order DNA tests in search for stolen babies of dirty war
Children adopted by
regime backers checked against bodies of those who 'disappeared' in the
70s and 80s
Rory Carroll Latin
America correspondent and Jeff Farrell in Buenos Aires
The Guardian, Wednesday
30 December 2009 20.04 GMT
Marcela Noble Herrera
leaves a lab after giving a DNA sample. Her adoptive mother and family
say they have nothing to hide. Photograph: Rolando Andrade Stracuzzi/AP
In an era of state
terror, it was perhaps the most chilling of all crimes: babies stolen
from mothers who were condemned to "disappear".
dictatorship wrenched an estimated 500 children from doomed political
prisoners and gave them for adoption to regime supporters during the
so-called dirty war in the 70s and 80s.
Decades later, the
babies are adults and now they – and the rest of Argentina – are
finally discovering the truth about their origins. Compelled by a new
law, suspected "stolen babies" are taking DNA tests to
determine whether their biological parents were murdered.
This week it was the
turn of Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera, the heirs to a powerful media
empire, to submit samples. Human rights campaigners allege the
pair, who were adopted in 1976, were taken from prisoners who gave birth
in clandestine jails.
The investigation is
the latest of Argentina's attempts to confront the legacy of the
1976-1983 dictatorship which killed an estimated 30,000 suspected
leftists. Trials have recently begun of retired military officers
accused of some of the worst atrocities. It is part of a wider reckoning
of decades-old human rights abuses across Latin America.
"It is a
satisfaction," said Graciela Lois, whose husband, Ricardo, was
abducted and last seen in Esma, a Buenos Aires torture centre run by the
navy. "It's part of the cycle of understanding."
'Nothing to hide'
Delivering justice to
the stolen children and their murdered biological parents is proving
fraught because many of the children grew up ignorant of their origins
and remain loyal to their adoptive families.
Last month, Congress
backed a proposal from Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a victims'
group, authorising the forced extraction of DNA from suspected stolen
children even if they did not want to know the results.
Marcela and Felipe
Noble Herrera, heirs of the family which owns one of Latin America's
biggest media conglomerates, Clarin, and the adoptive children of
Ernestina Noble Herrera, made no comment as they submitted samples at
the Legal Medical Department, a federal forensics agency in Buenos
Aires, yesterday. A spokesman said the family had nothing to hide.
Victims' groups were
not convinced and said the samples should have been given to the
state-run National Bank of Genetic Data, which keeps DNA samples of
disappeared families. The authorities appeared to agree: today police
raided the Noble family home and took samples from toothbrushes and
hairbrushes for testing.
The DNA testing appears
to have widespread public support, but critics say it is an invasion of
privacy and, in the case of the Noble family, politically tinged given
the Clarin group's toxic relations with President Cristina Kirchner's
DNA testing is also
being used to identify bone fragments exhumed from graves across
Argentina. Samples from 600 skeletons are being compared with blood
samples supplied by relatives of disappeared leftists. Forty-two matches
have been made this year and about another 100 are awaiting
Victoria Avila, 33,
supplied blood which matched bones exhumed from a mass grave just 20
blocks from her Buenos Aires home. They belonged to her father, Victor,
who was abducted in 1977. He died 10 days later, according to laboratory
She found comfort in
knowing he didn't suffer long. She told AP it brought "a strange
feeling, a weird kind of happiness, because after all it's not like he
was alive, but at least his remains were with us. It's so nice to be
able to say that he's here."
After a stop-start
effort to prosecute former military officers and regime officials –
they were protected by political pressure and an amnesty – Argentina
is now putting senior figures in the dock. More than 600 have been
charged and 60 convicted since 2005, a pace that is accelerating.
Fifteen greying former
police and military men are currently on trial for crimes said to have
been committed at clandestine jails known as the Athletic Club, the Bank
and Olimpo. They include General Jorge Rafael Videla, a junta leader,
and Reynaldo Bignone, the last dictator.
Vera Basauri, attending
the trial, wept as she told how a friend from music school, who was
eight months pregnant, disappeared in 1977. "I have no idea where
she was taken to," she said.
Also in the dock is
Alfredo Astiz, a navy officer nicknamed the "blond angel of
death" for his choirboy good looks which he used to infiltrate
human rights groups. Among his alleged victims were Alice Domon and
Leonie Duquet, French nuns who were said to have been tortured with
electric shocks for 10 days. Their bodies were found washed up on a
Buenos Aires beach weeks after apparently having been drugged and thrown
into the sea from military aircraft in so-called "death
Astiz outed himself
when he surrendered his small band of troops to British officers in
South Georgia in the Falklands conflict, an event which received
widespread media coverage. Survivors from the torture centres recognised
their former interrogator, and he was later arrested.
is well-established, but junta remnants are said to remain active. A
witness who was due to give evidence against a former Buenos Aires
police commissioner vanished in 2007.
Patrick Rice, an Irish
former priest, was tortured in the 70s after his work in the slums drew
the suspicion of the military. "The fear is real and it's not
paranoia," he said.
Pursuit of justice
Other South American
countries have followed Argentina's lead in pursuing the perpetrators of
state-backed human rights abuses.
Chile, which has
convicted 277 members of Augusto Pinochet's 16-year dictatorship,
recently charged regime officials with the murder of a former president,
Eduardo Frei Montalva. In June the body of the murdered folk singer
Victor Jara was exhumed in a renewed effort to find his killers.
In April, a court in
Peru convicted the former president, Alberto Fujimori, of murder for
death-squad activities during his 10-year rule.
In Colombia, civilian
prosecutors are for the first time investigating senior army officers
over massacres committed during the state's crackdown on leftist
President Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva has floated a commission to investigate security force
abuses during Brazil's 1964-85 dictatorship.
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