Forensic Project

Forensic Project

By enabling the identification of remains, forensic analysis of DNA can be an important tool for establishing evidence of mass atrocities. Such identifications can also help establish a historical record and provide answers to survivors whose loved ones disappeared during the conflict. Additionally, forensic DNA analysis can help reunite families, especially in situations where children were separated from their parents at a young age. The Forensic Project aims to improve the use of forensic DNA analysis both to hold perpetrators accountable and to help families separated by conflict. Funded by a grant from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, the project is composed of two primary projects.

El Salvador DNA Reunification Project

Since 2006, the Human Rights Center has helped to reunite families torn apart by the armed conflict in El Salvador (1980-1992), seeking to hold the Salvadoran government accountable for its military policy of abducting children from families who resided in villages where the fighting occurred. The genesis of this effort and HRC’s partnership with Asociación Pro Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos (Association for Disappeared Children), an NGO in San Salvador, reunites families with children who were abducted or surrendered under duress during the war.

Contreras Re-union


The United Nations brokered a peace accord in El Salvador in 1992. Two years later, Father Jon Cortina, a Jesuit priest, along with families whose children had been abducted during the war, formed Pro Búsqueda. Father Cortina had heard that DNA testing had been used to reunite Argentine children who had been abducted by the military during la Guerra Sucia (the Dirty War) with their biological families. He contacted Eric Stover, then executive director of Physicians for Human Rights to request assistance.

Stover and a team of forensic scientists traveled to El Salvador and met with Cortina and families of the disappeared. As a result, several children were successfully reunited with their biological families. In 1997, when Stover joined the Human Rights Center, he brought with him his interest in using DNA analysis to help reunite families torn apart by the armed conflict in El Salvador.

Already more than 60 young people from Europe and North America have met their biological families in El Salvador.

DNA Analysis

In many cases, DNA analysis is relied upon to determine kinship. Another partner organization, the California-based Alliance of Forensic Scientists for Human Rights and Humanitarian Investigations (The Alliance), a volunteer organization of professional forensic DNA analysts and criminalists, geneticists and forensic statisticians, has created a DNA database that includes over 800 DNA samples from family members in El Salvador who are searching for their missing children. Some of the scientists are employees of the California State Department of Justice Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory, a facility that graciously permitted the group to use its state-of-the-art equipment on evenings and weekends for several years. Beginning in 2008, Chromosomal Laboratories of Phoenix, Arizona, has offered to perform the DNA analysis on a pro-bono basis.

The DNA database is a powerful tool to facilitate family reunification and in certain complex cases, is the only method by which familial relationships can be determined. The DNA database enables Pro Búsqueda to determine and confirm kinship in a more timely, reliable, and scientific manner, hence shortening the investigation stage and facilitating more family reunions. In July 2006, possession of the DNA database was transferred to Pro Búsqueda. The Alliance continues to collaborate in the expansion of the DNA database and to assist Pro Búsqueda to develop the technological capacity to administer it and to draw biological kinship affiliations from it. Learn more about DNA analysis.

To Find Out More

If you would like to find out more about the project or if you or someone you know is adopted from El Salvador and would like to participate in this project, please email: