BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo organization, the human rights organization dedicated to protecting children’s rights and finding the true identities of babies stolen during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1976-1983), announced that it has found the 122nd ‘grandchild,’ reuniting the man with his real family 40 years after his birth.
The son of Iris García Soler and Enrique Bustamante, both of whom were kidnapped and disappeared on January 31, 1977 in the northwestern city of Mendoza, was “recovered” this week after his true identity was finally confirmed.
On that date in 1977, when Iris was three months pregnant, she called her parents to tell them that she was coming to visit. Then, she phoned again and strangely said she would not be coming. After that moment, her parents never heard anything about her, her husband or her then-unborn child.
Iris was born on May 15, 1952 in Mendoza and went on to graduate with a degree in sociology from the Catholic University of Argentina while Enrique was born on June 5, 1951 in the same city and attended the same university.
Both belonged to the University Youth Peronists, a political student organization and later, the Montoneros, a left-wing ‘subversive’ group whose members were hunted mercilessly by the ruling military junta’s state security forces. The Montoneros later converted into an urban guerrilla group to counter the repression before they were eventually destroyed during the dictatorship.
The pair relocated from Mendoza to Buenos Aires where they settled in a common housing area in the central city, the same building from where they were taken on January 31, 1977 by members of the Federal Police.
They were first taken to Club Atlético, a nondescript three-story warehouse building that belonged to the Federal Police. The building was then converted into a clandestine detention center (CCD), one of hundreds that operated in Argentina during that period, and given its name due to its proximity to a nearby stadium.
Club Atlético, after its conversion, had a capacity of some 200 prisoners and subsequent investigations revealed that up to 2,000 inmates had passed through its doors. Behind the glass entrance doors were two small desks where prisoners were assigned numbers and then led to a hidden doors.
The passageway behind the door led to the basement where the inmates were kept in filthy, crowded conditions with no natural light and no ventilation. The basement was also where the inmates were brutally assaulted and tortured in sectors called “operating rooms” by the repressors while many others were executed.
CCD Club Atlético was demolished some 15 months after the first day of the dictatorship as it, along with many other buildings, was in the way of the controversial May 25 expressway that was about to be built. Its remaining inmates (and materials) were transferred to other CCDs. Only in 2002 were excavations allowed on the site and the remains of the center, along with personal belongings, were uncovered and on the site now sits a small memorial under the overpass.
At regular intervals, inmates were brought to and taken from the center with some of the individuals moving from greater Buenos Aires and others from throughout Argentina.
Iris and Enrique were two of those individuals as both were moved to the Navy Superior Mechanical School (ESMA), a navy educational facility-turned clandestine detention center-turned human rights museum in northern Buenos Aires just minutes from the national stadium. The ESMA was the largest CCD in Argentina; well over 5,000 people passed through ESMA’s doors during the dictatorship and less than 250 survived.
Both Iris and Enrique were seen at ESMA by surviving witnesses, first Enrique (who was then returned to Club Atlético and never seen again) and later, Iris. Witnesses described seeing an obviously pregnant Iris arrive at ESMA in May of 1977 and in July of that year, it was known that she gave birth to a baby boy and then she, too, disappeared.
Estela de Carlotto, the President of the Grandmothers, said that the case had its first steps when Manuel García, the father of Iris, reported her forced disappearance and the fact that she was pregnant at the time.
No developments were seen in the case for decades until 2004 when a survivor of ESMA, a man that had run in the same political activism circles as the couple, came forth and said that the two had indeed been kidnapped, taken to ESMA and eventually met their dark fates.
With this new information, a case was opened with CONADI, the National Commission for the Right of Identity, an arm of the Argentine Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. CONADI is officially tasked with investigating cases of stolen babies.
After everything was coordinated with CONADI, DNA samples were collected from Iris’ family members and submitted to the National Bank of Genetic Data (BNDG). Samples from Enrique’s family, however, were not available as his disappearance was never reported (initially out of fear) and both of his parents had already died.
