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The Lost Children of Argentina

The Impact of Argentina's Dirty War

"The Lost Children." Source:

By Christina Parsons.

The second half of 2014 has been filled with multiple stories in international media coming out of Argentina about the ‘Dirty War’ and the legacy that it has left on the country up until the present.  This period of Argentine history lasted from 1976 until 1983. During that time, a right wing military junta controlled the country, and many left leaning activists and opponents of the government were arrested, held and tortured in secret detention centres, and killed. These prisoners are referred to as “the disappeared,” as the government did not acknowledge that they had arrested them and disposed of bodies in secret.  Many of “the disappeared” were the young adults of the country and university students.

It is estimated that during this time in Argentine history around 500 children were born in the military’s secret prisons, taken from their mothers and given to families loyal to the military government in order to be raised.  After civilian rule was restored in Argentina, the families of “the disappeared” slowly realized that many of those arrested and detained were never going to return, but became aware that some women had given birth inside of the detention centres and so there might be children in Argentina who were their biological grandchildren.  The newly elected civilian president called for an inquiry, known as the National Commission on the Disappeared, which found that over eight thousand people had been killed under the military government. In the early 1990s a National Commission for the Right to Identify was started in order to help identify children who had gone missing.

In August 2014, the first story coming out of the BBC told the story of how Estela de Carlotto, a prominent member of the activist group ‘The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’, found her grandson who was one of the stolen children when he had a DNA test done by the National Commission for the Right to Identify after having doubts about his past.  The story received much international coverage by the BBC, with a follow-up piece regarding the first meeting of Estela de Carlotto and her grandson Guido.  He was the 114th child to be found via genetic testing, and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo organization has stated that they are continuing to search for their family members.

In September, another article was released covering the impending trials of two doctors and a midwife who worked in the secret prisons delivering babies and removing them from the prison.  They have been charged with falsifying birth certificates in order to hide the children’s identities. Throughout the past two decades, high level officials and couples who had been found to have knowingly taken and raised stolen babies have been prosecuted in Argentina, but thirty years after the end of the military dictatorship there is still new information coming to light.  The Argentine government’s efforts in  pursuing these prosecutions speaks to the ways in which the injustices of the Dirty War still shape and impact on the national memory.

In late October, yet another article gained international attention.  This time the story was about 15 members of the former military government who were sentenced to life in prison for their participation in running the detention and torture centre known as ‘La Cacha’ in the city of La Plata.  The ten-month long trial heard testimony from survivors of the detention centre as well as the names of those murdered.  This article mentions that legal actions are ongoing against officials who were a part of the dictatorship.  There had been a hiatus of prosecutions from 1986 until 2003 as the government of that time felt that granting amnesty would help the country move forward more than prosecutions.

The history of the Dirty War involves much secrecy and deliberate obfuscation on the part of the military dictatorship.  This legacy, along with the 17 year period in which there was no legal prosecution for those involved, means that the people of Argentina are still attempting to reconcile the events of the Dirty War and live with its consequences.  Historian Donna Guy argues that the Dirty War was “not only a fight against Peronism and the Argentine left but also a war on youth.”  Almost half of those arrested and who disappeared were under 25 years of age.  The children of these victims are today only in their late thirties.  In other words, the ramifications of the crimes committed by the military dictatorship on the young adults of the country are still being felt.

These news articles are part of a painful history that is still being uncovered and dealt with by the people of Argentina on a national and international stage.  For historians these articles raise issues about the human impact of state terror as well as the complicated relationship between biological families and those families who have adopted children.  During the Argentina’s Dirty War, those individuals who were aware of the identity of the baby they were given by the government were deemed complicit in the crime of kidnapping them.  But not all those who adopted had this knowledge.  In the case of Guido (discussed above) both articles note that there was uncertainty about whether the couple who raised him were aware that he had been born to a prisoner in a secret detention centre.

The legacy of Argentina’s Dirty War is being felt by all generations of Argentine society.  There is a significant number of murdered young people (“the disappeared”) whose bodies have never been recovered.  Just as importantly, there are children born to “the disappeared” who still do not know the truth of their personal history.  Yet, all this still weighs heavily in the Argentine population’s conception of their nation.  These public revelations, trials, and sentences are a part of the country’s attempt to reconcile memories of the past with the realities of the present.  No doubt, the hope is that these trials will serve as a form of reparation for the injustices of the past.

Christina Parsons, MA (History). 

Christina Parsons is an independent historical researcher. She recently graduated from Carleton University where she studied eugenic thought in Porfirian Mexico.



Donna J. Guy, ‘The Shifting Meanings of Childhood and “N.N”’, Latin American Perspectives, Issue 161, Vol. 35 No. 4, July 2008, 15-29.

About christinamparsons (2 Articles)
Christina Parsons is an independent historical researcher. She recently graduated from Carleton University where she studied eugenic thought in Porfirian Mexico.

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