‘I have all my 14 grandchildren with me. The empty seat is no longer empty’
The legacy of the Dirty War lives on as the search for stolen children continues
Estela de Carlotto with her grandson Guido Montoya Carlotto: “We must keep searching for those missing because other grandmothers have to feel what I feel.” Photograph: Florencia Downes/EPA
For Estela de Carlotto it was the call she must have feared she would never receive. Last Tuesday the Argentinian grandmother announced that she had finally made contact with her missing grandson who had been born in a secret military prison at the height of the country’s Dirty War before his mother was killed by her captors.
It ends a 36-year search that turned the 83-year-old Carlotto into one of South America’s leading human rights campaigners. As head of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo organisation, Carlotto has fought to try to discover the whereabouts of the former military dictatorship’s “stolen babies” – the children born to detained militants who were illegally adopted after their mothers were killed.
For decades Carlotto was the public face and driving force of the Grandmothers helping dozens of families to locate missing grandchildren, but never her own. In an emotional press conference that transfixed the South American nation she told reporters: “Now I have all my 14 grandchildren with me. The empty seat is no longer empty.”
Tearful embraceThe family was reunited at a private gathering on Wednesday where it was reported that Carlotto’s grandson held her in a long tearful embrace at the start of the six-hour gathering with aunts, uncles and cousins.
At his first press conference on Friday Guido said: “I am stunned, it has all just happened in a short time. I think it is marvellous. I hope the experience I am going through makes up for the search.”
The discovery was made after he took a DNA test because of persistent doubts about his true identity and checked it against a national database set up thanks to the Grandmothers’ efforts that can match the DNA of stolen children with that of family members.
After the match was made the 36-year-old pianist and music school director discovered his real name was Guido Montoya Carlotto.
This 114th identification of a “stolen baby”, like the existence of the Grandmothers organisation itself, underlines just how difficult it has been for Argentina to draw a line under the Dirty War during which the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983 murdered more than 10,000 left-wing opponents.
The realisation that hundreds of children born to mothers in secret military prisons had been illegally adopted and were growing up unaware of who they were or that they had families desperate to locate them has helped to keep alive the sinister legacy of the dictatorships in a very emotive way, as evidenced by the outpouring of national joy for Carlotto.
Like many of her generation, her daughter Laura was caught up in the revolutionary fervour sweeping Latin America in the 1970s and was an activist in a Peronist youth movement which was linked to the country’s largest guerrilla organisation. She was pregnant when she was picked up by a military death squad in November 1977 along with her baby’s father Oscar Montoya, a guerrilla who was killed in front of her in a secret detention centre.
Laura was kept alive after her captors realised she was pregnant. She gave birth in the military hospital in Buenos Aires but was murdered two months later. Unlike most of the military’s victims her body was returned to the family.
As well as the head she had been shot in the belly in an effort to cover up the fact she had recently given birth.
Illegal adoptionsToday the leaders and operators of the state’s killing machine who are still alive are being tried and jailed. In 2012 two former military presidents and several other senior officers were sentenced to life in prison for overseeing the illegal adoption programme, among other human rights violations.
But the trial did nothing to identify the families who had adopted the babies and the search for them is a constant reminder of how the dictatorship’s crimes still haunt Argentina 31 years after the return of democracy. Even after the Carlotto discovery an estimated 300 stolen babies remain unidentified.
It is not known if the family that adopted Laura Carlotto’s son were aware of his parents’ fate. But she has acknowledged that he was brought up in a loving family. Most stolen babies went to families with military connections so the offspring of communists could be raised according to “Christian values”.
President Cristina Kirchner, welcomed news of Estela de Carlotto’s discovery writing on Twitter: “Today at last your mother Laura can rest in peace. The president has already met with Mrs Carlotto and her grandson.”
The Kirchners have been closely allied with the Grandmothers and its sister organisation the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, ever since Kirchner’s husband Néstor stripped the military of its immunity for crimes committed during the Dirty War. But critics warn that by seeking to use the hard-won moral authority of groups like the Grandmothers for the administration’s own political ends it risks politicising human rights.
“Everyone is very happy at the news, especially those of us who opposed the dictatorship,” says Fernando Iglesias, a human rights activist but critic of the administration. “But it is being turned into a media event by an administration that considers human rights not as an obligation of the state but their own personal achievement rather than that of society.”
The close relationship with the Kirchner administration – several of Carlotto’s family now hold official human rights posts – has dragged the Grandmothers into controversy in recent years. When Kirchner was involved in a bitter dispute with Clarín, the country’s largest media conglomerate, her administration used the doubts surrounding the adoption of two children by the group’s owner Ernestina Herrera de Noble to attack her media empire.
PoliticisingCarlotto was accused of politicising the Grandmothers’ campaign with her organisation’s parallel campaign to force the two adopted children to take the DNA test. After a legal battle they did so “against their wishes”, according to their lawyers. The results showed neither child was a stolen baby.
But this week such controversies were forgotten as a country celebrated the news that after 36 years searching one of its grandmothers had finally found her grandchild. Despite her happiness, Carlotto was at pains to point out that hundreds of families still wait for news. “We must keep searching for those missing because other grandmothers have to feel what I feel,” she said.