The grisly executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the shooting death of Michael Brown, the relentless march of the Ebola epidemic across West Africa — the news from abroad and here at home has been abysmal lately. But squeezed in among these horrifying events is a rare story of hope. After decades of searching, the president of one of Argentina’s leading human rights group said that she had located the grandson taken from her daughter while she was a prisoner of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-83. It’s an astonishing tale — and one that holds a serious lesson for us all as we mark another anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Estela Barnes de Carlotto, of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, told a press conference in Buenos Aires last month that a 36-year-old man had been identified as her missing grandson through genetic testing. The man had voluntarily provided a DNA sample to be compared with a national data base; he had apparently harbored doubts about his identity. The results proved with “99.9%” certainty that he was the son of Mrs. Carlotto’s daughter, Laura, a university student activist who was executed in August 1978, two months after giving birth while being held in a government-run torture center. “Thanks to God, thanks to life, because I didn’t want to die without embracing him and soon I will be able to,” said the 83-year-old Mrs. Carlotto.
Laura Carlotto was one of tens of thousands of Argentines arrested and killed by the military dictators during the country’s “Dirty War.” No one knows the true number; estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000. The ruling junta began its campaign in response to left-wing guerrillas who were setting off bombs, kidnapping and generally terrorizing the country. But the line between terrorist and dissident quickly blurred, as the arrogant, strutting generals used the excuse of protecting the homeland to quash all opposition. Anyone with the slightest leftist (read: democratic) bent was fair game: union organizers, university professors, journalists.
The stories I heard as a reporter covering the aftermath of the Dirty War were unfathomable. One young man, a university student, slept overnight at a friend’s house and returned home to find that his entire family — parents, siblings, grandmother — had been taken away. The junta’s henchmen had come looking for him; unable to make that arrest, they grabbed his extended family instead. (None of whom ever returned.)
Another man told of being awakened before dawn to a banging on his door. Soldiers had surrounded the apartment building; they burst into his home when the man went to check on the noise. Dressed in full military gear with grenades hanging from their belts, the soldiers forced the family from their beds at gunpoint and lined them up in the living room. An officer said they had come for the oldest daughter, the one who worked as a social worker in the slums of Buenos Aires. She was wanted for questioning. Nothing serious, the officer promised, she’ll be back soon.
The daughter began crying and clung to her father, begging him not to let them take her. What could he do? Soldiers were standing in his living room, pointing submachine guns at his wife and other four children. Don’t worry, the man said softly to his daughter, they only want to ask you a few questions. (This was early in the Dirty War, before people became aware of the magnitude of the disappearances.) You’ll be home in time for breakfast. Here, he said, here’s some money for bus fare so you can come home when they’re done talking to you. And with that, the man gently pried his daughter out of his arms and handed her to the officer.
He never saw her again.
(Years later, he would learn that she was taken on that night to a secret detention center in the basement of the Navy School of Mechanics, an imposing colonnaded building on a major Buenos Aires thoroughfare. There she was tortured and, ultimately, killed. Many of the thousands of murdered victims were hastily buried in unmarked grave; others were flown over the Atlantic Ocean and pushed out of airplanes or helicopters to the waters below.)
Relatives of the “disappeared,” as they became known, tried frantically to find their missing loved ones. Working through the courts, some even obtained writs of habeas corpus — to no avail; the generals ignored the rule of law with impunity. Out of desperation, a group of mothers began demonstrating every Thursday afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in downtown Buenos Aires, opposite the presidential palace. Wearing white kerchiefs tied under their chins, the women held up poster-sized photographs of their missing offspring and demanded to know their fate. (And would continue to do so for over 30 years, even after the country’s return to democracy.) The military junta dismissed their protests, branding them as “las locas” — the crazy women; some of the mothers themselves were “disappeared.”
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto’s organization, grew out of these demonstrations. These were mothers who demanded to know what had become of the children of their “disappeared” pregnant daughters and daughters-in-law. The generals were thought to have taken around 500 babies born in the clandestine detention centers and given them to military and security officials to raise as their own. The children grew up utterly ignorant of their true identities. (To say nothing of the fate of their biological parents.) After the country’s return to democratic rule in 1983, the grandmothers, working with geneticists, established a national DNA database to allow people to determine if they were related to any of the “disappeared.” The group has thus far helped to identify 114 of the illegally adopted children. In 2012, military leaders were finally convicted of carrying out a systematic plan to steal babies from the pregnant prisoners, who were later killed.
Beyond the obvious joy for Estela Carlotto in finding her grandson, why should we care about this blot on Argentina’s history? Because it’s a horrifying reminder of what governments — including our own — have done in the name of security. And those actions required the complicity of the country’s populace, as well as its institutions. Yes, many of the hundreds of clandestine detention centers across Argentina were secreted away in official buildings such as the Navy Mechanics School. But others hid in plain sight in residential neighborhoods. One such center was located in a huge police garage in western Buenos Aires; small homes lined the street opposite the building. When I interviewed the denizens of those houses, they all — to a man and woman — denied knowing anything about what transpired just across the road. Yet one survivor of the center told me: “I could hear kids playing soccer in the street from my cell, so how could they not hear my screams when I was being tortured?”
Equally telling was a sentiment that many of the residents echoed: If the government arrested people, they must have done something wrong. It was an understandable reaction to living in a place that was traumatized by terrorists. Remember how our collective trauma felt after the terror attacks on Sept. 11? Remember how our government used that trauma as an excuse to kidnap suspected foreign terrorists, spirit them off to “black holes” (overseas detention centers) and torture them — all in the name of making us safe? Remember how, after journalists uncovered these nefarious practices, the government assured us that it was all perfectly legal?
Torture is never legal, not under U.S. law nor under any of the international conventions to which we are signatories. Nor is it ever justified. We should never forget that we are a country of laws. For once that happens, our leaders are unleashed to act with impunity not only against foreigners, but against its citizens as well.
We only have to look to Argentina to be forewarned.