The Consortium

Baby-Snatching: Argentine Dirty War Secret

By Marta Gurvich

Pablo and Carolina, 19 and 21 respectively, were raised as brother and sister in a seemingly respectable Argentine family. With their father a doctor and their mother a teacher, the pair grew up in middle-class neighborhoods, attended good schools and wanted for little.

But now as young adults, Pablo and Carolina are caught up in one of the last active disputes of Argentina's so-called Dirty War -- and it is one that rips at the very heart of human relations. They find themselves in a legal battle over a terrible historical legacy in which their true identities play a central part, a murder mystery about the fate of their real mothers.

Pablo and Carolina, however, seem to sense that the truth could shatter any hopes of a normal life as well as their relationships with the couple that raised them, Norberto Atilio Bianco and Susana Wehrli. While Pablo and Carolina remain in Paraguay out of the reach of Argentine law, Bianco and Wehrli have faced extradition to Argentina and are now imprisoned for kidnapping and suppression of their children's true identities.

"I have no doubts that my real parents are the couple Bianco-Wehrli," Pablo told a judge in Paraguay on May 10. "The only thing that I want is to continue with my life, with my parents, the Biancos, my wife and my daughter, and my sister." In another passionate statement, Carolina declared that all the family's progress and education could be credited to the Biancos's love and dedication.

When the two young adults refused to give blood samples for DNA testing sought by an Argentine court, a Paraguayan judge ruled there would be no compelled genetic testing. The Argentine judge Roberto Marquevich fumed, "I can only guess that perhaps there is a so-called loyalty in Paraguay towards those who were part of military governments in Latin America."

Beyond establishing the parentage of Pablo and Carolina, the DNA tests could help clarify Bianco's suspected role as an accomplice in the murders of his children's real mothers and the deaths of many other pregnant women under his care. Bianco, as a military doctor in the 1970s, is accused of collaborating in one of the Dirty War's most gruesome practices: the harvesting of babies from women facing death for their suspected leftist political views.

According to testimony given to Argentina's truth commission, Bianco oversaw nighttime Caesarian sections or induced early deliveries on women captives. A few minutes after the deliveries, Bianco pulled the babies away from sobbing mothers, according to witnesses who were at the Campo de Mayo military hospital. Bianco then drove the women to a military airport. There, they were sedated, shackled together with other captives in groups of 30, and loaded onto a Hercules military cargo plane.

At about 11 p.m. at night, the plane flew out over the dark water of the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean. According to the testimony, the new mothers and other victims were shoved into the water to drown. Back at the hospital, witnesses said, some of the babies were dispatched to orphanages but most were divvied up among the Argentine military officers, especially those whose wives could not bear children. The babies sometimes arrived at their new homes wrapped in army coats.

During the Dirty War, which raged from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, Argentina's military "disappeared" thousands of Argentines, as many as 30,000, according to some human rights estimates. Captives from all walks of life were systematically tortured, raped and murdered, sometimes drowned and other times buried in mass graves. After the military government collapsed in 1983, a truth commission began documenting the grisly events. But the mysteries of the missing babies were among the hardest to solve.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group formed in 1977 to search for these babies, estimated that as many as 500 infants were born in the detention camps. After years of detective work, the Grandmothers documented the identities of 256 missing babies. Of those, however, only 56 children were ever located and seven of them had died. Aided by recent breakthroughs in genetic testing, the Grandmothers returned 31 of the children to their biological families. Thirteen were raised jointly by their adoptive and biological families, and six cases have been tied up in court custody battles.

But the Bianco criminal case continues to this day because an agronomist named Abel Madariaga has pressed a legal claim that his son may have been kidnapped by Bianco, who also allegedly participated in murdering the boy's mother, Madariaga's wife, Silvia Quintela. The Grandmothers have supported Madariaga's efforts to solve the case.

A Missing Mother

The story of Madariaga's lost son began more than two decades ago, on the morning of January 17, 1977. Silvia Quintela, then 28 and four-months pregnant with her first child, was walking along Hipolito Irigoyen Street, a middle-class neighborhood in a suburb of Buenos Aires. It was summer in South America and the slight brown-haired woman, a medical doctor by training, planned to meet a friend at a train station and then head downtown.

Like many other Argentines, Silvia Quintela was a Peronista, a follower of the populist military officer and political leader, Juan Peron. During her studies at the School of Medicine in Buenos Aires, Quintela and her husband had been members of the Juventud Peronista (the Peronist Youth). As a surgeon, Silvia Quintela had treated the poor at a small clinic in the town of Beccar, near a shantytown called La Cava. She also was active in the province's medical association.

In 1973, Peron won election as president, but his death the next year put his third wife, Isabel, in office. In 1976, with inflation running rampant and political turmoil spreading, the military seized power. In secret, military death squads began rounding up and eliminating thousands of political opponents. A chilling new word entered the lexicon of repression: "the disappeared."

Amnesty International verified some cases of illegal detentions and killings. But on Dec. 31, 1976, Henry Kissinger's State Department assured Congress that "torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment have not been general practice in Argentina." Less than three weeks later, Silvia Quintela became one of the Army's growing number of targets.

At about 9:30 a.m., Jan. 17, three Ford Falcons screeched to a stop around Quintela. Men in civilian clothes jumped out of the cars and grabbed her. They forced her into one of the Falcons and sped away. That afternoon, seven men broke into the home of Silvia's mother, Luisa Quintela. After tearing up the rooms, they told Mrs. Quintela that her daughter had been arrested.

Immediately, Luisa Quintela and Madariaga began searching for Silvia. But Madariaga's life was in danger, too, so he fled Argentina, seeking political asylum in Brazil and later in Sweden. But wherever he went, Madariaga asked Argentines who had escaped the detention camps what they might know about Silvia.

Back in Argentina, women whose sons and daughters had disappeared founded a group called Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named after the plaza in front of the Pink House (the presidential offices). Each Thursday, the women would don white kerchiefs and march around the plaza carrying photos of their missing children.