During the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship in Argentina it is generally considered that 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’. What is not as widely known, especially outside of Argentina, is that during this period an estimated 500 children were taken from their kidnapped parents and adopted out to other families.
These are the children of the ‘disappeared’. Some were born in the detention camps in which their mothers were being held, others were just babies when their parents were snatched from the streets. These children vanished along with their parents, but as with their parents, the missing children have not been forgotten. A group of women have worked tirelessly to find them and reunite them with their surviving families: the Abuelas (Grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo. While the Madres de Plaza de Mayo have tirelessly led the campaign to find out what happened to their ‘disappeared’ children, the Abuelas, led by the impressive Estela Barnes de Carlotto have been campaigning since 1977 to find their missing grandchildren.
Where to begin the search?
As early as 1976 the Abuelas started visiting orphanages, hospitals, day care centres and court offices to search for information about where the grandchildren had gone. They checked medical records, adoption papers and birth certificates. They appealed to successive military governments, the Supreme Court of Argentina and religious authorities, but with little success. People didn’t want to know or discuss the truth and many documents had been altered, faked or destroyed. Next they appealed to international organisations such as the United Nations and the Organisation of American Sates. They began to raise the profile of their plight by speaking to newspapers and asking people with information to come forward.
Families began to put together petitions and investigations were launched where they suspected a child was one of the abducted children. Initially the authorities didn’t consider the missing children as victims of the same repression that their parents had suffered and died under. However, the work of the Abuelas changed this. By the early 1990s it was established that the adoption of these children was null and void and in violation of the law. Since the official establishment of the Abuelas as an organisation in 1983, 400 grandchildren have been officially recorded as missing. The Abuelas believe there are more; close to 500, but due to relatives not declaring disappearances and not knowing their daughter or female relative was pregnant, less have been officially registered.
Some Abuelas may have accepted that they will never know exactly what happened to their sons and daughters, but believe, according to the International Declaration of Human Rights, that their grandchildren have a right to know their true birthright. They believe that their disappeared grandchildren have been deprived of their identity, their religion and the right to live with their family. Their demand is “that the children who were kidnapped as a method of political repression, be restored to their legitimate families”.
They also believe that the grandparents and other relatives of these missing children have a right to know if the children are their relatives. It is on this point that their campaign has courted controversy.
A Controversial Issue
In order to discover where the missing children have gone, the Abuelas have used a number of methods. They started by investigating local and federal court records of adoptions where the parents of the children are unknown; they have looked into all births that were registered after the legally required time; and in 1997 began a campaign to encourage young people, of the approximate age of the missing children, to contact them if they had doubts about their origins.
To prove conclusively that a person is a missing grandchild they lobbied for the establishment of a place to collect DNA from families of the ‘disappeared’ and from their suspected missing children. Their lobbying paid off, and at the end of the 1980s an act was introduced which led to the creation of the National Genetic Data Bank.
Grandparents and relatives of a missing child were encouraged to submit a sample of their DNA to the bank, where a test could be carried out to prove, with 99.95% accuracy, whether a person is a missing child or not. By 1996, some 175 families and 2100 people had provided samples to the bank.
Subsequently, in 1992, as a direct result of the Abuelas campaigning, the government created the National Committee for the Right to Identity (CONADI). This organisation uses a combination of documentation and blood analysis to help assist reuniting missing children with their families. It exists solely to search and locate missing children from the military dictatorship and to ensure compliance with the International Convention of the Rights of the Child. CONADI reports directly to the Secretariat of Human Rights for the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.
Through a combination of their public campaigning and the support and coordination provided by CONADI, the Abuelas have identified 101 of the missing children. Their work hasn’t always been easy. In some cases individuals have been suspected of being missing children, but have refused to provide DNA samples. This is where their work has become contentious and has drawn them into a battle with one of the most powerful families in Argentina.
The Abuelas vs the Clarín Family
In November 2009 the Argentine Senate passed a law stating that the courts can now legally obtain the DNA of a person they believe to be a missing child of the disappeared, even if it is against their will. Many of the children involved are now in their 30s and some have no desire to be identified as a child of a ‘disappeared’. In many cases they fear that they would be betraying the parents who raised them. In the past, a forced procurement of DNA was left to the discretion of individual judges and such cases had started to become problematic. However, the ruling last year cleared up any doubts concerning the authority of a judge to order a person to provide a sample.
The most high profile case of children refusing to provide DNA samples is that of the two adopted children of Ernestina Herrera de Noble, who is the owner of the Clarín media empire. The new law means that if a person refuses to provide a blood sample, a judge can order a house to be raided or find another way to retrieve the DNA, for example, from a hairbrush, clothes or a toothbrush.
