Children of a Dirty War
Argentina struggles with the legacy of a horrible crime
BUENOS AIRES--Silvia Quintela was four months pregnant when she was taken to a secret detention center just outside Argentina's capital. It was 1977, the height of the so-called dirty war in which Argentina's military government jailed, tortured, and killed between 10,000 and 30,000 of its own citizens because of their alleged leftist sympathies. But the fate of pregnant women like Quintela was particularly cruel. When they went into labor, they were blindfolded, wheeled into a military hospital, and killed shortly after giving birth. Then their babies were given away to soldiers and police officers.
The aim of this monstrous adoption plan was to ensure that the next generation of Argentines would not be infected with subversive ideas. To a shocking degree, it worked: An estimated 200 to 500 of these stolen children are now young adults, but many do not realize that they were stolen, and some of those who do know the truth are, nevertheless, adamant defenders of the military families who raised them.
Quintela's husband, Abel Madariaga, survived his wife's death and has been searching for their child ever since. Now he believes that he has found his son, a 21-year-old who he says is the spitting image of his late wife. But the young man, Pablo Bianco, wants nothing to do with Madariaga. He refuses to take a blood test to verify his paternity, and two years ago he literally shut his front door in Madariaga's face. "I have my father. I don't want another one," Bianco said on Argentine television.
Trial. To make this situation even more agonizing, the man who raised Pablo is Norberto Bianco, an Army doctor who is accused of delivering many of the babies and keeping two--Pablo and a girl named Carolina--for himself. The elder Bianco is in jail awaiting trial in a case that is forcing not just Pablo and Carolina Bianco but the entire nation to search its conscience and reconsider its identity. The key defendant is Gen. Jorge Videla, who headed the military junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983 and was arrested in June on charges of ordering the baby trade. Last week, another member of the former junta, Adm. Emilio Massera, also was arrested for the alleged abduction of babies in detention camps run by the Argentine Navy. If convicted, all three men could be sentenced to life in prison.
Argentina is just one of several Latin American countries where military regimes trampled human rights in the 1970s and early '80s. Most of the perpetrators are protected by amnesties intended to allow a transition to democracy. But many victims and their families are determined to get some measure of justice. In Argentina, they are led by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization that searches for people who disappeared in the dirty war. With the help of blood samples and a genetic data bank, it has already reunited 41 stolen babies with their biological kin.
Although Videla and other junta members were pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990, an Argentine judge has ruled that the pardons did not cover baby stealing. Videla's lawyers are appealing that ruling, but in the meantime, the 72-year-old former dictator is under house arrest and pre-trial hearings are proceeding. Separately, a Spanish judge is seeking to extradite the entire Argentine junta and Chile's ex-dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to face trial in Madrid (box, Page 36).