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OPINION

A heartbreaking visit to the hometown of a missing Boston woman

I visited Reina Carolina Morales Rojas’s hometown to interview her family and friends. I wanted to put a more human face to a missing-person case.

Alicia Morales de Díaz visited the home of her sister, Reina Carolina Morales Rojas, in the Cantarrana zone in Santa Ana, El Salvador, on Aug. 10, 2023. Morales Rojas went missing in Massachusetts on Nov. 26, 2022.Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

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SANTA ANA, El Salvador

Reina Carolina Morales Rojas’s home — where she lived until she moved to Boston in May 2022, six months before she disappeared — sits at the end of a quiet, unpaved road in Santa Ana, one of the largest cities in El Salvador.

It’s a distinctly impoverished rural area, with makeshift, unfinished small houses. On the side of the road, there’s litter and abandoned items like old appliances. Stray dogs mill around seeking leftovers.

In August, I visited Morales Rojas’s hometown to interview her family and friends to learn what type of person she is, what her personality is like, and why she became a migrant. I wanted to put a more human face to a missing person case. And I wanted to know how her disappearance is reverberating across borders.

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Morales Rojas’s children, Kimberly, 16, and Justin, 14, as well as her mom, Reina Margarita Olivo, 69, and sister, Alicia Morales de Díaz, 40, opened up about the open wound they carry. Their loved one, who is known as Carolina, Caro, or Carito in her homeland, disappeared 10 months ago in Massachusetts. She hasn’t been found.

Reina Margarita Olivo held a portrait of her daughter, Reina Carolina Morales Rojas, a Salvadoran immigrant who went missing in Massachusetts on Nov. 26, 2022, at the home of her other daughter, Alicia Morales de Díaz, in Santa Ana, El Salvador.Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

Carolina was last seen the evening of Nov. 26 in security camera footage that shows her getting out of a silver vehicle in Somerville. At the time of her disappearance, she was renting a tiny room in a basement apartment on East Boston’s Bennington Street.

All missing persons cases cause ripples of pain, and yet they’re not all treated equally. Carolina’s is a story of injustice upon injustice, a story that has many victims.

In the living room of Alicia’s house, which is located in a more residential part of Santa Ana, where she lives with her husband and son, she spoke about her long-simmering frustration with Massachusetts law enforcement agencies. “I don’t think I have to be a cop to understand that there was negligence in my sister’s case,” Alicia said. A framed color portrait of Carolina sits on the coffee table. “I feel like now they’re treating [the case] like a hot potato; the police in Boston keep telling me to call the Somerville police and [the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office] says they have nothing to tell me because Boston police says there’s no update.”

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It’s still an open question whether or not there was negligence. But what is undeniable is that there was an inexplicably long gap between the time a missing persons report about Carolina was filed with the Boston Police Department — Nov. 28 — and the time the police issued a public alert on her disappearance — Jan. 12. One can’t help but wonder if those weeks were a lost opportunity to collect tips from the public. Maybe that could have made a difference in her case — if only authorities had alerted the public earlier that she was missing.

Boston police insist they have worked on Carolina’s case since the day she was reported missing. Mariellen Burns, chief of Internal & External Communications at the Boston Police Department, initially confirmed via email that the Massachusetts State Police had taken jurisdiction of the case, which was news to Alicia and the rest of the family; they were naturally confused. But in a subsequent email, Burns corrected her statement and clarified that, actually, Carolina’s case remains a joint investigation between Somerville Police Department, the State Police, and the BPD. Burns said that “jurisdiction can be a complicated term” and that she had “misunderstood” that the State Police had taken the lead.

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Police released new photos of Reina Carolina Morales Rojas on Jan. 19, 2023.Stephen McNulty/Boston Police

Reina Carolina Morales Rojas’s life in El Salvador

Cases of missing persons and enforced disappearances are common in El Salvador. That’s when people go missing at the hands of state actors, or someone acting with state consent, followed by a refusal to acknowledge or reveal the victim’s whereabouts. On average, approximately one person went missing daily in the Central American country between January and March of this year. Most of their cases remain unsolved.

To some of Carolina’s friends in Santa Ana, the notion that she moved to the United States from a place where impunity reigns only to go missing with no news of her whereabouts after 10 months is astonishing.

“How is it that, in a first-world country like the United States, with state-of-the-art technology available, authorities haven’t found her?” said Wendy Rosales, a friend of Carolina’s who works as an assistant to a school principal in Santa Ana.

