© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

DNA Used To Identify Argentina's 'Dirty War' Orphans


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne with Steve Inskeep.

The heirs to one Latin America's biggest media conglomerates, a brother and a sister, spent years with their real identities in question. They've long been thought to be part of a group of children stolen from their birth parents more than 30 years ago. That was during Argentina's Dirty War, the terror campaign waged by the military junta then ruling Argentina against members of the opposition.

The famed grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo campaigned for decades to find those children and return them to their original families. Francisco Goldman of the New Yorker spoke from Buenos Aires with Steve about the puzzling story of Marcela and Felipe, the adopted children of media mogul Ernestina Noble.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: She's sort of Argentina's Rupert Murdoch, if you will, right? And when the accusations arose that they may have been appropriated children of the disappeared - that's referring back to the late '70s when there was a military coup here in Argentina, and under what they called the Process Of National Reorganization tens of thousands of young, mostly young Argentines, were taken into secret detention centers, secret prisons, torture centers, where most of them were, you know, tortured and killed.


And it meant that people would be put in a plane, say, and thrown out of a plane over the water somewhere?

GOLDMAN: Well, what would happen - some percentage of the disappeared were women, a large percentage. And some percentage of those disappeared were pregnant. And they were often kept alive until they'd given birth, and then loaded on to one of those death flights.

INSKEEP: So you follow the story of a grandmother who, for decades, has been searching, searching for children. How did she come to think that her granddaughter was the adopted daughter of this media mogul?

GOLDMAN: Well, because the media mogul was very close to the military dictatorship. Her children were adopted in the first month of the coup. And the thing that really struck her, as she put it, was in the early years when the dictatorship ended, she would see Ernestina Noble, who's a big high society woman here in Argentina, taking the children on these world tours, you know, taking her to Europe.

And she'd see news footage of the children being received by, you know, French presidents and by the pope and so forth. And she thought this little girl had a great resemblance to herself and to her daughter-in-law.

And it was just an intuition. You know, she thought she had a family resemblance. That's often all they had to go on. Later on, of course, DNA testing became the fundamental way of proving whether somebody was actually your missing granddaughter or not.

INSKEEP: Well, has she been able to force that kind of testing here?

GOLDMAN: Well, yes, that's been the real heart of this story, is the way the grandmothers in collaboration with some scientists in the United States formed here the National Bank of Genetic Data, where families who think they are, you know, they may have had grandchildren stolen from them, from their murdered children, deposit their blood. It's a DNA bank.

And finally you'll get to a point, if people think there's a good reason to suspect that this child might be an appropriated child - and you're talking about when you say children, now you're talking about people in their 30s - the courts can order DNA testing. And that's what happened in this case. It was a 10 year legal battle to get the children of Ernestina Noble tested.

INSKEEP: And this is all happening on the front pages of newspapers, it's happening on television, massive news coverage.

GOLDMAN: Yes. I mean it's at such a level of popular scandal that finally the children suddenly announced: Let's put an end to this, we're ready to be DNA tested, we're ready to have the results.

You should've seen it. I mean, the day they went into the hospital to give their blood, it was like a massive paparazzi scene, you know. People with telephoto lens climbing the fences outside the hospital to try and get a shot of the siblings, you know, coming out of their armored SUVs and going in to give their blood. It was a huge massive media event here. And so finally this story finally came to sort of an end.

INSKEEP: Sort of an end. I need to know what. What was the end?

GOLDMAN: The end is that for now the results seem to be negative. So then the question is, why was all Argentina put through this?

INSKEEP: So the adopted children of the media mogul have not been proven to be children of the disappeared. But some other children have been so proven by DNA testing.

GOLDMAN: One hundred and five so far.

INSKEEP: You mention one of them in particular, and you write something that really struck me, that the grandmother succeeded in matching a 21-year-old to her biological family and her adoptive parents were sentenced to prison.


INSKEEP: Now, you describe that as a historic triumph for the grandmothers, which it was. They struggled for decades to get that.


INSKEEP: And yet, when I read that, I didn't feel like I was a reading of a triumph. I felt I was reading of a tragedy, of a 21-year-old who finds out that the only parents she's ever known stole her and they go to prison.


INSKEEP: That sounds awful.

GOLDMAN: It is awful. It's why this is such a wrenching story. But there's also something that I have found speaking to all these kids. It's human nature to want to know where you come from. And however this finally gets handled when you're proven to have been an appropriated stolen child, there's always for many of them a great relief and comfort in finally knowing who you are and knowing what your past is and knowing that you're a part of this national historical event in Argentina. You know, so it's a story that's a combination of a lot of things: tragedy and also recovery of family. So these stories are very complicated; there's every kind of story.

INSKEEP: Francisco Goldman is a reporter for The New Yorker and author of "Children of the Dirty War" in the latest issue.

Mr. Goldman, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.