Margaret Popkin, 54; Fight for Human Rights Took Her to El Salvador

Times Staff Writer

Margaret L. “Maggi” Popkin, a human rights advocate whose work with refugees in Los Angeles motivated her to spend eight years in war-torn El Salvador, died May 18 at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. She was 54.

Popkin died of complications after heart surgery, said her mother, Juliet Popkin.

“It would be hard to find anyone more dedicated to human rights, or more daring,” said Doug Cassel, president of the Due Process of Law Foundation in Washington, D.C., that Popkin had been executive director of since 1999.

While working as an attorney at the National Center for Immigrants’ Rights in Los Angeles from 1982 to 1984, Popkin won major political asylum decisions that benefited thousands of refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America, said Peter A. Schey, president of the organization now known as the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.


Schey called her a “brilliant human rights attorney willing to take on the most challenging and difficult cases.”

Her awareness of the plight of Central American refugees motivated Popkin to move to El Salvador in 1985 when that country was enduring a civil war, her mother said.

She spent eight years as deputy director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Popkin stayed despite the general violence and the 1989 killings of six Jesuits from the school, including the Rev. Segundo Montes, who was her boss.

From that experience, she wrote “Peace Without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador” (2000), which analyzed two decades of efforts at judicial and human rights reform in El Salvador.

Popkin, who was born in Iowa City, Iowa, grew up in a family with an interest in human rights, said Juliet Popkin, a literary agent in Pacific Palisades. She also developed an awareness of the world as her philosophy professor father’s career took them around the United States and to Europe.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in French literature from UC San Diego, a master’s in women’s studies from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., and a law degree in 1979 from Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley.


After returning to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1993, Popkin became a consultant to the United Nations and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, now known as Human Rights First. She also worked for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation as program director for Latin America and Africa from 1995 to 1999.

In addition to her mother, Popkin is survived by a son, Joel Damian Popkin, 16, of Silver Spring, Md.; a brother, Jeremy, of Lexington, Ky.; and a sister, Susan, of Venice, Va. Her father, retired UCLA professor Richard Popkin, died in April.