Decades later, the search for Argentina’s ‘stolen’ children continues

Decades later, the search for Argentina’s ‘stolen’ children continues


The grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo are getting old. Every day the hopes of finding their grandchildren, stolen and put up for adoption under the Argentine dictatorship, are dwindling.

Up to 500 children were snatched from their imprisoned mothers, most of whom then disappeared under the country’s brutal military rule from 1976 to 1983.

Most of the children were given to people close to the dictatorship who wanted to raise them as loyal supporters of the regime.

Only about 130 have been found so far, and the search for the others – now adults in their 40s and 50s – continues.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo is an organization founded in 1977 by women trying to find their arrested daughters – and the babies they gave birth in captivity.

These “abuelas” take their name from the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, where brave women protested to demand information about the whereabouts of their loved ones. They did this in vain.

As the original grandmothers aged, the organization has since been populated by a younger generation of researchers and council members.

The rights organization holds regular public meetings in hopes of reaching people who have questions about themselves—questions that are difficult to ask—and persuading them to come forward.

Those who successfully go through a verification process can have their stolen identities “restored”.

But it is an increasingly difficult task. As time goes on, those who believe they may be the children of missing women become less and less likely to come forward.

“They come to us in various stages of doubt, some having carried the burden in silence for 20 years, sometimes longer without speaking to anyone — not even their spouse,” Laura Rodriguez, coordinator of the grandmothers’ identity project, told AFP.

Doubts can be triggered by a lack of physical resemblance to the parents, the absence of photos of their mothers during pregnancy, or gaps in the family history.

Some arrange several counseling appointments, but never come.

There have been no new restitutions since June 2019, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic slowing down the grandmothers’ activities – researching and interviewing potential victims.

Six of the original grandmothers died during the pandemic.

– ‘Leap into the unknown’ –

In Moron, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Buenos Aires, six meetings of the grandmothers and the Argentine Ombudsman for human rights are planned in the coming weeks.

But taking that first step is not easy.

“It’s a leap into the unknown,” said Guillermo Amarilla Molfino, once known as “Grandson #98,” who said it took him years to seek help and then go through the refund process.

He was reunited with his brothers and served as an advisor to the grandmother’s outreach team.

“There are many fears, there is guilt, this guilt that keeps us silent: ‘Why do I doubt my parents, why do I betray those who gave me food, a roof over my head?'” he recalls his own experience.

“Silence can become an ally to live with,” added Molfino. And finally accepting that you’re not who you thought you were can “feel like you’re handing your life over to someone else.”

It’s also a difficult task for the researchers, said Luciano Lahiteau, one of the grandmothers’ team.

One has to carefully balance an empathic shoulder, he explained, with a “duty, not necessarily pleasant, to … pick the reliable information out of what a person tells us.”

– lottery or loss –

Lahiteau and other researchers take the volunteers’ stories and paperwork, where available, and cross-check them with civilian and hospital records and evidence from military trials.

If evidence of a match emerges, the DNA can be checked against a database containing genetic information on many, though not all, families searching for a missing grandchild.

When a match is found, “It’s like winning the lottery!” said Rodgriguez.

But mostly the hopes are disappointed.

“We receive many people who are not children of women who have disappeared,” Rodriguez said.

Yet even for those who go through the process in vain, “it adds a lot to identity,” Lahiteau said.

“It allows you to see, ‘Okay, I’m someone who doubts my identity; I have the right to find out where I come from,” he said.

“Really, everyone comes out of the process better than they went in,” Rodriguez added.

More to explorer