“My Mother Will Never
mother will never forgive them.
Buenos Aires, June 1984
A small, gray-haired man stood up in the back of the packed auditorium. “Tell me, doctor,” he said. “How long does it take for the bones of a six-month-old child to dissolve?” I was sure I’d misunderstood. I’d been in Argentina less than twenty-four hours and hadn’t spoken Spanish since I’d lived in Chile eleven years before. An Argentine medical student translated, and the forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow explained carefully that bones do not dissolve, “even” those of a six-month-old child. Tears came to the man’s eyes. “Then Matilde is still alive,” he said.
In September 1976, Mr. Miranda and his wife had opened their morning newspaper to see a photograph of their daughter and son-in-law’s house pocked with bullet holes. The accompanying article described in detail how, the previous night, the po-lice had engaged in an extended battle, involving bazookas and grenades, with five extremists at the house, who were ultimately killed by gunfire.
In January 1984, a month after the fall of the Argentine military government, the Mirandas were able to identify the extremists from burial certificates of the public cemetery in San Isidro. Two of the extremists were their son-in-law, Robert Francis Lanuscou, and their daughter, Barbara Miranda. The third extremist was their six-year-old granddaughter, Barbara; the fourth, their five-year-old grandson, Robert. The fifth extremist was identified only as “NN” (ningun nombre, no name) on the burial certificate, which also indicated her sex as female, her age as six months, and her cause of death as a bullet wound to the head. The bodies were exhumed; the bones of two adults and two approximately six-year-old children were lying side by side. But instead of a fifth set of bones, there was a little sleeper, a pacifier, and socks (fig. 1). Mrs. Miranda had given the sleeper to her six-month-old granddaughter Matilde eight years before. The cemetery director—who had held his job throughout the military period and now appeared somewhat uncomfortable—said brusquely that they shouldn’t expect to find an infant’s bones after so many years, that an infant’s bones would dissolve. Mr. Miranda suspected otherwise.
In 1975 a military junta seized power in Argentina, with the avowed purpose of saving the country from communism. They were explicit in their intentions:
A teaching slide from a counterterrorism course for Argen-tine military officers portrayed the subversives to whom the gen-eral referred. The branches of the Tree of Subversion (fig. 2) included leftists like the Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Monteneros alongside Christian democrats, professors, journal-ists, and so on. The tree’s roots were Marxism, Zionism, and Freemasonry.
The military was effective: people disappeared. Between 1975 and 1983, bodies of the disappeared reappeared in morgues, in unmarked graves, along riverbanks, and on ocean beaches. Among the disappeared were parents of small children and young pregnant women. Children old enough to talk were generally killed with their parents, as the two older Lanuscou children had been. However, bodies of infants did not appear. Infants simply vanished.
In 1977 the grandmothers of these children formed a human--rights group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to demand information about their kidnapped children and grandchildren. They did this by marching every Thursday morning around the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires in front of the president’s house, wearing white scarves and carrying pictures of their children and grandchildren (fig. 3). A number of them were killed for this activity. But they continued to march.
As the years went on, anecdotal evidence accumulated that kidnapped grandchildren were still alive. Apparently, when young adults were seized by the military or the police and taken to torture centers, their small children would be taken to detention centers, then removed by people in authority. The men who removed these infants were often known, so word would spread among the prisoners: this child was last seen with Father So-and-so, this one with Lieutenant So-and-so. Occasionally prisoners were released; they reported what they had heard to the Grandmothers.
