California man goes missing after hiking in El Salvador, family pleads for help finding him

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated which officials the missing man's family is asking for help. The family is speaking to officials in El Salvador.

A Los Angeles family is pleading with both officials in El Salvador and the U.S. to help find their brother, father, husband and son who went missing while hiking in El Salvador last month.

José Tomás Lainez, 54, left for El Salvador on March 23 and set out to hike in the San Vicente area with his nephew, his mother, a cousin, a guide and the guide’s wife, said his sister, Maria Roberts.

They were hiking in San Vicente, where their mother grew up, his sister said, adding that they were set to see a river in the area. During the hike, Lainez left the group and was never seen again.

Sunday will mark one month since he has been missing and still, nothing.

Family members have been in contact with both the FBI and the National Civil Police of El Salvador, Roberts told USA TODAY. They’ve also reached out to the U.S. Embassy, Roberts said.

The FBI deferred USA TODAY to the National Civil Police, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

When asked whether the U.S. Embassy was involved, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State said the agency is aware of reports of a U.S. citizen missing in El Salvador.

"When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities and the family as they carry out their search efforts, and we share information with the family however we can," the department said. "The Department of State has no higher priority than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. We stand ready to provide appropriate assistance to U.S. citizens in need and to their families."

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Missing hiker wandered off during hike

Lainez and most of his siblings were born in El Salvador, where their mother grew up. Their mother was on vacation there when Lainez decided to go and join her on her trip.

The group had a guide with them who promised to show them a river.

“The guide had said to them that the river was beautiful, it had a lot of water,” Roberts said, adding that after the hike, they’d meet up with an aunt who had prepared lunch.

But when they were halfway through the hike, Lainez noticed that the guide had left the group of six, now down to five. Remaining were Lainez, his mother, his nephew, a cousin and the guide’s wife.

Now sweaty from the hike, the group found the river, only to realize it was mostly dried up. They stopped to wet their feet and faces. Roberts said her mother wanted to take a picture of Lainez, only she captured a video by mistake. It’s the last footage she took of him because just a few minutes later, he was gone.

The rest of the group followed suit and trekked two hours to get back, thinking he was just a few minutes ahead of them. He was nowhere to be found though, alarming the group.

The last time anyone in the group saw Lainez was between 12:30 and 12:40 p.m., his sister said. By 5:00 p.m there was still no sign of him.

Family wants help from U.S. officials

Roberts, Lainez’s sister, said she and other family members in the U.S. encouraged their mother to file a police report.

“We know our brother,” Roberts said. “We know his temperament and we know that he would have never left and left my mom without saying ‘Hey, I’m leaving.’ He's not that type of person.”

Officials didn’t initially allow them to file a report, citing the 24-hour period required before missing person cases are filed. The family went to a different police station to file a report.

By the time the report was filed, it was dark out, closer to 10 p.m. or so and police didn’t have the tools they needed to search. There were no lamps or flashlights to conduct the search, she said.

“This is the valley,” she said. “It's not like there's light. The next morning the search starts.”

Since he went missing, police have been searching in groups, sometimes with 20 people and sometimes with as many as 100. Still, it’s not enough to find her brother, not for such a vast area, Roberts said.

She doesn’t think police in El Salvador have the guidance and capability they need to execute  a proper search for her brother, so she wants U.S. officials to help.

A missing person's poster for José Tomás Lainez, a 54-year-old Los Angeles man who was hiking on March 24, 2024 in El Salvador when he went missing.
A missing person's poster for José Tomás Lainez, a 54-year-old Los Angeles man who was hiking on March 24, 2024 in El Salvador when he went missing.

Family is frustrated with search for missing hiker

Roberts said communication with the National Civil Police in El Salvador has been subpar and their system doesn’t seem to be as efficient as it is in the U.S. That’s why the family has reached out to the U.S. government to ask for help finding her brother.

“When a person goes missing (in the U.S.), it goes national,” she said. “There’s an Amber Alert. There’s something. They don’t have those resources over there so you're basically fighting against the ocean on your own in these waves because that support is not there.”

Roberts said police have interviewed the guide who was with the group the day her brother went missing but she hasn’t been told of any evidence or findings.

José Tomás Lainez, a 54-year-old Los Angeles man who was hiking on March 24, 2024 in El Salvador when he want missing.
José Tomás Lainez, a 54-year-old Los Angeles man who was hiking on March 24, 2024 in El Salvador when he want missing.

She said dealing with the U.S. Embassy has been difficult for her mother because as far as she knows, there is no single person in charge of the case. Her mother calls and has to speak to different people and explain everything all over again.

She can’t believe the family is having such a hard time getting help from both El Salavdor and the U.S. to find her brother.

“You would think that because my brother is a U.S. citizen that we would be getting more support,” she said. “What we keep being told is, we have to follow the laws of El Salvador, but they don’t have the capability to do a search like this.”

José Tomás Lainez, a 54-year-old Los Angeles man who in March 2024 went missing while hiking in El Salvador.
José Tomás Lainez, a 54-year-old Los Angeles man who in March 2024 went missing while hiking in El Salvador.

Missing hiker is adventurous, loves history, family says

Roberts said her brother was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. as a preteen. He works for a school district in Los Angeles, supervising bus drivers.

He loves history, hiking and finding waterfalls and rivers. He’s a big traveler and visiting El Salvador is special to him because of their mother’s connection to it, she said.

“He wanted to learn more … and listen to those stories that she had of her childhood in that area,” she said.

She said the circumstances surrounding her brother’s disappearance are odd and someone out there likely has information.

“I just don't feel that I'm getting the support that I need to find my brother,” she said. “Somebody knows something. “My brother didn’t just disappear into thin air without somebody seeing something or knowing something.”

“We’re just a family that’s very desperate and our hearts are shattered,” she said.

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY's NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757. Follow her on Twitter at @SaleenMartin or email her at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hiker missing in El Salvador for 3 weeks, wandered off from group