Court proceedings have begun in a case regarding the baby thefts and torture of prisoners under the military junta rule in Argentina between 1976-1983. So far, 18 people have been charged with torture, illegal deprivation of liberty, abduction of babies, and sexual assault. The trail is expected to last longer than two years, with more than 400 witnesses already prepared to speak in court. The trial is regarding the crimes that occurred in the inhumane detention centres, where men and women were shackled, dehumanized, and abused.
Female prisoners who were or got pregnant, typically from rape by police and guards, were kept alive to birth the babies. The babies would then be taken by the guards and given typically to loyalists of the junta regime. Often, mothers were then killed; they would be drugged and their bodies disposed of.
One of the most notable defendants in this case is Miguel Etchecolatz, 91. He was the head of the police investigative unit during the junta regime. He is currently in jail serving four life sentences for his crimes. He was first charged in 2004 for baby theft. He has written memoirs stating no remorse for his actions during the regime, declaring that “I was the executor of a law made by man, I was the keeper of divine precepts. And I would do it again.”
Over 300 detention centres were set up during the “Dirty War,” a seven year campaign where students, teachers, doctors, government officials, and any other person determined to be suspicious were taken to the camps and tortured or killed. It was rare for anyone to make it out of there. Reports show that between 10,000 and 30,000 people disappeared or were killed.
Often, sexual abuse was used to degrade prisoners. Those who managed to make it out of these detention centres reported that the experience of torture was unbelievable. Pregnant women explain how men, both young and old, were allowed to explore their bodies for curiosity and arousal. Guards would use electric rods to poke and prod at pregnant women’s bodies. Women were also shackled during birth and rarely allowed more than a few days to nurse the child before having it ripped from their arms.
It is estimated that there was 500 stolen babies; they were stolen from prisoners but also from murdered or tortured anti-government activists. If the parents were murdered by the police or military, the children left alive would be taken and kept by the police officer or given to a loyalist family. The identities of the children were changed and they effectively were ‘disappeared.’ The movement to find these children and reunite them with their families was started by grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Because so many of the parents were killed, the older generation took on the responsibility of finding their grandchildren.
Due to the advancement of the DNA testing, grandparents can now be tested to match their DNA to grandchildren. This has be extremely helpful in reuniting families. However, the challenges are vast and the majority of stolen babies from this period remain ‘disappeared.’ It is reported that police officers would change birth dates in order to make it more difficult to match a past identity to the child.
It will be impossible to find all stolen babies and missing persons from the junta regime in Argentina. Given the lack of remorse from police officers and men in positions of power during the period, the whole story will never be known. However, with emerging DNA testing and the ongoing trial, it is hoped that the remaining family members who continue to search for answers from this devastating chapter of Argentina’s history will be able to tell their stories and see the judicial process carried out.
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