If a young woman was pregnant when she was seized, she was usually kept alive (although tortured) until she was ready to give birth. There were no personnel at the military facilities to handle obstetrics, so an obstetrician or midwife would be kidnapped off the street. This became something of an occupational hazard for obstetricians and midwives and was more or less expected from time to time. The physician or midwife would be blindfolded and taken to a room where the young woman who had been tortured for several months would be lying on a bed in labor. The physician or midwife would be instructed not to speak to the woman and to deliver the child alive. In the vast majority of cases, the infants were delivered alive and well. Of course, in the course of hours of labor, words were exchanged, despite the presence of guards, and young mothers were able to whisper who they were. After the birth, the obstetrician or midwife would be blindfolded again, taken from the hospital, and dropped off somewhere in town. Most informed the Grandmothers of what had happened. At least one midwife was kidnapped and murdered for passing this information. The young mothers were taken away and shot. Their children apparently vanished.
But time passed. Between 1975 and 1983, children began to appear throughout Argentina in households where children weren’t expected. For example, a child might appear in the household of a childless military or Mafia couple. The neighbors would be told that the wife had given birth; in several cases, neighbors knew that the wives had had hysterectomies years before. People in the neighborhood would quietly tell the Grandmothers about these unexplained children.
When the kidnapped children grew old enough to enter kindergarten, birth certificates had to be presented for school registration. Throughout Argentina, birth certificates that were clearly fraudulent began to appear. A certificate might say that a child had been born at home with no medical personnel in at-tendance, a virtually unheard-of occurrence among the middle-class military and police. Instead of a physician’s signature above a typed name, there would appear an unintelligible scrawl or, in a few instances, the signature of a military physician who had access to birth certificates but nothing to do with obstet-rics. Children with these birth certificates would be admitted to kindergarten. Then school secretaries would quietly call the Grandmothers.
Between 1977 and 1983, the Grandmothers accumulated anecdotal information. They filled hundreds of black binders. They sought out witnesses, organized data, followed military officers they suspected of holding their grandchildren, devel-oped hypotheses, and marched.
In 1983 the military was forced to withdraw from power following their defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands war. Elections were held, and the human-rights lawyer Raoul Alfonsin was elected president. Alfonsin’s first act was to create the Commission on the Disappearance of Persons to determine what had happened to victims of kidnapping during the eight years of military dictatorship. Thousands of people were interviewed. The Grandmothers and other human-rights groups were able to provide additional information. By June 1984, details had been collected for 8,970 persons; relatives and friends of the others were afraid to come forward. Based on careful measurements of underreporting in sample areas of the country, best estimates are that approximately fifteen thousand persons disappeared. The list included 145 children who had been kidnapped with their parents or born in captivity. The list grew to include 210 children over the next few years as more families spoke out.
The Commission on the Disappearance of Persons asked for technical assistance in identifying the remains being exhumed. The Grandmothers asked for technical assistance in identifying living children as they were located in the households of suspected kidnappers. So in June 1984 five Americans went to Buenos Aires, where we found ourselves discussing forensics and genetics with an audience of judges, human-rights workers, and families of the disappeared on one side of the hall, and military and police on the other. Seats in the middle were mostly unoccupied.
By 1984 the Grandmothers thought they knew who many of their grandchildren were, and where and with whom they were living. But as they told me, their evidence was circumstantial. They needed to be able to prove who their children were. They needed genetics.
Immediately after the first meeting, where I encountered Matilde’s grandfather, the Grandmothers took me to their office. The office is a converted middle-class apartment in the center of Buenos Aires. Its former living room and bedrooms are lined with black binders, and one bedroom has been con-verted into a computer room. There is also a kitchen, which was a blessing, since we lived for eighteen-hour days on Grandmotherly sandwiches and tea stronger than an American could have imagined. On the living-room wall are hundreds of photographs of disappeared children and grandchildren (fig. 4).
The Grandmothers immediately posed the practical ques-tion: If we locate a child whose identity is unknown, but whom we believe to be the child of disappeared parents and the grand-child of known grandparents, can we determine whether the child is or is not actually related to those grandparents? They also pointed out that they would not be satisfied with proving who a child was not, that is, that he was not in fact the biological child of a military couple claiming to be his parents. That would be easier to do. One could apply for a court order to test the child against the alleged parents. But that would not be enough: it was necessary to prove who a child was, not only that he was one of the kidnap victims.
