Files were kept on children of Argentine 'disappeared,' ex-officer allegedly says

August 05, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- In a potential breakthrough in efforts to find children of Argentina's "disappeared," a senior military officer has admitted for the first time that detailed files existed on babies born in jail to captive mothers, a lawyer and human rights activists said yesterday.

If the files can be recovered, several hundred children could be located, Estela de Carlotto, head of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, said in an interview. "This is very important," Ms. Carlotto said. "It is a revelation that allows us to investigate deeper, and it raises many expectations."

Retired Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, who served as army chief under the military junta that ruled Argentina until 1983, told a federal court that the records were kept and may still exist, said Maria Elba Martinez, an attorney for the Abuelas (grandmothers) organization who was present during General Nicolaides' testimony.

Until now, military and civilian officials had said that any files that might have existed during the dictatorship were destroyed.

During Argentina's "dirty war" in the 1970s, about 9,000 people "disappeared" in a military campaign of torture and murder aimed at eliminating dissidents and anyone else who got in the way. Among the victims were children who were often kidnapped with their parents, and pregnant women who were arrested and gave birth in prison.

The children and babies in some cases were given to other families in illegal adoptions, their identities lost, seemingly, forever.

In 1977, the Abuelas organization was formed by grandmothers crusading to find the missing children of their missing children. Since the end of military rule in 1983, 55 children have been located, Ms. Carlotto said. She estimates that at least 400 are still unaccounted for, although the real numbers will never be known.

The files revealed by General Nicolaides presumably would provide details on the fate of individual children.

He testified behind closed doors in a court in Cordoba, in central Argentina, for four hours Wednesday, as part of a case brought by the Abuelas organization.

But Ms. Martinez, the Abuelas attorney, told a radio interviewer yesterday that General Nicolaides said the files existed and should be in the custody of the Interior and Defense ministries and other military installations. "He said everything was in writing . . . carefully documented," Ms. Martinez said.

Of 55 children located, Ms. Carlotto said, 30 were restored to biological families -- usually a grandparent or other relatives who adopted the children. The rest remained with their adoptive parents but have established contact with their biological relatives.

When democracy was restored, Argentina took the bold step of prosecuting and jailing several officers held responsible for the savagery of the "dirty war." But they were pardoned and freed by President Carlos Saul Menem shortly after he came to power in 1989.

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