Reina Carolina Morales Rojas’s neighbors talked about the missing woman in the Cantarrana zone in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Morales Rojas went missing in Massachusetts on Nov. 26, 2022.Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

Carolina’s loved ones describe her as kind and supportive of friends. “She was one of those people whom everyone loves,” Rosales said.

“Caro was a hard worker. She always achieved anything she’d set her mind to,” Janeth Ramírez, another friend, told me. “I used to joke with her that she had more faith than church people. I remember being skeptical when she bought that empty plot of land. She said, ‘this is where I’ll build my home.’ And she did it.”

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Carolina’s children live at the home she left behind, a very modest space that is largely unfinished. Reina Margarita, Carolina’s mother, lives there with Kimberly and Justin. She feeds them and makes sure they go to school. Alicia, who has a boutique on Facebook selling clothes, supports them financially.

Justin Hernández Morales, 14, and Kimberly Hernández Morales, 16, are the children of Reina Carolina Morales Rojas, a Salvadoran immigrant who went missing in Massachusetts on Nov. 26, 2022. Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

Carolina got a job a few years ago working as an officer for the municipal agent corps, where she rode a motorcycle and had flexible hours. The corps is a civil agency in charge of guarding municipal buildings and public spaces, such as parks, in the city. She loved that job, Alicia told me, because it was community based and she was able to spend time with her children. But she had to leave it. And that’s when she began to think seriously about moving to America.

What forced Carolina to leave was, in part, another social malady that plagues El Salvador — violence against women. Between 2018 and 2019, while Carolina was working as a security officer, she accused two male coworkers of sexual harassment, according to documents that her family showed me. Subsequently, she filed claims in a special Salvadoran court created to handle cases of gender-based violence. The accusations are descriptive, detailed, and lewd. In one of the cases, the court ordered several urgent measures to protect Carolina, according to the document, including that the perpetrator refrain from contacting Carolina.

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The historic downtown in Santa Ana, El Salvador, where Reina Carolina Morales Rojas is from.Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

But after that, Carolina was reassigned to an administrative job, according to Silma de Castro, another friend of hers who had previously worked with her. It’s unclear why but Carolina said she felt as if she were being punished, an injustice against the victim, de Castro said. Carolina didn’t like the new position, her friend told me. Plus, she faced harassment again, this time by a female boss and a city councilor, de Castro said. “Carolina told me she made the decision to leave El Salvador because of that.”

“I didn’t want her to leave us,” Reina Margarita, Carolina’s mom, said, barely containing tears. Kimberly also didn’t want her mom to go to the United States. “I told her I didn’t want to be apart from her,” Kimberly said. They were so close that even though Kimberly had her own room, she would sleep with Caro. “ ‘I am doing this for you,’ she told me and my brother,” Kimberly said.

Carolina’s reason for leaving El Salvador was multilayered: In part, it was because of the harassment but also because she wanted to earn more money and provide a better life for her children. It took Carolina a week to get ready for her journey to the US-Mexico border. She borrowed $10,000 to pay a coyote — an individual who smuggles immigrants across the US-Mexico border. She paid her debt back a few months later with the money she made working two jobs in the United States, Alicia said.

Relatives of Reina Carolina Morales Rojas sat with Janeth Ramírez (right), a family friend, at the home of Alicia Morales de Díaz in Santa Ana, El Salvador, on Aug. 10, 2023. Morales Rojas is a Salvadoran immigrant who went missing in Massachusetts on Nov. 26, 2022. Her famiy and friends got together to share stories and memories of Morales Rojas.Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

The latest on Reina Carolina Morales Rojas’s case

The Boston Police Department has repeatedly told me it doesn’t discuss specifics about open investigations. Burns said detectives “have conducted dozens of interviews and have followed all investigative leads” on the case. Carolina’s family is convinced she didn’t just disappear — someone had to “disappear” her. But law enforcement hasn’t shared any theories about her disappearance.

It’s as if Carolina just vanished. That void is compounded by the fact that she was a recent immigrant with no family in Boston. If her mom or Alicia were in Boston, they said, they would be working nonstop to make her unsolved case more visible. The distance inevitably makes a difference, though it shouldn’t.

Reina Carolina Morales Rojas had sublet a room in a basement apartment in this East Boston building (center).Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“I wish with all my heart that I could get a visa and travel there so I could personally show up to all the relevant police stations every day to ask what they’re doing and why there’s been no progress,” Alicia said.

“The family lives half a world away and they struggle to access information about their loved one,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights. Espinoza-Madrigal and two LCR staff attorneys also traveled to Santa Ana to meet Carolina’s family members in order to “understand their legal needs [such as a type of immigration relief] in the vacuum left by Carolina’s absence.”

