files relating to U.S. involvement in the “Dirty Wars” in both Argentina and Chile. The UWCHR’s research, and our ongoing FOIA lawsuit against the CIA, underscore the importance of precisely such a measure to surmount the limitations of the existing FOIA process and provide access to information that can help families—in both El Salvador and the United States—heal the wounds of war.

The most compelling argument for further declassification and a renewed search for the remains of the disappeared, are the stories of those who lost family members to forced disappearance. Sara Aguilar, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and member of the Our Parents’ Bones campaign, told the story of her father Rodolfo’s disappearance in a video created by the UWCHR. Sara’s story was viewed more than 18,000 times and shared by hundreds of people, many of whom wrote emotional messages of sympathy and solidarity. Hundreds also took action after watching the video by writing to U.S. government officials with the power to influence declassification processes.

“Within my generation this happened.” Sara says, “As a US citizen, I feel like it’s the US’s responsibility to declassify documents…It’s time now, 33, 35 years after the fact, it’s time to know what happened, find some closure, and continue that process of healing.”

Roles: Videographer, Producer

Human Rights, Video Work

The University of Washington sues the CIA

On October 2, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UW CHR) filed a lawsuit against the CIA in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleging that the agency has failed to meet its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The UW CHR is seeking the release of U.S. government documents relating to the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre in El Salvador, as part of its mission to conduct research in support of front-line human rights organizations around the world. Earlier this year, I the UW CHR released the first comprehensive report on the massacre, as well as an 18-minute documentary featuring survivors and human rights advocates.

I shot and edited this short piece to succinctly provide background information on the Center’s work and how it relates to their decision to pursue litigation.

For more information, please read the UW CHR’s complete press release.

Roles: Videographer, Editor, Producer

Human Rights, Video Work

God Alone was with US: The Massacre of Santa Cruz

In November, 1981, during the height of the Salvadoran armed conflict, an estimated 1,200 soldiers invaded the rural northern province of Cabañas, El Salvador, to carry out a “cleansing operation.” Survivors of the invasion, however, tell a story of carnage, in which the armed forces directly targeted the unarmed civilian population, including the elderly and women carrying children, using ground forces and aerial bombardment and resulting in the death of untold numbers of campesinos. In particular, hundreds are estimated to have been killed in the massacre of Santa Cruz, which took place at the site of the schoolhouse in Santa Cruz, in the municipality of Ilobasco, department of Cabañas, on November 14, 1981.

In recent years, these events have received renewed attention thanks to the survivors’ ongoing struggle for justice. In March 2014, for example, hundreds gathered in the rural community of Santa Marta, Cabañas, for a restorative justice tribunal sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” in San Salvador. This event featured public testimony from survivors of this massacre and other related atrocities. Multiple survivors of the massacre have also provided sworn testimony to investigating prosecutors in the Salvadoran Fiscalía General. Despite this, the Fiscalía has thus far failed to conduct a timely or thorough investigation into these events. This effective denial of justice constitutes an ongoing violation of Salvadorans’ fundamental rights.

Since 2013, Unfinished Sentences has worked with partners in El Salvador, Spain, and the United States in an effort to understand and document what happened at Santa Cruz. Today we present God Alone was with Us, the first comprehensive report on this massacre, along with an 18-minute documentary detailing the events of the massacre and survivors’ renewed fight for truth and justice.

For more info visit Unfinished Sentences, a project to encourage public participation in support of human rights in El Salvador. Produced for the UW Center for Human Rights.

Roles: Videographer, Editor, Producer, Project Coordinator

Articles, Human Rights, On Story

Making Access to Truth Convenient for Human Rights Advocates: Insights and Lessons from the Yellow Book

YB-Banner-en
This post originally appeared on December 10, 2014, on the University of Washington’s Flip the Media blog, an online publication of the Communication Leadership Graduate Program at the University of Washington.

On September 28, 2014, International Right to Know Day, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, in coordination with the National Security Archive, and The Human Rights Data Analysis Group, co-published The Yellow Book (El Libro Amarillo), the first document to be publicly released from the archives of El Salvador’s military intelligence. The 1980s-era document identifies almost 2,000 Salvadoran citizens considered “delinquent terrorists.” An estimated 43% of the names in the book were found to be victims of murder or extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, torture, detention or arrest.

Though compelling for many reasons—the document indicates the systematic planning of the Salvadoran government to terrorize and exterminate its own citizens—multiple attempts to partner with major news outlets in the US to cover the release of the document proved fruitless. As a result, the UWCHR decided to self-publish the document through its Unfinished Sentences’ website and associated social media channels, in addition to publication on the National Security Archive’s website.

However, the Unfinished Sentences project had less than one year of a public presence and as such, relatively scant visibility. The lack of media interest in the US was initially seen as a disappointment: a vital source of information for the numerous people still searching for the fate of their lost loved ones, information that would aid in the fight for truth, justice, and accountability in El Salvador, ran the risk of lingering into obscurity on the Unfinished Sentences website.

A Case Study for Overcoming the Communication Challenges Encountered by Nonprofits

The communication challenge posed by Yellow Book, however, isn’t unique to the UWCHR; rather, the Yellow Book represents the typical communication challenge of nonprofits: Distributing information seen as essential by one subset of the population often becomes judged as esoteric by another.

