The Search for Victims of Enforced Disappearances: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Current Practices

How can the search for victims of enforced disappearances be improved?

Project Summary

The search for the victims of enforced disappearance has received limited attention in both research and policy literature. What are the foundations and practical implementation of the search for victims? How do the families of victims cope and find their loved-ones in the absence of governmental action? By analysing the cases of Colombia and El Salvador this project will explore the complexity of this matter, with the aim to improve search processes and identify best and efficient practices in addressing this challenging issue.

The research questions seek to elucidate several aspects:

  1. How and within what legal frameworks do victims, civil society organisations (CSOs) victims’ associations, and official search mechanisms search for disappeared persons? How do these processes interact, if at all?
  2. How do victims and CSOs mobilize for the search as active agents, as providers of information and as receivers of information? What are the socio-political factors that hinder or facilitate this engagement?
  3. How can the engagement of and with the victims contribute to the efforts of official search mechanisms and the promotion of trust and restoration of social ties within the different spheres of society?

The research team has developed a methodology which combines an analysis of legal approaches in the relevant countries, data gathering on the subjective experiences of people affected in these cases, and rich descriptions of social practices with respect to the occurrences under examination.

Caminos de la búsqueda

Academic Output

Executive Summary

The project “The Search for Victims of Enforced Disapperances: A Multidisciplinary Exploration of Current Practices” looking at the case studies of Colombia and El Salvador was implemented between January 2019 and March 2021. Whereas the activities in the first year focused on building the team, developing the analytical framework, mapping the actors involved in the search, understanding the legal and political contexts and undertaking the interviews, we focused on analyzing the data and writing publications in the second year. Although some meetings, the bilateral visits and outreach activities could not take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic which started in the second half of the project, the activities were mostly implemented as planned. The results of the research obtained tend to correspond to those that were expected. The findings evolve around three themes: Firstly the legal frameworks relevant for the search and the participation of family members therein; secondly mobilization of family members; and thirdly the interplay between experiences and legal notions around recognition and victimhood.


Who are they to say? Experiences and recognition of victimhood of enforced disappearance in Colombia and El Salvador

Political and social constructions of victimhood may facilitate or hinder the struggle for recognition of victims of ED. A lack of recognition, due to legal and institutional obstacles and the psycho-social challenges these create and/or exacerbate, generates additional in-justice for ED victims. Recognition constitutes a significant and multifaceted process essential for the provision of effective redress to ED victims and in addressing the inhumane or degrading treatment / torture that they continue to suffer.

Working Paper

Even though enforced disappearances (ED) continue to occur in different contexts worldwide, the search for the victims of ED has received limited attention from both research and policy. This multidisciplinary research project, which started in January 2019 and ended in March 2021, explored the foundations and practical implementation of the search for victims of ED, from a legal, a psychosocial and a political perspective in the two case study countries of Colombia and El Salvador.

Taking into account that several actors are generally involved in search efforts, in addition to the official search mechanisms, the project focused particularly on the role of the next of kin, specifically families and civil society organizations (CSOs). Families have specific needs in the process as they are affected by ED on numerous levels. They suffer psychologically from not knowing the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones; economically they are marginalized as it is often the breadwinner who has been disappeared; and socially they suffer from marginalization. As it is difficult for families to make themselves heard by government authorities and official search mechanisms, they often rely on the support of CSOs. Besides other links with the search process, the next of kin and CSOs contribute important information to the search or even the act of ED itself in the absence of governmental action. Given that successful search efforts are assumed to contribute to the restoration of trust and social ties, taking into account the needs of families in the search process is crucial. The results of the research project prove invaluable both in terms of increasing our understanding of how search processes take place and of how they could be improved to respond to victims’ needs.

Research Team

Lisa Ott
University of Basel

Laurent Goetschel
University of Basel

Mina Rauschenbach
Principal Member
University of Lausanne

Briony Jones
Principal Member
University of Warwick

Nelson Camilo Sanches Léon
Principal Member

Ana Julia Excalante
Principal Member
Pro Busqueda

Heli Jeremias Hernandez
Principal Member
Pro Busqueda





Policy domains



Colombia, El Salvador

Host Institution