Solving the Dirty War’s mysteries

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BUENOS AIRES — Julia Delgado's parents were arrested by Argentine military officers in the city of Cordoba in 1976. Her mother was six months pregnant.

Three months later, Julia was born in a military hospital and returned to the care of her grandparents. Her parents were never seen again. “I hope that someday we'll be able to recover their remains,” Delgado said. “Because we don't know where they are or what happened to them.”

Twenty-five years after the exit of its last brutal military dictatorship, Argentina is still trying to heal painful rifts. Children of the so-called disappeared search for their true identities. Nameless corpses are found in mass graves. Some of the perpetrators have faced justice; some have not.

The fractures from that era prove hard to mend. But Argentina's quest for truth and justice continues to advance.

[Opinion: "Dirty Secrets, Dirty War" – A new book about Argentina's past and why the truth matters.]

“For the first time, we can say that we're beginning to bring the past into the light of day,” said Alvaro Fuentes of the organization Children of Exile. Fuentes was born in Mexico, after his parents fled the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 until 1983 — the period that the English-language media calls the “Dirty War,” a term originally used by the military to justify its violent counterterrorism campaign.

Argentines usually prefer to call it “The Era of Dictatorship,” during which an estimated 22,000 to 30,000 people were kidnapped. Most of them were taken from their homes under cover of night, and secretly detained for torture and execution — in euphemistic brevity, “disappeared.”

Although the vast majority of their bodies have never been found, it's always been thought that many were buried in mass graves at detention centers. The first one was discovered last year, a pile of 10,000 burned and broken bone fragments. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology team announced at the beginning of last month that they have traced the DNA of 42 skeletons to the families those bodies belonged to.

Very often, the disappearance of adults means another sort of disappearance for young or unborn children. Unlike Julia Delgado, who was returned to her birth family, many babies of the disappeared were adopted by childless couples linked to the military regime.

A group called the “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo” took the lead in finding the birth families of these stolen children. By confirming tips with DNA tests, they've organized 10 reunions in the past year, bringing the total count to 97. It's estimated that there are still upwards of 500 grandchildren who don't know who their biological parents are. Of course, it's not clear that all of them would want to — the moment of revelation has been deeply disturbing for some.

That ambivalence has been writ large throughout the last quarter century of Argentine history. Immediately after the end of the dictatorship, the new democratic government set up the world's first truth commission, which then opened the way for trials. Within five years, however, laws had been passed that limited prosecutions, and by 1990, then-President Carlos Menem had issued pardons for many of the former military leaders, saying that Argentina could not live “bound to the past.”

But starting in 2003, the Supreme Court and a new government began to overturn the pardons, opening a new stage in Argentina's self-interrogation. In a ruling last month on the life sentences of the two former military commanders, the national appeals court upheld the constitutional "impossibility of granting pardons for crimes against humanity." Patricia Valdez, director of the organization Open Memory, says that this reckoning is the only way for society to move forward.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, continuing the trajectory of her husband, previous president Nestor Kirchner, promised to finish all prosecutions of Dirty War criminals by the end of her term in 2011. In February, however, the president complained of judicial delays, saying that “justice has still not been served.”

And in some cases, justice may never be served. There has been a string of suicides of indicted former military officers — three this year. According to the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), 176 suspects are deceased and another 40 are fugitives from justice. CELS suspects 1,129 people of “state terrorism,” and 419 already have charges pending against them.

The convictions are piling up. Last year there was a record-high 28 convictions, according to the newspaper Clarin. In July, a former commander of La Perla detention center — where Julia Delgado's parents were held and where only 17 of more than 2,200 prisoners survived — got a life sentence for the torture and murders he oversaw.

There have also been exercises in memory. Among other former jails for the disappeared, La Perla has become a national memorial and the infamous Navy Mechanics School is now a museum. The building itself is material evidence in what CELS calls an ongoing “mega-case,” a trial involving 148 defendants and thousands of victims.

But like everything else in Argentina, memory is political. The dictatorship's campaign of extermination was ideologically motivated, a right-wing reaction to left-wing extremism, and these fault lines are still visible here.

Open Memory's Valdez has seen how memory unfolds in different countries across Latin America — she spent years in Peru, and directed El Salvador's truth commission. “There are people that say that the past in Argentina doesn't pass, and is always present,” Valdez said. “I think they're right.”

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