So how did the Yellow Book’s publication unfold?

In August, pre-release of the Yellow Book, the Unfinished Sentences website had received 166 visitors for a total of 284 views. However by October, the website received 6,643 visitors for a total of 141,976 page views–an increase of almost 4,000 percent in visitors and 50,000 percent increase in page views.

Page views Unfinished Sentences website

Publication of the Yellow Book and traditional and new media outreach efforts resulted in a significant jump in visits and page views for the Unfinished Sentences website.

Visitors have also downloaded the 266-page document close to 800 times and converted into additional forms of engagement.

Though the data might be seen as modest by many larger organizations, this is “viral” for an organization of the size and scope as the CHR. Most important, the quality of the connections trumps hard numbers. The story was covered in at least 27 articles and in 24 newspapers and blogs, including BBC Mundo and La Prensa Grafica.

Distribution Tactics to Help Ensure Success

Key tactics to help ensure the success of the Yellow Book included making key materials included leveraging essential partnerships and making key materials easy to share and disseminate.

Leveraging Essential Partnerships

Phil Neff, Unfinished Sentences Project Coordinator, commented on the approach used by the partnership, a combination of tried-and-true fundamentals and new media tactics: “We owe much of the Yellow Book success to essential partnerships in the US and abroad, with key organizations in El Salvador such as COPPES, the Committee of Former Political Prisoners…These groups organized a press conference the day of the release in San Salvador, which was attended by the major news outlets in El Salvador … El Faro, the premier online newspaper in El Salvador, also ran a piece one week in advance of the release, stimulating a great deal of interest.” A take action component, formed with COPPES, also provides another important way for viewers to become engaged after viewing the Yellow Book material.

Making Key Materials Easy to Share and Disseminate

On the digital front, The Unfinished Sentences team made the Yellow Book, and associated material, easy to share and disseminate. The book itself was scanned and placed on the Unfinished Sentences website as a Creative Commons PDF and as a Google Drive link, in addition to JPGs of all 266 pages, and a downloadable copy of the HRDAG analysis. Just days after the Yellow Book’s release, graduate students from a University in Mexico followed up with a network analysis of the relationships in the Yellow Book.

The Unfinished Sentences team also made a short video trailer about the release, in English and in Spanish, providing ways for blogs and news organizations to embed content. The Spanish version of the You Tube trailer has over 14,200 views, indicating the population most interested in the material, and the outcome of the Salvadoran partnerships. An example of the You Tube video composing the content of unaffiliated news organization Genteve can be found here.

Summing it Up: Four Key Strategic Insights from the Yellow Book Release

So what lessons can we glean from the release of the Yellow Book? Here are just a few:

-Relationships matter. Much of the success of the distribution came from contacts that were forged face-to-face. With this in mind, take the time to reach out to and physically meet strategic partners.

-Sometimes simpler is better. We now have so much access to affordable technology—HTML5, animation, dynamic maps, user behavior activated events, visualization of user generated content—I tend to get down in what a story could be or look like over just providing straightforward ways to access information. However, providing bits and pieces of shareable content remain important in the distribution effort. The YouTube video trailer, downloadable reports, and case examples, all provided ways for other organizations and individuals to engage with the Yellow Book content, facilitating story development.

-Speak to your base. It’s not always necessary to shape communications efforts to appeal to the widest audience possible. For example, the English version of the YouTube version only has 412 views compared to 14,200+ views in Spanish, indicating much higher success for the intended audience of Salvadorans and the greater human rights community.

-Remember for whom your efforts are meant. Media tactics aside, on this day, International Human Rights Day, it’s essential to note not only the compelling nature of this information itself, but how it is intrinsically tied to thousands of people in the world who seek any information for the whereabouts of missing loved ones, and who continue to fight for truth, justice, and accountability.

 I find the best insight to be gained from the words of Hector Recinos, a political prisoner profiled in the Yellow Book, in response to the research on the book. “The only thing we can do is seek justice. We are going to persist, we are stubbornly seeking answers. There is a lot to be done, this is only the beginning. But it’s good that things are coming to light.”

Gallery

Seeking Truth and Justice: A Photo Essay from the 6th Annual International Tribunal

A Santa Marta resident holds a candle at a candlelight vigil.

Since 2009, survivors of human rights violations committed during El Salvador’s civil war have gathered each year to share their stories and demand justice for the crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This year, the Tribunal was celebrated in the community of Santa Marta in the department of Cabañas, target of a series of brutal scorched earth operations by the military of El Salvador during the 1980s, including the massacre of Santa Cruz, in which some 200 fleeing civilians were killed.

Organized by the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University and the Network of Committees of War Victims, and presided by a panel of international jurists and human rights advocates, the International Restorative Justice Tribunal closed with a resolution delivering symbolic verdicts in response to each testimony, as well as recommendations calling on national and international authorities to ensure justice and reparations for grave human rights abuses.

Photo essay by Alex Montalvo. Translations by Ursula Mosqueira. A project for the Unfinished Sentences campaign.