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Putting It In Context: The Abuelas

Photo Courtesy of des Informémonos

To this day, there are billboards in Buenos Aires that read: “If You Have Doubts About Your Identity, Call the Abuelas.”

In 1976, a military regime that would be responsible for the murder of an estimated 30,000 of its own citizens unlawfully seized power in Argentina. Led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, the junta staged a coup against a weakened government led by Isabel Perón, wife and Vice President to the recently deceased Juan Perón, under the premise that left-wing guerrilla revolutionaries were threatening their Western, Christian, and capitalist way of life. Those who were opposed to the reorganization were told “to make themselves invisible, or they would be made to vanish.” The junta called it a “war.” Historians today refer to it by its proper name — genocide.

In the first six months of Videla’s regime, there was an average of 30 abductions each day. From these abductions, a new word came into common usage: “desaparecidos,” or “the disappeared.” The government was unable to keep the disappearances hidden from the public, because almost everyone knew of someone who had a friend or loved one abducted. Very few of those kidnapped had any direct involvement in the leftist terrorist groups whose existence was the initial aim of the government’s extermination campaign. Others had only a tenuous connection to these groups — as friends, acquaintances, or sometimes just names found in the address books of victims. The typical sequence for those abducted during the Dirty War was disappearance, torture, and then death. Under the regime, detainees suffered at the hands of captors who had no incentive to return their prisoners alive.

At the Navy Mechanics School, Admiral Massera created the regime’s largest and perhaps most brutal concentration camp. Called the ESMA (Escuela Mecánica de la Armada), it was considered the “Argentine Auschwitz.”

Among those detained and tortured were young pregnant women. At both the ESMA and Campo de Mayo Hospital, the junta set up makeshift maternity wards where these women were either forced to undergo Caesarean sections or given serums to accelerate birth. During delivery, the women were blindfolded and tied to beds by their hands and feet. Their babies were given to “politically acceptable” parents — families with some connection to the regime. The regime was able to reap considerable profits during the Dirty War from illegal adoption because of the high number of pregnant detainees.

This illicit business was so well-organized that some couples were able to choose their baby based on a captive mother’s looks and education. Descriptions of imprisoned pregnant women were provided to military couples seeking babies; those with fair skin and blue eyes were at a premium. Prospective adoptive mothers visited the detained pregnant women, ensuring that they received special treatment to promote healthy deliveries. Once born, the babies were given to their adoptive parents, and their real mothers were systematically killed, ensuring permanent severance of all biological ties.  The junta’s goal was erasure of family identities.

Despite the atmosphere of fear that pervaded Argentina during the junta regime, two groups of women — representing the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared — began protesting the disappearances of their relatives and striving for the reunification of their families. In this way, an initially small group of women spearheaded what became a catalyzing campaign to defy the repression of the junta.

The first group to form, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo — the mothers of the disappeared — embarked on a crusade in April 1977 to obtain information about their missing children, refusing to believe the government’s professed ignorance of their whereabouts. Six months later, the Abuelas joined the Madres in the search for missing children. While the Madres demanded both the return of their children and punishment for their captors, the Abuelas had a sharper focus — to find the living. They called them “los desaparecidos con vida” (the living disappeared), referring to the babies who were taken from the Abuelas’ murdered daughters and sons.

The Abuelas were not motivated by revenge, but by a desire to know that their grandchildren were alive and well. The Abuelas determined that more than 500 babies born in detention centers were adopted illegally, and they scoured hospitals and orphanages looking for them. They examined birth certificates and adoption records and attempted to gather information from doctors and nurses who attended the births. Their efforts, however, were often thwarted when those who gave information subsequently disappeared as well.

After years of being forced to tolerate the lies of the Argentine government regarding their children and grandchildren, the Abuelas, assisted by scientists and advocates in the international community, catalyzed a means for all citizens to learn the truth about their identities and, inadvertently, for the truth of the Dirty War to be exposed. Encouraged by the accuracy of forensic and DNA-aided identifications, the Abuelas successfully lobbied President Raúl Alfonsín and Argentina’s Congress to create the National Bank of Genetic Data in 1987. The first such genetic data bank in the world, it offered state-of-the-art services without charge to the relatives of disappeared children and to anyone whose identity was in question.

Due to the tenacity and courage of the Abuela’s efforts, 130 children of the disappeared have been found. Technological breakthroughs and legislative demands that came about in the process of their investigations have also been partially responsible for bringing the criminals of the Dirty War to justice, as well as expanding the rights of those who suffered at their hands.

Ryan McRee


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