DNA Justice

Orphans of Missing Often

Run From Argentina Past

A case is stirring old emotions in Argentina, bringing to the fore yet again despicable leftovers of the bloody military dictatorship era. A brother and a sister, adopted children of the wealthy scion to the El Clarin newspaper family, are being forced to submit DNA samples to a national database to compare them to genetic material of the “desaparecidos,” vanished political opponents of the regime that ruled the country from the late 60s to the early 80s.

Marcela and Felipe Noble (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)Marcela and Felipe Noble, two 34-year olds adopted by Clarin owner Ernestina Herrera de Noble during the height of the so-called “dirty war,” refused to provide samples and have accused the police of having obtained them by force. They’re suspected of being part of the 400 or so still unaccounted for children of political dissidents who disappeared without a trace during the military junta rule.
The fact that they expressly don’t want to find out who are their biological parents creates an extra layer of complexity to Argentina’s soul-searching process of finding out what really happened when the generals ruled the country.
In one side, there remains the need to shed light on the period, so a healing process of sorts can start and wounds left by the still incomprehensible systematic persecution of enemies of the regime may stop bleeding and become scars, albeit indelible, of a past that otherwise will never go away.
On the other hand, the case also illustrates how easily social justice issues, however noble, and a country’s unfathomable political past can invade and destroy any sense of individuality of its citizens, denying them any control over what they’d rather maintain private and what they wouldn’t mind becoming part of a public discourse.
Marcela and Felipe, although enjoying all the trappings of a wealthy and insulated upbringing, are but an example of how difficult it is to choose what should have precedence: a nation’s painstaking process of recovering and regaining control over its own history, or the right of choice for individuals caught in the process, however consciously or not.


When the wave of military dictatorships took over South and Central America in the late 60s till the early 80s, two nations in the cone of the continent achieved the dubious honor of standing out for the viciousness of the repression promoted against the opposition to the new regimes in their soil: Argentina and Chile.

Not that the so-called ‘dirty war’ was somewhat more benign in Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Brazil, Guatemala and so many other countries of the region. It’s just that, arguably, nothing that happened around was as pervasive or lasting as in the two of the continent’s biggest economies.

In Chile, the assault on the country’s fragile democratic regime during another bloody September 11, in 1973, will forever be encapsulated by the image of its elected president, Salvador Allende, wearing a helmet, automatic rifle in hand, about to be shot in front of his own palace.

But Argentina, by coining the term “desaparecido,” went farther. Its military junta chose this sinister word for the up to 30,000 estimated political opponents it persecuted, tortured, killed and did away with the bodies. Whenever possible, it also tried to erase their memories.

One of the cruelest ways the regime found to “disappear” with its opposition was simply dump their bodies, dead or half-alive, in the ocean. Hundreds washed ashore in the beaches of neighboring countries during the time. Even worst was what they did with their descendents, the thousands of orphans of such operatives the generals found so dangerous to society.

They “donated” most of them, specially babies and infants, to members of the military, the government and the right-wing wealthy elite who funded the dictatorship. That’s how another, infinitely more perverse way of erasing the memories of those they murdered was concocted in the lugubrious basements of power: a new history was created for these kids, adopted by families willing to participate in the charade and hoping that their real past would remain buried forever.

The “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” the legendary group of mothers who has been demanding information about the disappeared in silent rallies every Thursday in front of “La Casa Rosada” in Buenos Aires, since right after the coup, are credited with uncovering this new layer of impunity left by the long line of generals that ruled Argentina and that are finally now facing justice. In the process, they became the “Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.”


Today, the South American societies at large, and the Argentine people in particular, have come a long way since the dark years of military rule in the continent. In the process of retaking its own past, however painful, the citizens of the world will always reaffirm their hope in the future, one that would never allow a repeat of such tragic times.
New technologies such as DNA testing must always be at service of the greater good, which is the just reintegration of the whole society. Children will grow up to understand the importance of their own legacy in building such new future. Survivors will finally rest at peace, sure that justice will be met and a new beginning is in store for them and their legacy.
But above all, history needs to regain its sovereignty over the lives of the citizens who’ll always benefit from learning from it. In the same sense that there can be no room for personal vendetta or the settling of old scores, there’ll never be acceptable to anyone who’ll later revisit this period that free citizens allowed their own history to be rewritten to fit the conveniences and short-term interests of whoever is in power at any moment.
Argentina stands to teach us all a valuable lesson, one of tolerance, wisdom and the recovery of true principles of justice and fairness. It’ll always be a gut wrenching process, to the cost of countless personal sacrifices and wounds that may take forever to heal. But it’ll ultimately be a well worthy process and we should all be so proud and privileged to stand witness to a whole country’s journey toward its greater role in the concert of nations.

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