We drew a hypothetical family tree comprising four living grandparents, the deceased parents, and a child who might or might not be related to them. I asked the Grandmothers if we could obtain a small amount of blood from each grandparent and the child. “The grandparents would be easy,” they said, “and we could request a court order to sample the child.” So I explained that we could type each grandparent and the child for each of several genes. A child will have two copies (called alleles) of each gene, one inherited from his mother and the other from his father. Each parent, in turn, has inherited one allele from the grandmother and one from the grandfather. Thus, for every gene, a child’s alleles will be copies of alleles of his grandparents. If the child’s alleles of a certain gene failed to match those of any of the grandparents, we would know immediately that he was not a member of this family. However, if, for each gene, the child shared one allele with a maternal grandparent and the other allele with a paternal grandparent, he might be related to the family. For any gene, we could calculate the odds that the match indicated a biological relationship rather than occurring by chance. For example, typing ABO blood groups would not tell us very much. A child and two grandparents might be blood group O. But so is half the population of Argentina. Blood group O would not establish a child’s identity.
What we needed were genes that had many different
alleles in the population of Argentina, so that the appearance of the
same alleles in a child and two grandparents was very likely to reflect
relationship rather than a coincidental match. In 1984 the most varied
human genes known were the HLA genes, which code for the histocompatibility
antigens that must match for tissue transplants. The HLA genes would
certainly be informative enough to resolve many cases. However, in 1984,
HLA typing was subject to severe practical limitations: it could only
be done on fresh blood and required highly specific reagents. Before
leaving California for Buenos Aires, I had come to the tentative but
frustrating conclusion that the Grandmothers’ identification project,
while theoretically straightforward, was going to be impossible in practice:
shipping hundreds of blood samples from all over Argentina to the United
States within hours of their being drawn would be a logistical nightmare,
yet there would be no lab in Argentina capable of HLA typing at the
In 1978, when Paula Logares (fig. 5) was twenty-two months old, she and her parents, Claudio Logares and Monica Greenspan, were kidnapped. Claudio and Monica have not been seen again, nor have their bodies been recovered. Five years later, a child—who appeared closer to age seven than to age five—was registered in a kindergarten as Paula Lavallen. Ruben Lavallen had been a guard at the detention center to which Paula Logares’s parents were taken. He was known by people who had been released from that detention center to have been a particularly brutal torturer. He had also been seen leaving the detention center in May 1978 with a small child. The Grandmothers learned about the kindergarten registration in 1983.
Immediately after the fall of the military regime, the Grandmothers obtained a court order to take a blood sample from Paula Lavallen. We also obtained blood samples from Monica’s brothers, sister, and mother, and from Claudio’s mother and father. Everyone’s blood was typed for HLA (as well as blood groups such as ABO, Rh, and MNS) at the Durand Hospital. Monica’s father had died of a stroke shortly after the kidnapping of his daughter and granddaughter. However, we could reconstruct his genetic types from his surviving children (Monica’s brothers and sister)—without using the information from Paula, of course.
Of Paula’s two HLA types, one matched Claudio’s father; the other matched one of Monica’s brothers, her sister, and their father. It was clear that Paula could be a member of this family, having inherited one HLA type from her Greenspan grandfather and the other from her Logares grandfather. The conclusive evidence came from the fact that each HLA type is rare. The probability that a child with Paula’s types would match the Logares-Greenspan family by chance was less than one in one thousand; the likelihood that Paula was indeed a member of the family was 99.9 percent.
The Grandmothers presented this information to the court. The judge declared that because Ruben Lavallen and his wife claimed Paula was their biological child, they had a right to be tested to determine whether they and Paula also matched. Lavallen refused, claiming testing would be an invasion of their privacy. But Ruben Lavallen stopped claiming that Paula was their biological child.
