Children of Argentina's "Dirty War"

Last month, Estela Barnes de Carlotto announced that she had finally found her grandson, Guido, after 36 years of searching for him. Estela de Carlotto is the president of the Association of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. She is 84 years old and is perhaps the greatest figure in the defense of human rights in Argentina.

While pregnant, her daughter was snatched by Argentina’s brutal military junta, which lasted from 1976-83. Guido, who had been raised under the name Ignacio Hurban over 200 miles outside of Buenos Aires, had come forward for DNA testing because he had doubts about his identity. Carlotto was overjoyed: “We’ve found what we were looking for…The empty chair is now filled, the photograph frames will carry a photo.”[1]

Guido is the 114th grandchild recovered by the grandmothers. These grandchildren are the children of los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) who were casualties of Argentina’s “Dirty War.” During the late 1970s, the military junta kidnapped approximately 30,000 intellectuals, political activists, and students who opposed their regime and brutally murdered them in secret detention centers throughout Argentina.  Many were thrown from planes into the Río de Plata on notorious “death flights.”[2]


Estela de Carlotto announcing the discovery of her grandson, Guido, on August 5th, 2014.

However, the military junta drew the line at murdering pregnant mothers. They were allowed to give birth in the detention centers, only to be murdered shortly thereafter. The children of los desaparecidos were put up for adoption, mainly given to military families and government supporters. In some cases, the adoptive parents were not aware of the origin of the children.

Laura Estela de Carlotto was three months pregnant when she was abducted on November 16, 1977 along with Guido’s father. She was a history student and political activist at the Univeristy of La Plata. Laura was taken to La Cacha, a detention center in La Plata, and later gave birth at a military hospital in Buenos Aires. Less than two months later, she was murdered and her mutilated body was given to the Carlotto family. Other families of abducted children never even learned of their sons and daughters’ fates.[3]

Two years after Laura’s death, Estela de Carlotto joined the Abuelas Argentinas Con Nietitos Desparecidos (Argentine Grandmothers with Missing Children). Fourteen grandmothers had founded the group in 1977.[4] Faced with a judicial system deaf to their claims, the mothers and grandmothers of the desaparecidos would meet in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, in front of the presidential palace, every Thursday demanding to be told their children’s fate. The military junta banned the meeting of groups larger than three people, so the grandmothers would circle Plaza de Mayo in groups of three. Ultimately, many of them faced police violence.


Estela de Carlotto (left) at a demonstration in Plaza de Mayo.

Gradually, more women joined them, and they began to identify themselves by wearing white headscarves to symbolize their lost grandchildren. They stressed their condition as suffering mothers to appeal to the foreign press and international human rights organizations. These women were the only visible oppositional presence during the military junta.

The Grandmothers have worked tirelessly to find and identify the missing children. They established a National Genetic Data Bank and collected DNA samples from relatives. Because these children do not know the circumstances under which they were adopted, the Grandmothers rely heavily on public awareness campaigns to find these missing grandchildren. They urge anyone who has doubts about their identity to get a DNA test.

37 years later, the Grandmothers still get together every Thursday at 3:30PM to walk around the Plaza de Mayo in search for their lost children and grandchildren. I visited the Plaza last week to walk with them. While many of the Grandmothers now need assistance walking, they never miss a week and they continue to sing loudly in protest of the military junta’s atrocious acts.

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The reunion is reparation for Carlotto and for Argentina as a whole. Carlotto said: “I did not want to die without hugging him, without getting to know him.”[5] There are still 385 grandchildren to recover, and this latest discovery will hopefully revitalize the action of the Grandmothers to keep fighting.








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