On May 10th, 1983, Thomas de Witt and Margaret Ward received a late night phone call. The voice at the other end of the line said there was an older child available for adoption. The boy's background was completely unknown—his real name, when he was born or even where he was born. The voice also declared they had until 10AM the next morning to decide if they would adopt the child. Twenty days later in Honduras, de Witt and Ward officially became the boy's parents. They named him Nelson.
Sparse details related to their son's history were not the only unusual circumstances regarding his adoption. de Witt and Ward's FBI clearances—a necessary aspect of the adoption process—were expedited. They were provided a lawyer. The wife of the United States ambassador to Honduras, Mrs. Negroponte, shepherded the adoption. The necessity for a rushed delivery of the small boy to de Witt and Ward were never explained to them. When they left Honduras and touched down in the United States, the details were insignificant. Nelson de Witt was officially their son.
Nelson de Witt considers his childhood to be normal and typically American. He went to summer camp every year, watched Red Sox games with his younger brother, played sports and attended private school. de Witt is fond of his New England upbringing and cherishes the life and family he was adopted into.
Not knowing your birth name, or your birthday, or even the circumstances of why you were given up? That was always a little tough for me. That not knowing.
On August 2nd, 1997, Thomas de Witt and Margaret Ward received another late night phone call. The voice at the other end of the line—different than the first—explained that he is associated with the organization Physicians for Human Rights, and he is searching for the missing children separated from their families during the civil war in El Salvador. Based on his research, the voice believed de Witt and Ward’s son to be one of the missing children.
The conversation between de Witt and the voice, (a.k.a Robert Kirshner—headlined by the University of Chicago News Office in 2002 as a “prominent forensic pathologist and human rights activist”), is a revelation of extraordinary circumstances. One that resonates more like fiction than reality. Kirshner spins an incredible yarn about a boy born into the violent struggle of civil war, whose biological parents were El Salvadoran revolutionaries on the front lines.
The mysteriousness of the adoption sort of fit the grandeur of the story. There had to be some reason behind the mystery.
Codenamed Iris and Jose, de Witt’s mother and father fought as guerillas in the left-wing political party Fuerzas Populares de Liberaciòn Farabundo Martì (FPL). At the height of the El Salvadoran civil war, Iris and Jose dangerously pursued their political party's idealism in true guerilla fashion. The cosmic irony of the revolution, is that Iris and Jose fought and suffered to provide their family with a life not unlike the one their son experienced, growing up in his adoptive homeland of the United States.
Married operatives in the FPL were often separated due to the party agenda and missions undertaken. A separation for Iris and Jose in the early 1980’s was the thread that unraveled and changed all of their lives.
Jose, on a mission in the hills of El Salvador, suffered a life threatening gunshot wound to the chest during a firefight. A man using a child for a human shield strafed a bullet within an inch of piercing his heart. To save his life, Jose received one of the first open heart surgeries in El Salvador. He was then absconded to Nicaragua, and later to Cuba where he recovered in solitary, away from his wife and newborn son he never had the chance to see.
Iris, who focused on logistics for the FPL—smuggling people and supplies in and out of the country—was in the capital city with her infant son. Newspaper photographs of herself, and other wanted or suspected FPL guerillas, forced her to suddenly leave the country. Eventually Iris was sent by the FPL to Tegucigalpa, Honduras on a mission with several others. Their orders were to kidnap a german businessman operating the country. Against all natural maternal instincts, or because of her strength in them, Iris brought her infant son along on the mission.
de Witt learned, through investigative documentation forwarded by Kirshner, that his mother was killed in a raid by Honduran security forces during a strike to recover the ransomed businessman.
In a back room of the compound, police made the unsettling discovery of an infant child. There is an iconic photograph below the newspaper headline "Police Serving Children Who Lived With Kidnappers"; in the photograph is an infant child staring blankly while being held by a policewoman and regarded by a man in uniform. The officer, Colonel Daniel Ball Castillo—one of the notorious organizers of the secret death squad Intelligence Battalion 3-15—is smiling.
de Witt was away during the summer of ‘97 when his family received that fateful late night call from Kirshner. His parents waited until he returned from camp before sharing the news of what they heard. During the conversation, de Witt also learned that people claiming they were his biological family had been searching for him and believed they had found him. Convinced that they were his blood relatives, he agrees to take a DNA test. A month later the results provide incontrovertible evidence that after fourteen years of searching, de Witt had finally been located by his El Salvadoran family.
My mind was made up that it was my family...so many things aligned in such a way that it just kind of worked out.
Time traveled at lightspeed for de Witt. In rapid succession, discoveries were made. The most significant revelation was that Nelson de Witt was born Roberto Alfredo Coto Escobar in the heat of conflict in El Salvador, May 22nd, 1981.
Correspondence exchanged between the summer and winter of ‘97 uncovered a strong family tree. Iris, whose real name was Ana, was survived by her mother—affectionately referred to as Mama Chila—and two siblings of de Witt’s; an older brother and sister. Jose, whose real name was Luis, survived the conflict in El Salvador, remarried and was living in Panama with his wife and daughter; de Witt’s younger stepsister. Newfound aunts, uncles and cousins also fortified his biological roots.
On December 20th, 1997, de Witt and his family from the United States flew to Costa Rica to meet his El Salvadoran relatives. de Witt had developed a sense of his other family in the months prior to the trip, and those sentiments were rewarded when the two families finally met each other for the first time. His birth family welcomed him as they knew him, Roberto, and through his life as Nelson, they embraced his adoptive family wholeheartedly. A new family dynamic had been achieved, largely through the efforts of Mama Chila, the matriarch of the family—an unrelenting woman who never ceased to believe that her daughter’s youngest child was alive and thriving.
It was about all of us...when you are 16 and your world gets turned upside down...you realize that life is short; there are forces at work bigger than you. You could walk down the street and get hit by a bus or something equally tragic. Something amazing could also happen, like being reunited with long lost loved ones.
Nelson de Witt a.k.a Roberto Coto Escobar, exists at the intersection of two family legacies. His heritage reflects the brave decisions made by those who would come to embrace him as their own and those who tirelessly sought the truth while he was missing. de Witt is the man he is today, because the people in his family were revolutionaries. All of them.