Courts and DNA help Chile mothers search for 'stolen babies'

2018-06-29 13:05

Prosecutors are revisiting one of the darkest chapters of Chilean history, when under the Pinochet dictatorship hundreds and possibly thousands of babies were stolen from their mothers and given away just after being born.

On July 9, 1977, Margarita Escobar gave birth to a baby girl at Santiago's Paula Jaraquemada hospital. She saw her daughter for only a few moments before staff took her away.

Four decades, Escobar hasn't given up on meeting the grown woman her daughter may have become, buoyed by the prosecutors' push for the truth about Chile's stolen babies, and under-the-table adoptions.

She told AFP hospital staff kept her sedated back then. "Every time I woke up I asked about her again, until a midwife told me, 'your baby was stillborn.'"

She wasn't allowed to see the body. "Nobody even gave me a document. They sent me home. I don't know how I got there. I was totally doped."

Fast forward almost 10 years, to February 1985, and Maria Orellana gave birth in the same hospital to a boy she named Cristian.

"I heard that he was a boy, then they gave me an injection and that was the last I knew about it," she told AFP.

Like other mothers, she was told her baby had died and, as it would be "too cruel" for her to see the body, the hospital took care of the burial. "Keep the memory that you had of your little boy," she recalls being told.

Like Escobar, Orellana was given no documentation "There is nothing. It is as if I had never even been in that hospital," she recalls now, determined like thousands of other mothers to find a child she never held.

The path of justice 

Tasked with helping thousands of mothers in the same situation, Chile's Special Judge for Human Rights Mario Carroza has been investigating the kidnappings since January. Most occurred during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) but others have been reported as recently as 2000.

Carroza has ruled out the state using child stealing as a means of repression, a tool commonly used by the military dictatorship in Argentina. Instead, he says the ultimate goal was financial gain, making Chile's situation more reminiscent of Spain.

The first trial in a case of "stolen babies" under Francisco Franco's 1939-75 regime has just begun. The practise in Spain continued there long afterward for monetary gain.

"We have not established a link with a policy of state repression. It appears more like a kind of illicit association, an organisation set up to make money from illegal adoptions," said Pablo Rivera, a lawyer of the National Institute for Human Rights, who has filed complaints on behalf of the mothers.

At the heart of the scheme was a network of social workers, nuns, doctors and municipal officials who identified mothers in vulnerable situations.

"In general, the cases are related to low income mothers who gave birth to a boy or a girl and were later deceived by hospital officials that they were dead or sick," Rivera said.

A law, which remained in force until 1988, facilitated the scheme. It allowed the destruction of all records of biological families after adoption, Karen Alfaro, a historian at Austral University, told AFP.

For Alfaro, the practise was "also part of the Pinochet dictatorship's ideological struggle, a type of social violence inflicted on the poorest".

DNA testing

According to official figures, 26 611 adoptions were registered in Chile between 1973 and 1987, but no register exists for how many children went to families abroad.

Carroza has determined that at least 2 021 children were adopted in Sweden between 1971 and 1992. Thousands more went to Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, the United States, Uruguay and Peru. Each adoption was worth between 3 000 and 5 000 dollars.

Without supporting documents, many mothers have maintained a painful silence for decades. But as the first cases were made public and search groups were formed on the internet, they realised thousands of women shared their experience.

One of these groups, the "Sons and Mothers of Silence", has 3 000 members on Facebook, children seeking their biological parents, and mothers grasping for any clue that could lead them to the baby who was snatched from them.

"What we need is for the files, the hospital files, to be opened. For this to be done publicly so that people who are outside Chile realise that they could have been adopted illegally," says Marisol Rodriguez, spokesperson for the group.

In three years, the group has achieved almost 90 mother-and-child reunions.

The best way is through DNA testing, which despite the cost, many mothers undertake so their information is put into international gene banks.

"What I want to know is what happened to my daughter and if my daughter is looking for me," Josefina Sandoval told AFP after undergoing a DNA test.

In theory, the daughter snatched from her at birth on June 24, 1980, should have just turned 38 years old.

"We are looking for her and with this we will find her."


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