In 2010, a break in the case came when a curious cousin of Enrique’s sent a letter solicing information about him from the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. Once she realized what had happened, the case into his disappearance was finally opened and other family members came forth to submit their DNA samples.
Then, the long search began for somebody that fit the description of a possible son in terms of birth date, appearance, etc. and the hope that the person they were looking for had suspicions of his own concerning his true identity.
Having received anonymous tips from individuals in Córdoba, Argentina’s second largest city some 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of Buenos Aires, the Grandmothers eventually made contact with the man in question. He agreed to submit his DNA samples so they can be matched with those of his parents.
Once the tests were carried out, the BNDG informed CONADI that the man was the son of Iris and Enrique, which meant that the Grandmothers could make their announcement that the 122nd “grandchild was recovered.”
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an offshoot of the Madres (Mothers) de la Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers whose children had disappeared during the dictatorship, have made it their mission to recover those grandchildren and by working endlessly over the years, 122 now people have discovered their true identities in a process the Grandmothers call “recovery.”
The group, commonly called just “Abuelas” (“The Grandmothers”) for short, is a non-governmental organization that was founded in 1977. The name stems from the Plaza de Mayo or May Square in Buenos Aires, the most important public square in all of Argentina, located directly in front of the Casa Rosada (Pink House), the office of the Argentine President.
The Grandmothers’ cause began just days after March 24, 1976 when a military-led coup d’état deposed Isabel Perón, who became leader of the Republic of Argentina in July of 1974 following the death of her democratically elected husband Juan Domingo Perón, and imposed in her place a right-wing junta led by the leaders of the Armed Forces, the Navy and the Air Force.
From the day the junta took power in March of 1976 until December 10 of 1983, the military leaders oversaw the “Dirty War,” a period the de facto government called “the National Reorganization Process.” During this era, some 30,000 people were killed and “disappeared” by the junta while tens of thousands of others were the victims of other heinous human rights abuses like assault, torture, rape and baby theft as part of a state-sponsored terrorism campaign.
This was part of Operation Condor, a period of systematic political repression and state-sponsored terror involving cooperating international intelligence organizations conducted by the right-wing dictatorships of South America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.
The targets, like Iris and Enrique in this case, were individuals or groups that were considered opposition (real or imagined) against those dictatorships in the form of left-wing influence brought on by communist or Soviet ideas, and this continental oppression was all carried out with staunch financial, logistical and political support from the United States and its security agencies.
Néstor Kirchner, the now-deceased former leader (2003-2007) of Argentina and husband of former leader Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015), was instrumental in tearing down an amnesty law called the Final Stop Law in 2005 that forbade prosecutions of Dirty War criminals (with the exception of 9 original junta members). The Final Stop Law was instituted shortly after the return to democracy by Raúl Alfonsín of the centrist Radical Civic Union (UCR), the first post-dictatorship leader (1983-1989).
As Kirchner lifted the amnesty law and former authority figures began to face justice, more light was shed on one of the aforementioned violations, the baby thefts. Babies were taken from murdered female activists that gave birth in custody and were then illegally adopted out to families with ties to the military and clergy, both in Argentina and abroad, most notably across South America and in Spain, Italy and France, among others.
As time passed, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, many of whose children were pregnant at the time they disappeared, realized that their children were allowed to carry their babies to term and that those babies were then given to different families.
Thus, the ‘Grandmothers’ offshoot (originally called Grandmothers With Missing Grandchildren) was formed with the intention of finding those grandchildren and has been active since (along with the Mothers), and both groups were instrumental in pushing for the repeal of the Final Stop Law and further judicial action against Dirty War-era suspects.
While de Carlotto said that the case of “Baby #122” resulted in a happy ending, she added that her group is still continuing their work with as much fervor as always knowing that “over 300 people in our country still have not discovered their true identity.