Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla convicted of systemic theft of babies

Jorge Videla led Argentina's 1976 coup. He and eight others were convicted for stealing babies from 'enemies of the state' during the military junta's rule.

Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla listens to the verdict during his trial in a courthouse in Buenos Aires on July 5.

A common tactic of sibling warfare is to tell your brother he's adopted. It's funny and harmless because it is generally so far fetched, but for hundreds of Argentines that suggestion is no joke. 

From 1976 to 1983 an estimated 500 babies were stolen and secretly integrated and adopted into families of right-wing military members and their allies as part of a sweeping program that brutally targeted left-wing militants and sympathizers during the military junta’s seven-year rule.

Bringing, perhaps, a fragment of closure to that era, a former Argentine dictator, Jorge Videla, was convicted yesterday for his role in the program. Mr. Videla, who headed the coup that brought the military to power in 1976, was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The conviction and official recognition of these crimes marks a historical moment for Argentina, whose public has long known of or suspected these practices and which continues to search for answers.

Videla and ten other former military and police members – including a second dictator, Reynaldo Bignone – were on trial for the theft of 34 babies during the country’s so-called Dirty War. Earlier this year Videla caused an outcry in Argentina when he admitted to systemic killings during the dictatorship, but insisted that the death toll was much lower than the estimated 30,000 people murdered by the state. Many of the Junta’s political prisoners and victims, often referred to as “the disappeared” were pregnant women.

During his testimony, Videla claimed those trying to subvert the military’s rule used their babies as “human shields” in their fight against the state, according to MSNBC.

"The women giving birth, who I respect as mothers, were militants who were active in the machine of terror," he said at the end of the trial. Videla, who is already serving a life sentence for other crimes committed during the Dirty War, denied that any children taken were part of a sweeping plan.

Win for the Grandmothers

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group, has played a large part in bringing international attention to the issue.

The group has gathered evidence and used DNA to expose the atrocities of the Dirty War and have used their findings in hopes of locating the infants of their disappeared children. The Grandmothers have identified 106 people who were stolen.

“DNA has changed everything,” says Laurel Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art and curator of a 2006-2010 traveling art exhibit called Los Desaparecidos, or The Disappeared.

The role of art

One of the installations, designed to bring international attention to the aftermath of the disappeared included in the exhibit was called Identidad, or Identity, created in 1998 at the behest of the Grandmothers group. Some 13 Argentine artists created the instillation which includes a series of photos of disappeared couples who were pregnant or had infants at the time of their disappearance. Next to each couple’s photos was a mirror where the viewer’s face was reflected back. The piece aimed to provoke viewers to consider the question: Are you the missing child, now adult, that belongs to these parents?

Three children of the disappeared discovered their true identities during the opening of the exhibit at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires, according to The Disappeared website.

Ms. Reuter speculates others may have found clues to their background as the exhibit traveled the globe. At every stop along the way, there was a “crystal box,” says artist Daniel Ontiveros, one of the contributors to the installation, in an e-mail last spring.  “[P]eople could introduce in anonymous way papers or information they knew or suspected about possible victims.”  

Many stolen children were raised by military officials or political allies, according to the Associated Press, and the children were given new names in an effort to “remove any hint" of their past. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo worry that as more time passes, the chance of identifying their stolen grandchildren will fade.

The trial included testimony from families whose children and grandchildren were disappeared, as well as at least one stolen child.  

Francisco Madariaga testified against his adoptive parents, Former Capt. Victor Gallo and his ex-wife Susana Colombia. They were each given jail sentences of 15 and five years, respectively, something Mr. Madariaga said he hoped would set a precedent.

In total, nine people were convicted as a result of this trial, while two were found not guilty.

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