Espinoza-Madrigal said that Carolina’s children “had been in constant contact with their mother since she moved to the United States and they have extremely useful information for law enforcement. They can provide information about the mother’s routine, you know, the type of information that can be highly relevant for an investigation.”

A vigil was held outside of the East Boston police station on Paris Street for Morales Rojas on Jan. 24, 2023.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

That’s why Espinoza-Madrigal’s organization is “exploring humanitarian visa options” so the children can go to the United States. LCR also filed a public records request to get demographic data on missing persons cases in Boston since 2000, which the organization shared with me. There seems to be an overrepresentation of Black males and females in the missing persons data, which lists the race of victims but not ethnicity. LCR also reviewed all publicly available missing persons press releases issued by the Boston police and their dates and concluded that Carolina’s case stands out in terms of the delay between the date the missing persons report was filed and when a public alert was issued about the disappearance.

“For most people, it was within a few days or a week or so at most,” said Mirian Albert, a staff attorney at LCR. For Carolina’s case, “that was completely off.”

In May, Boston police quietly revised the department’s protocols around missing children and persons, a policy that was last updated in 1992. The new regulations include, among other things, a redesigned missing persons form to collect more detailed information about the missing person (but still no mention of asking ethnicity), including whether they use a language other than English and, if so, which one; and an expanded public notifications section that includes additional parties to coordinate decision-making around when to issue alerts.

The many victims of unsolved disappearances

Among the many awful aspects of unsolved disappearances is that they affect more than the missing person — Carolina’s mother, sister, and children are naturally affected by this case and can be seen as victims.

Many people have tried to prey on the family’s desperation. After word got around Santa Ana on Facebook about Carolina’s disappearances, Alicia started receiving calls from people claiming to know where her sister was. “Someone called me saying that my sister had been a victim of human trafficking and they wanted $600 to release her,” Alicia said. “They even said that they were going to send me a video of her getting beheaded if I didn’t send money. But the Boston police advised me to never send money to anyone and I didn’t.” Another person called to tell her that Carolina was in the hospital; yet another said she had been detained by immigration authorities.

An image of Reina Carolina Morales Rojas’s home in the Cantarrana zone in Santa Ana, El Salvador.Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

Then there’s the seemingly well-intentioned friends who keep pressuring Alicia into hiring mediums or psychics. Alicia is a devoted Christian, a deeply religious person who does not believe in the supernatural. One time, she said, she was getting a pedicure at a friend’s nail salon. “My friend kept insisting that I talk to this other woman who’s a psychic who apparently knew what happened to Caro. She was so adamant!” Alicia said.

The Saturday Carolina went missing, Kimberly video-called her in the evening, she said. “We spoke, as we used to do every day. Justin and I were together, but it was raining here so we couldn’t hear her well. I told her, ‘Mom, let’s talk tomorrow.’ I told her, ‘te amo, I love you.’ Then Justin said ‘te amo, too,’ ” Kimberly said. It was the last time they saw their mom.

Kimberly said her mom wanted her to be a doctor; when she finishes high school, she plans to go to medical school. Justin, who has a quieter, more shy demeanor, wants to be a chef. They both have been seeing a psychologist. But Kimberly told me she doesn’t like the sessions. “She just makes us do relaxation and meditation exercises,” Kimberly said. “The thing I really don’t like is that she keeps telling me that we have to be prepared for bad news about my mom and that makes me very sad.”

Reina Carolina Morales Rojas, a Salvadoran immigrant who went missing in Massachusetts on Nov. 26, 2022, lived in the Cantarrana zone in Santa Ana, El Salvador, before she moved to Boston. The neighborhood used to be controlled by gangs and was considered one of the most dangerous areas in Santa Ana. Víctor Peña for The Boston Globe

In all my conversations with Alicia, she would not talk about Carolina in the past tense. She believes her sister is alive. Alicia usually initiates calls with the Boston police detective assigned to communicating with the family, but there have been instances when the detective has initiated the calls, she said. When that happens, “my heart leaps thinking he’s going to say, ‘we found her,’ but then he says that it’s just a courtesy call,” Alicia said. It’s part of the ongoing agony, hope juxtaposed against the frustration of being in the dark, that continues to haunt the family. It’s as if they lost Carolina twice: First when she left El Salvador and again 10 months ago. Reina Margarita thinks about Carolina, her daughter, every day. “It’s horrible not to know anything about her,” she said.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.