The judge accepted the evidence that Paula was the kidnapped grandchild of the Logares and Greenspan families and was prepared to restore her to her grandparents. However, the case was immediately appealed. Lavallen claimed that his family was the only family Paula remembered, that to remove her from his household would be far more traumatic than to allow her to continue to stay with him, and that he had not harmed Paula. The appellate court judge accepted this argument and reversed the previous court decision.
In November 1984 the Grandmothers took Paula’s case to the Supreme Court of Argentina. They made five points. First, it is unclear what a person remembers from before the age of twenty-two months. It was true that Paula had not talked about the kidnapping, but there were possible explanations (including the likely involvement of Lavallen in the kidnapping) other than not remembering. Second, the man with whom Paula was living and who was acting as her father was very likely to have been directly involved in the murder of her true mother and father. Third, the murder of Claudio and Monica, and of thousands of others, was no longer secret. Paula would eventually learn the truth. To learn as a young adult that she had been raised by the murderer of her parents would be far more traumatic than being told the truth right away. Fourth, kidnapping is not adoption. Kidnapping is a crime, and remains a crime even if society takes six years to solve it. And finally, to fail to prosecute crimes against children if the child in an individual case was not harmed is to grant invulnerability to criminals who prey on children. For the sake of children everywhere, whether victims of the Argentine military government or of an isolated criminal attack, it was essential that adults be held responsible for these crimes.
In December 1984 the Supreme Court ordered that Paula be returned to her grandparents. When Paula went home with Monica Greenspan’s mother, Elsa, she walked into the house she had not seen since she was twenty-two months old, turned left to the bedroom she used to sleep in, opened the door, looked at the bed, and asked, “Where is my teddy bear?”
Late one night during my first week with the Grandmoth-ers, when I was stretching my memory and my Spanish to their limits in my effort to absorb everything, I turned to the Grandmother who was showing me a photograph of a detention center wall where the names of babies were written in blood, and I told this Grandmother that she reminded me of Madame Defarge. She looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked, “Who is Madame Defarge?” (Argentinians and Americans don’t necessarily read the same books in high school.) So I explained how Madame Defarge had spent the years before the French Revolution knitting into scarves the names of those who had imprisoned and killed people and against whom the people would strike later. The Grandmother smiled and said, “My dear girl, I don’t have time to knit anymore; now I use a personal computer.” To me, this remark will always represent the Grandmothers. This Grandmother was sixty-eight years old. She had a right to be home knitting for her grandchildren, but she no longer had a grandchild. She no longer had a son. Life had been very unfair to her; her response was to learn to use a personal computer.
Tatiana and Laura
Not all children were found in the hands of military
or police or their collaborators. Of the fifty children whom the Grandmothers
have found, six had been adopted in completely good faith by families
who had nothing to do with the military. Two of these, Tatiana and Laura,
were adopted by the S—— family. When the S——
family applied to be adoptive parents in 1977, a military-appointed
judge offered them two sisters, a four-year-old and an infant, whom
he claimed had been abandoned by their mother. Mr. and Mrs. S——
were skeptical that any mother would give up two little girls but were
repeatedly reassured that the children had been deserted. They adopted
the girls. Soon Tatiana began to describe how her mother and father
had been taken away in the trunk of a gray car. (The police used gray
Ford Falcons to transport their victims.)
Tatiana’s and Laura’s identities were no longer in doubt, nor was their future. The girls remain with the S—— family. They have been told the truth about their biological family, have taken back their own names, and visit their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are very much aware that they were not abandoned and that they are loved by both their adoptive and their biological relatives.
Buenos Aires, September 1987
In July 1977 Heidi Lemos, her daughter, Monica Lemos, and her son-in-law, Gustavo Lavalle, were all kidnapped. Monica and Gustavo’s three-year-old daughter was visiting a friend and escaped. Gustavo died under torture within days. Monica was eight months pregnant; she was kept alive until she gave birth, then she was killed and her newborn daughter Maria José taken. Heidi was imprisoned and tortured for seven months, then released.
