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Two former Argentine military dictators were convicted this week of stealing newly-born babies from women who were enemies of their military government, murdering the mothers and then giving the children away to people who sided with the regime. The crimes occurred between 1976 and 1982 and it took all these years to bring to trial the people who ran  successive military juntas that engineered those crimes. In order to get the military to leave power, civilians at first had to agree to an amnesty absolving all members of the armed forces of any crimes committed during the years of the dictatorship. But in the mid 1990s the Argentine Supreme Court abrogated the amnesty for crimes against children and trials have gone on for some years now. This week former generals Jorge Rafael Videla,86, and Reynaldo Bignone,84, were finally convicted. Videla, received a 50 year sentence; Bignone, 15 years. Both were already serving time in prison for other crimes.

Armed guerrillas did fight against the military government, but the generals didn’t target just them. They tracked down students, academics, journalists, labor leaders, social workers, anyone they considered ideological enemies of the regime, whether they were armed or not. The official estimate of people executed by the generals was 13,000, although some Argentines put it higher. Other Latin American military governments waged campaigns to eliminate political enemies during that era, but it was the case of the “children of the disappeared” that set Argentina apart. The new-born children were taken from the mothers, who were assumed to have leftist sympathies, and given to persons with right-wing sympathies to be raised in accord with a more conservative ideology. This was an instance of social engineering that the Nazis might have embraced. The mothers, by the way, were killed soon after the babies were removed from them. Many of them were dropped from military planes into the ocean off Buenos Aires so the sharks could eat them and dispose of the evidence.

I was a journalist in Latin America in the 1980s and have made many trips back for reporting over the years. As civil wars spread through the region, I covered many tragic, dramatic and disturbing stories. But I’ve always thought the “children of the disappeared” was the most gripping of all. I wrote a novel, “The Lady from Buenos Aires,” about the issue. It was published by Arte Publico Press in 2007.

It is not known how many children were removed from their mothers in the way I’ve described above. To date, relatives of the disappeared women have used DNA evidence to track down 106 of them. Advocates believe there may be hundreds more, but where they are is the question. After the amnesty for crimes against children was lifted in the mid-1990s some persons who had the children left Argentina, afraid of being tracked down. In at least two cases I’ve heard of they were tracked down in other Latin countries, but advocates believe some might also be in the U.S. Many Argentines emigrated to the U.S. during the past dozen years or so, due to economic turbulence in Argentina. If some of those ‘children of the disappeared” are here in the U.S., where I live, they probably don’t know who they really are.

During his trial, General Videla denied any knowledge of an organized effort to take newborns away from their mothers. At one point he said that the pregnant women used their unborn children as “human shields” in their attempts to escape government pursuit. Think about that. The woman has the child in her stomach; a member of the military catches up with her; she turns to face him and that is what the former general calls using a human shield. That alone will explain  how thousands of innocent people ended up dead.

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