New DNA Law in Argentina Will Help Find the Missing Grandchildren

The three Amarilla-Molfino brothers did not know their mother had given birth to a fourth son. The three older brothers had grieved the "disappearance" of their parents, Guillermo and Marcela, by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from1976 to 1983. Yet evidence that came to light just three months ago revealed that Marcela had given birth to a fourth son - Martín - in 1979, while she was held prisoner at the clandestine detention center, Campo de Mayo. Twenty-nine years later, Martín Amarilla-Molfino was united with his three elder brothers, along with aunts and uncles, and saw a photo of his parents for the very first time.

Joel Richards

"The second I saw Martín, I knew he was my brother," recalls Mauricio Amarilla-Molfino. "I didn't need to see the DNA results. Just like me and my brothers, he has the same ears!"

Smiles broke out amidst the emotionally charged atmosphere in the offices of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) in Buenos Aires last week.

The three Amarilla-Molfino brothers did not know their mother had given birth to a fourth son. The three older brothers had grieved the "disappearance" of their parents, Guillermo and Marcela, by the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from1976 to 1983. Yet evidence that came to light just three months ago revealed that Marcela had given birth to a fourth son - Martín - in 1979, while she was held prisoner at the clandestine detention center, Campo de Mayo.

Twenty-nine years later, Martín Amarilla-Molfino was united with his three elder brothers, along with aunts and uncles, and saw a photo of his parents for the very first time.

It was Abuelas who made this emotional meeting possible. They have worked tirelessly for over 32 years, searching for the "missing grandchildren" - the children of the disappeared, children whose identity was falsified by the military. The Abuelas estimate there are approximately 500 cases.

Along with the Madres (Mothers) de la Plaza de Mayo, the Abuelas are continuing symbols of resistance to the legacy of the dictatorship. Every Thursday, with white handkerchiefs over their heads, the Abuelas and Madres march in front on the Presidential Palace, and have done so since before the dictatorship fell.
The case of Martín, the 98th to be solved by Abuelas, was all the more poignant coming in the week that Congress approved a DNA law that will aid the Abuelas in their search for the missing grandchildren.

"We were handed over like puppies to different families," said congressional deputy Victoria Donda in her speech to Congress during the DNA law debate. Donda was born at the infamous detention center used during the dictatorship, the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), and handed over to another family when her parents were disappeared.

She also touched on a particularly sensitive issue surrounding the Abuelas' search. "It took me eight months to decide to take a DNA test. It is torture waiting for the parents that raised you - who you love - to die, so that you can meet your family and find out about your real parents."

In some cases investigated by Abuelas, the children involved - now adults in their 30s - do not want to take a DNA test for fear they would be betraying the parents who raised them.

Yet one aspect about the debate remains incontrovertible - the falsification of a child's identity is a crime. In 83 of the 98 cases of missing grandchildren found by the Abuelas, the families that raised the children were in part responsible for, or at least knew about, the disappearance of the child's real parents.
Speaking of the decision to give DNA or not, one deputy during the debate in Congress spoke of Argentine society's need to redress the issue. "The truth is a collective obligation, not an individual decision."

Now awaiting the Senate's approval to become law, once the DNA law is ratified, the courts can order a DNA sample - from hair or skin - be taken from those who refuse to have a blood test.

"It was important to have the situation regularized," explains Agustín Chit, the lawyer for the Abuelas, "so that the application of the law is not left to the criteria of different judges in each case."

The law has not been without its critics and opponents. In a survey conducted on the website of the conservative newspaper La Nación, 77% of its readers were against the law.

Elisa Carrió, leader of the centrist Radical Civic Union, describes the DNA Law as "pure fascism," and claims that the law is politically motivated, stemming from the government's battle with the media group Clarín. The children of the Clarín Group's owner, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, are adopted and suspected of being children of disappeared.

"Carrió thinks this is a law designed to hurt the Señora de Noble," says the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto, "but that is simply a lie."

As the Abuelas lawyer Agustín Chit explains, "the case involving the children of Señora Noble is not affected by this law, the case is at a different stage."

"People who criticize the law don't understand what is going on here," says Mauricio Amarilla-Molfino back in the Abuelas' office. "There are so many families who don't know where their relatives are. The work that Abuelas does is incredible, they have risked their lives for many years, and I am just one of the people that, thanks to them, know my real history."

Once passed, the new DNA law will help other families like the Amarilla-Molfino finally piece their history together. There are around 400 families waiting to do so.

Update: Since reuniting the Amarilla-Molfino family, the Abuelas have announced that the 99th missing grandchild has been found. In stark contrast to the case of Martín however, the discovery was the remains of Mónica Gabriela Santucho, disappeared in 1976 at the age of 14.

Joel Richards is a NACLA Research Associate.

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