Heidi quickly found her elder granddaughter. Ten years later, she and the Grandmothers located Maria José in the household of a woman who had been in charge of pregnant prisoners at the detention center. HLA and blood groups were sufficient to identify Maria José, and she was returned to Heidi by order of the Federal Court of San Martin in September 1987.
The case of Maria José Lavalle Lemos revealed to us an obvious but important truth: genetics was powerful, but in this case we had also been very lucky. Maria José’s only surviving grandparent was Heidi Lemos, her maternal grandmother. Gustavo had no surviving relatives and Monica no brothers or sisters. But Heidi’s undisputed first granddaughter was alive, so the genotypes of the two of them provided enough genetic information to obtain a probability greater than 99 percent that Maria José was a member of the Lavalle Lemos family. But this immediately raised the question of what to do with a family with few living relatives.
Furthermore, by 1987 our success in identifying children had brought with it new questions. In 1986 the Argentine par-liament passed a law establishing a voluntary National Genetic Data Bank. This law specified that anyone who had lost a relative during the military dictatorship could have a genetic pedigree constructed for their family and DNA samples collected to be tested against kidnapped children who came to light in the future.
This law was a tremendous boon to the Grandmothers, but in practice it meant that each child was now to be tested against a large number of families. In the past, we had tested only specific hypotheses, based on the Grandmothers’ circumstantial but generally highly reliable evidence. If two hundred families were to be screened, it was possible we might have an HLA match purely by chance. We had to avoid, at all costs, falsely identifying a child with a family: every identity had to be genuine. With a panel of two hundred families, the chances of a coincidental match were greatly increased. We would need more genetic information.
Thus we had two new scientific problems to solve. Many families were likely to have only one or a few relatives alive, and we now had a large number of families against which to test newly found children. So what was to be done?
I was stewing over this in the Grandmothers’ office. The Grandmothers, in their typical fashion, hugged me and gave me a strong cup of tea. “Go back to Berkeley, dear,” one of them said, “and give us a call in a couple of weeks when you’ve figured it out.”
So I went back to Berkeley and into the office of Allan Wilson, my Ph.D. advisor from twenty years before. Allan Wilson was known to us as “the Father of Eve.” This somewhat whimsical nickname grew out of his enchantment with mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is the ideal molecule for the Grandmothers’ work.
What is mitochondrial DNA, and why is it so useful? Mitochondrial DNA is found in the cytoplasm of each cell, not in the nucleus. In particular, mitochondria are found in very large numbers in ova, but only in the tail of the sperm and do not enter the fertilized egg. This means that every child inherits mitochondrial DNA only from his mother, never from his father. Thus a child will have the same mitochondrial DNA type as his brothers and sisters, his mother, his maternal aunts and uncles, his maternal grandmother, his maternal grandmother’s siblings, his first cousins through maternal aunts, and so on (fig. 6, top). For the purposes of the Grandmothers, this meant that any of these purely maternal relatives would have mitochondrial DNA identical to that of a kidnapped child.
However, mitochondrial DNA identity within
a maternal lineage would only be useful for identifying a child if maternal
lineages were distinguishable from one another. That is, there must
be genetic variation across different maternal lineages. As it happens,
one part of the mitochondrial DNA sequence is the most variable region
of the human genome. There is enough genetic variation in this twelve-hundred-basepair
sequence to distinguish between one maternal lineage and another. Probably
the reason that this region of mitochondrial DNA is so variable among
humans is that it does not code for any genes, so there has been no
selective pressure during human evolution to retain any particular sequence.
This variation underlies the fascination mitochondrial DNA held for
Allan Wilson and other molecular geneticists interested in evolution.
