Fr Jon de Cortina

Searcher for Missing Children

Jon de Cortina Garaigorta, priest and human rights activist: born Bilbao, Spain 8 December 1934; ordained priest 1968; died Guatemala City 12 December 2005.

Father Jon de Cortina narrowly escaped the massacre of six fellow Jesuit priests by a military death squad in El Salvador in 1989, then dedicated the rest of his life to tracing the children who had gone missing during that country's bloody civil war. He found that most had been kidnapped by army officers for sale on the lucrative world adoption market.

Cortina, a Basque born in Bilbao, spent most of his 71 years in El Salvador, including those horrendous war years of 1980-92 in which 75,000 people died, many, like his fellow Jesuits, at the hands of army death squads. He was visiting a provincial village parish on the night of 16 November 1989, when 26 soldiers hauled six of his Jesuit colleagues, their cook and her daughter from their university dormitory in the capital, San Salvador, and executed them, still in their pyjamas, on the lawn outside. Photographs of the bodies shocked the world and hastened efforts towards the peace accord of 1992.

The Basque priest heard his name listed among the dead on his car radio as he drove back to the capital. The victims' supposed crime was supporting the country's Marxist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) guerrillas or simply speaking out against military oppression and the death squads.

After the war ended, he realised that a report by the UN-sponsored Truth Commission, set up under the historic peace accord, did not mention the fate of the several thousand children who had gone missing. Parents had begun approaching him for help in finding children who had been snatched from them, usually by soldiers.

The army had adopted a "scorched earth" policy against peasant villages they believed were supporting the guerrillas. Snatching children was "for both tactical and financial reasons", said Cortina. "Stealing children obviously terrorised villagers, but military officers knew each child could fetch up to $18,000 from childless couples in better-off countries."

Cortina had heard rumours, and stories from soldiers themselves, suggesting that many children orphaned or kidnapped in the war years had been sold for adoption elsewhere in Latin America, in the United States or Europe, including to desperate childless parents in Britain. "Some of the poorer peasant children were first taken to 'fattening-up' centres, just like chickens, to make them more attractive to adopting couples," he said.

In 1994, he founded the Association in Search of Missing Children, known in Spanish simply as Pro-Búsqueda (Pro-Search), and remained its director until his death. Considered one of Central America's leading human rights groups, it aims to give the missing children the "right to identity", rather than force or even encourage them to go back to their biological families.

At first using basic detective work and word of mouth but latterly helped by a DNA lab at Seattle University, Cortina and his group followed up more than 700 requests from families to find their missing war children, most of them now aged around 20. In 175 of the requested cases, children were traced and family reunions arranged but mostly, in line with the group's policy, the children stayed with their adoptive families abroad, who had cared for them most of their lives. In 90 cases, children declined to return to El Salvador after so many years, even for a brief reunion.

Jon de Cortina Garaigorta was born in Bilbao in 1934. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1954, moved to El Salvador the following year as a Jesuit novice and was ordained a priest in 1968. He studied Philosophy in the US and Theology in Frankfurt and attained a Doctorate in Engineering from the Polytechnic University in Madrid in 1973.

After his fellow Jesuit Rutilio Grande was murdered by the Salvadorean military in 1977, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero appointed Cortina priest of the Aguilares parish but he continued to teach, and speak out against oppression, at the UCA in the capital, where he was a professor of seismic engineering. (Archbishop Romero was himself killed by a single bullet in 1980 while celebrating Mass, a day after publicly calling on the military to end repression.)

Cortina was in Guatemala City for a conference in November when he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma from which he never recovered.

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