Argentina's Stolen Babies, and the Grandmother Leading the SearchWatch the video
TEXT ON SCREEN: January 6, 1984
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-6-84): TOM BROKAW: The people of Argentina are now beginning at long last to unravel the mystery of the disappeared.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 1-6-84): ROBIN LLOYD: The remains of many of the disappeared are being found in unmarked graves throughout the country. Many of the bodies show signs of torture.
NARRATION: During the military dictatorship in Argentina – from 1976 to 1983 – as many as 30,000 people simply disappeared without a trace.
Some of those taken were young pregnant women. Kept alive until they gave birth, at least 500 of their babies were then given to couples who were deemed sympathetic to the regime.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: These predators thought that we women were weak, and that we were going to stay home crying in fear. They were wrong
NARRATION: It’s a story that’s still playing out today, nearly 40 years after it began.
UKI GOÑI: It’s so easy to relate they kidnapped my daughter. She was pregnant. Where’s my grandchild? It’s the most basic human story in the world.
WHERE IS MY GRANDCHILD?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-24-76): WALTER CRONKITE: A three-man military junta has taken over the government of Argentina.
NARRATION: The coup began in the early morning hours of March 24, 1976.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-24-76): ROBERT TROSSEL: The action was swift and efficient, and the new ruling junta composed of coup leaders seemed in firm control.
NARRATION: It wasn’t long before the military dictatorship started rounding up guerrilla groups and those believed to be left wing subversives.
ISABEL MIGNONE-DEL CARRIL: The military went to the house, or they went to where the person worked, or the university, and it was like the earth had swallowed them.
NARRATION: Isabel Mignone-del Carril’s sister was one of the first to be taken.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-18-82): JIM CUMMINS: Social worker Monica Mignone disappeared in 1976. She was organizing resistance to a government slum demolition project; Miss Mignone was 24.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-18-82): EMILIO MIGNONE: I am totally pessimistic about the fate.
ISABEL MIGNONE-DEL CARRIL: My father told us, that they had probably killed her. They would take them, get information out of them and then get rid of them. The only ones that were really kept were the women that were pregnant.
UKI GOÑI (AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST): They considered these women and certainly the fathers of these unborn children to be communists, and there was a danger that they would raise these children as communists. So they came up with the idea, “We’re going to let them give birth, then we’re going to kill the mother and then we’re going to hand over the children to proper Catholic families to raise as their own. The kids will never know.
NARRATION: Housewife and school principal Estela de Carlotto was 47 years old back in November of 1977 when her 22-year-old daughter, Laura disappeared.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: She was the first of my four children. Laura was a very respectful girl but with a strong personality. She became politically active because she wanted change.
NARRATION: Carlotto says she was frantic to find out what had happened to her daughter.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: At that time, I was the same as the other mothers, very naïve. We didn’t know that the military were coming to kill people. We were expecting the return of our children.
NARRATION: But it was not to be. Carlotto would never hear from her daughter Laura again. In August of 1978, she was killed by her captors.
Although devastated, Estela de Carlotto was one of the more fortunate ones – she was given her daughter’s body to bury. It was two years later that she learned something she had suspected – Laura had been pregnant and given birth to a son before she was murdered.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: I buried Laura; I knew where Laura was. But I didn’t know where my grandson was.
NARRATION: Not long after, she joined the grandmother’s or “Abuelas” of the Plaza de Mayo.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: Being on my own was dangerous. I couldn’t share my sorrow. So, to find the Grandmothers was to find company, exchange ideas and to look after each other.
F. ALLEN HARRIS (U.S. EMBASSY, ARGENTINA, 1977-1979): The Mothers were looking for their dead children. The Abuelas were looking for their live grandchildren. That was the difference. They were parallel organizations.
NARRATION: Every Thursday both groups would march in silent protest around the Plaza de Mayo, the famed city square that sat opposite the presidential palace… It wasn’t long before their silence began to be heard around the globe.
F. ALLEN HARRIS: Their brave work demonstrated to the whole world that something horrible was going on in Argentina.
NARRATION: The dictatorship lasted seven years. During that time, as many as 30,000 people were tortured and killed at detention camps all over the country. While many of the victims were buried in mass graves, nearly 5,000 were taken to a camp known simply as the ESMA.
UKI GOÑI: At the beginning, they would set up huge bonfires and cremate the bodies. Once the number of people captured started growing, that was no longer a viable method. So then they decided to use military planes they would drug the, the prisoners at the ESMA until they were in a kind of half-awake, half-asleep state, load them on the planes and throw them into the Atlantic Ocean.
NARRATION: After the regime fell, the grandmothers were desperate to, not only find out what had happened to their children, but to also recover their grandchildren who had been stolen at birth.
VICTOR PENCHASZADEH (MEDICAL GENETICIST): They had like an intelligence agency. They worked like detectives already during the dictatorship.
NARRATION: Their search would take them to New York and the office of exiled Argentine geneticist, Victor Penchaszadeh.
VICTOR PENCHASZADEH: Their question was, “Is it possible to identify children even if you don’t have their parents?”