So mitochondrial DNA presented the unbeatable conver-gence of three pieces of biology and technology: a purely ma-ternal molecule, so that any maternal relative could substitute for any other maternal relative; extraordinary levels of genetic variation; and simple direct sequencing.
Buenos Aires, 1988
Maria Cristina, Martin, Valeria, and Ricardo
In May 1977, Valeria Belaustegui and her husband, Ricardo Waisberg, were kidnapped. In July 1977, her brother, Martin Belaustegui, and his wife, Maria Cristina Lopez Guerra, were seized. Valeria and Martin’s older brother was also seized. Valeria and Maria Cristina were in the first trimester of pregnancies when they were abducted. None of the five adults has reappeared, nor have their bodies been recovered. The Grandmothers heard that Valeria and Maria Cristina had been kept alive until they gave birth and then murdered.
In 1988, ten years after the births would have occurred, a ten-year-old boy (whom we’ll call Alejandro) was brought to the attention of the Grandmothers. The woman who introduced Alejandro to the Grandmothers had cared for him since 1978, when he was given to her as a present by her then-companion, who had close ties to the military. She reported that she had been terrified to tell anyone about the incident until her former companion was arrested in 1988 by the civilian government (on criminal charges apparently unrelated to the child). She came forward because she believed Alejandro had a right to know his identity and his surviving relatives. By complete coincidence, Alejandro was a student at the same school that all five of the murdered young adults had attended as children. Based on Alejandro’s age, the Grandmothers believed he might be the child of one of the young women in this family. We were asked to test this by DNA sequencing.
We received blood samples from Matilde Herrera, the mother of Valeria and Martin Belaustegui; from Ebe Lopez Guerra, the mother of Maria Cristina Lopez Guerra; and from Alejandro. If Alejandro were the child of Valeria and Ricardo, Matilde Herrera would be his maternal grandmother and their mitochondrial DNA sequences should match. If Alejandro were the child of Maria Cristina and Martin, Ebe Lopez Guerra would be his maternal grandmother and their mitochondrial sequences should match.
Alejandro does not match either Matilde or Ebe. We ana-lyzed four hundred basepairs of mitochondrial DNA and found that he differed from Matilde at three sites and from Ebe at eight. Alejandro is not a grandchild in this family. The Grandmothers are still attempting to determine his identity.
Berkeley, January 1992
The Grandmothers continue to collect blood samples from hundreds of surviving relatives searching for kidnapped children. Last week, samples from twenty-one relatives arrived; we expect thirty-two more next week. My sixteen-year--old daughter, Emily, whose Spanish is much better than mine, read through the documentation accompanying this week’s shipment. “Three more children have asked the Grandmothers for help,” she said. “They’ve listed the families who are the most likely candidates for each child, but they want you to cross--check all the families against these three and the other unknown children.” Emily grinned. “Of course, they want your results lo mas pronto posible.”
Of the 210 children known to have been kidnapped at birth or in infancy, 50 (including Paula, Tatiana, Laura, and Maria José) have been identified, 12 (including Alejandro) have been found but have not been matched with a family, and 148 (including Guido Carlotto and Matilde Lanuscou) are still missing. Meanwhile, the government in Argentina has become much more hostile to the Grandmothers’ efforts than it was under the Alfonsin presidency of 1984-89. In particular, it is increasingly difficult to work within the Argentine judicial system. However, the Grandmothers remain undaunted. They point out that most of the kidnapped children are now at least sixteen years old. Very soon these children will have the legal right to determine their identities for themselves. For this purpose, DNA sequences will be available to them. Even though the grandparents of a kidnapping victim may die before the grandchild is found, the young adult’s maternal lineage will be identifiable using the genetic information the Grandmothers leave behind. A young person can then be put in touch with his family and his history.
For the past fifteen years, the Grandmothers have been searching for their kidnapped grandchildren. Now these grand-children are looking for them.
--Ariel Dorfman, “Last Will and Testament”