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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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.