NARRATION: The answer was yes. They could match genetic markers in blood samples from any living grandparents, aunts or uncles.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: In the beginning we were searching, but we didn’t have a way to prove which were our grandchildren.
NARRATION: So they turned to science… and in 1987, they began storing their profiles in a newly created national genetic bank. By then, they had already found 39 missing grandchildren.
VICTOR PENCHASZADEH: The truth is the truth. I mean it’s the ethical basis for all what the Abuelas have been doing.
NARRATION: And that search for “truth” would lead to something the generals had never imagined…
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-9-85): ROGER MUDD: A civilian court in Argentina today, convicted five former military leaders accused of murder, torture, and other charges.
NARRATION: Much of the evidence gathered against the regime came from the grandmothers and the mothers. Their work with forensic experts in the often painful process of finding and identifying the remains of their children would help secure convictions against the former dictators.
By May of 2014 Estela de Carlotto and the grandmothers had found or identified 113 missing grandchildren … and at the age of 83, her determination to continue the search that began in 1978 with the murder of her daughter… seemed stronger than ever.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: I will never stop doing what I do, because, there is inside a very powerful strength that is love, love for our children and grandchildren.
IGNACIO HURBAN: I first heard of Abuelas and of Estela de Carlotto when I graduated from secondary school and went to study music at the Conservatory
NARRATION: Ignacio Hurban was born in June of 1978. His parents were farmers near the city Olavarria – some 220 miles from Buenos Aires. A few years ago Ignacio says he was at home watching television.
IGNACIO HURBAN: And there was an image of Estela and I said: “What a shame, this woman, a whole life searching and she may never find her grandchild.”
NARRATION: On his 36th birthday in 2014, Ignacio found out that he had been adopted at the height of the dictatorship.
IGNACIO HURBAN: It was a shock, yes. The parents who raised me didn’t tell me. When I asked them, they confirmed what I had been told. They supported me while I decided to go out and search who my biological family was.
NARRATION: He is an accomplished musician and director of a music conservatory. While he says he was stunned to learn of his adoption, he cannot deny that growing up, he did have some doubts.
IGNACIO HURBAN: The suspicions were, the physical resemblance that basically didn’t exist, and some decisions I took in life that weren’t decisions my parents who raised me would have taken.
NARRATION: Not long after his discovery, Ignacio went to the grandmothers, who arranged for a blood test.
The results were sent to the National Commission for the Right to Identity – the government agency that the grandmothers lobbied for to restore their grandchildren’s family heritage.
In August of 2014, just days after taking the test, Ignacio got the results from the head of the commission.
IGNACIO HURBAN: She told me whose grandchild I was. And that my grandmother was waiting for me, very excited. We met immediately, the next day. There was no need to wait. She had waited long enough.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: Given his good nature and nice character, he said, in jest, of course, “If I’m a grandson of the Grandmothers, I hope Estela is my grandmother.” He seemed to have sensed it.
UKI GOÑI: The country came together I think in this huge cry of joy. I went to the press conference where she appeared publicly with him for the first time, and there’s a room packed full of journalists all in tears, myself included, because she represented so much for us. I mean she had been so brave. She had put so much of herself at stake. And finally she had her reward.
NARRATION: And for her grandson, the reward would be two fold.
The genetic bank didn’t just reveal the identity of his mother, it would make known, for the first time, the name of his father – Walmir Montoya. Montoya’s remains were identified in 2009. And his profile was then stored in the genetic bank where it quietly remained until Ignacio’s DNA was entered. The result was immediate and indisputable.
IGNACIO HURBAN: So the news was double. Not only did it become clear who the grandchild was, but also who the father of that grandchild was.
NARRATION: But with those results came something else – the parents who raised him would face a legal investigation.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: Every time we find a grandchild, the judiciary intervenes and establishes that there is a couple who has committed a crime. Without exception, they have to be judged by the law. The people who raised my grandson committed a crime. It’s a serious crime, a crime against humanity. There are extenuating circumstances in that they were farm people under a very domineering master who one day brought them a child and told them, “Do not ask questions and never tell him he is not your own son.” But I personally do not blame them or exonerate them. That is in the hands of the justice system.
NARRATION: Ignacio Hurban is now Ignacio Montoya Carlotto. Although he has changed his name, he says his bond with the parents who raised him remains strong, and he is proud to be the 114th grandchild identified.
Since Ignacio, three more grandchildren have also been found. Hundreds more remain missing.
At the age of 84 Estela de Carlotto shows no sign of slowing down – taking her message and now her grandson around the world.
IGNACIO MONTOYA CARLOTTO: There is my public life with my grandmother, and my private and emotional life with her, a life we’re building. In that sense, we’re just a grandchild and a grandmother.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: When I found my grandson and could hug him, he doesn’t look like his mother, but I knew that in his blood was my daughter Laura. And it was like I got her back.
NARRATION: Sitting on the river bank in Buenos Aires is a memorial, a tribute to the thousands of people who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. For Argentines, it is a stark reminder of a dark and not so distant past.
ESTELA DE CARLOTTO: This reunion marks the end of my personal search, but I will continue as a Grandmother of the Plaza de Mayo while I have life in me, searching for all the missing grandchildren. And, also searching for truth and justice.