The Abeulas have long suspected that Felipe and Marcela Herrera Noble are children of some ‘disappeared’, due to the circumstances of their adoption and inconsistencies of witness statements. It is claimed that in 1976 Marcela was left at the doorstep of Herrera de Noble’s home and, two months later, when was in an office completing papers for Marcela’s adoption she was told about Felipe and adopted him as well. No information has been recorded about where the children came from, although there are many theories. Some believe that Felipe is from a wealthy Argentine family who wanted to cover up the pregnancy and therefore left no information or his natural parents. Others claim that he was given up for adoption by a woman called Carmen Luisa Delta. However, when her ID number was checked, it was found to belong to a deceased man. A judicial inquiry in the 1990s revealed inconsistencies with a statement from a key witness who backed up the story that Marcela was abandoned in a box on the doorstep to Herrera de Noble’s house. The witness was named as a neighbours gardener, but subsequently it was found he was in fact Herrera de Noble’s driver. The Abuelas have been campaigning to get DNA samples from Marcela and Felipe since 1992. In June 2008, the Herrera Nobles won their case to refuse to provide DNA. However, the change in law in late 2009 saw a reversal of fortunes with both Felipe and Marcela being forced by law to provide their DNA.
The new law has stirred up human rights arguments on both sides. Alan Iud, lawyer for the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo said: “DNA analysis should be performed, even without consent, because what’s at stake is the right of grandparents to find their grandchildren and covering up the origins of children is a crime against humanity that should be investigated and judged.” They believe that it is the right of a grandparent, whose child was disappeared under the military regime, to know whether a person is their grandchild or not. Refusing to submit to a DNA test, therefore, is to refuse them the truth.
On the contrary, those against the law argue that it is violating the human rights of the children who don’t wish to know their true biological origin. Elisa Carrio, former presidential candidate for the Civic Coalition who ran against president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2007, is a high profile opponent of the law and has frequently criticised the Abuelas.
When the law was passed last year, she said: “This law is not aimed at protecting human rights, but is directed at the children of Mrs. Herrera de Noble. This is pure fascism. The principle of integrity and personal autonomy are above all. It is a law of persecution. They are violating human rights for a personal vendetta.” When the law was passed, 77% of the readers of the Argentine newspaper La Nación, were against it.
In response, the Abuelas argue that the new law has not been passed to target one case in particular. They claim that they have not treated their pursuit of DNA from Ernestina Herrera de Noble’s adopted children, any differently from other missing children. “To the Abuelas this case is as important as the others; we don’t make distinctions on the basis of the people involved,” Alan Iud said. “However, probably as a result of the involvement of the owner of the newspaper of Clarín, the judiciary has had a different approach and has noted that this case has been dealt with differently to those that are not so public.”
The Clarín case has still not reached a conclusion. DNA samples were taken from Felipe and Marcela last year and the results of whether a match had been found in the Genetic Data Bank were supposed to be released on 24th March, poignantly on Día de la Memoría (the day to remember the ‘disappeared’). However, the legal team representing Ernestina Herrera de Noble and her two children managed to delay the results due to the submission of a succession of proposals. In particular they do not want the National Genetic Data Bank to perform the DNA analysis, despite the fact that this is the place authorised by law to carry out the tests. The Abuelas have raised concerns that the series of delays threaten the quality of the samples taken, as they have now been waiting three months to be analysed.
In response to the delay Estela de Carlotto said: “In just twenty-four hours the judiciary has stopped experts from analysing the DNA samples of the adopted children of the owner of Clarín, against the DNA from hundreds of relatives searching for their missing loved ones.
“We do not tolerate the privilege that has been given over the case involving Ernistina Herrera de Noble and call for justice to try this case in the same manner as other cases of missing children of the disappeared. If these kids are children of the disappeared, they will remain who they are. Nothing will change in their inheritance. What will change is that the blood that runs through their veins is not what you think.” She claimed that both Marcela and Felipe are “heirs and hostages of a story” and asked “what crime is hidden? If there is nothing to hide, then why delay?”
The Abuelas have not given up and the case continues. Alan Iud told the Argentina Independent: “We hope that the Court of Appeal will reject the appeal that questions the need for the analysis to take place at the National Genetic Data Bank [Ernistina Herrera de Noble has requested that the tests take place elsewhere]. If our claim is resolved favourably, the analysis should be done immediately. On 7th April there will be an appeal hearing, the decision may be issued the same day or deferred for five days.”
It is likely that this case will rumble on. Even if the DNA samples are eventually analysed, there is a good chance that they won’t match any of the samples held in the Genetic Data Bank. The Abuelas are aware that they are now elderly women and the older the missing children get, the less likely they are to come forward. Despite this, the passion and determination of the organisation to reveal the truth and reunite families, shows no signs of abating. Estela Barnes de Carlotto is herself still looking for a missing grandson. “I have saved up so much love for that poor boy.” Why she continues her personal search, she takes great joy in the 101 children that the organisation has reunited with their families. “They are part of my life.”