One of the many horrible stories of Argentina's "Dirty War."
October 8, 2011
Daughter of ‘Dirty War,’ Raised by Man Who Killed Her Parents
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
BUENOS AIRES — Victoria Montenegro recalls a childhood filled with chilling dinnertime discussions. Lt. Col. Hernán Tetzlaff, the head of the family, would recount military operations he had taken part in where “subversives” had been tortured or killed. The discussions often ended with his “slamming his gun on the table,” she said.
It took an incessant search by a human rights group, a DNA match and almost a decade of overcoming denial for Ms. Montenegro, 35, to realize that Colonel Tetzlaff was, in fact, not her father — nor the hero he portrayed himself to be.
Instead, he was the man responsible for murdering her real parents and illegally taking her as his own child, she said.
He confessed to her what he had done in 2000, Ms. Montenegro said. But it was not until she testified at a trial here last spring that she finally came to grips with her past, shedding once and for all the name that Colonel Tetzlaff and his wife had given her — María Sol — after falsifying her birth records.
The trial, in the final phase of hearing testimony, could prove for the first time that the nation’s top military leaders engaged in a systematic plan to steal babies from perceived enemies of the government.
Jorge Rafael Videla, who led the military during Argentina’s dictatorship, stands accused of leading the effort to take babies from mothers in clandestine detention centers and give them to military or security officials, or even to third parties, on the condition that the new parents hide the true identities. Mr. Videla is one of 11 officials on trial for 35 acts of illegal appropriation of minors.
The trial is also revealing the complicity of civilians, including judges and officials of the Roman Catholic Church.
The abduction of an estimated 500 babies was one of the most traumatic chapters of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The frantic effort by mothers and grandmothers to locate their missing children has never let up. It was the one issue that civilian presidents elected after 1983 did not excuse the military for, even as amnesty was granted for other “dirty war” crimes.
“Even the many Argentines who considered the amnesty a necessary evil were unwilling to forgive the military for this,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
In Latin America, the baby thefts were largely unique to Argentina’s dictatorship, Mr. Vivanco said. There was no such effort in neighboring Chile’s 17-year dictatorship.
One notable difference was the role of the Catholic Church. In Argentina the church largely supported the military government, while in Chile it confronted the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and sought to expose its human rights crimes, Mr. Vivanco said.
Priests and bishops in Argentina justified their support of the government on national security concerns, and defended the taking of children as a way to ensure they were not “contaminated” by leftist enemies of the military, said Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate who has investigated dozens of disappearances and testified at the trial last month.
Ms. Montenegro contended: “They thought they were doing something Christian to baptize us and give us the chance to be better people than our parents. They thought and felt they were saving our lives.”
Church officials in Argentina and at the Vatican declined to answer questions about their knowledge of or involvement in the covert adoptions.
For many years, the search for the missing children was largely futile. But that has changed in the past decade thanks to more government support, advanced forensic technology and a growing genetic data bank from years of testing. The latest adoptee to recover her real identity, Laura Reinhold Siver, brought the total number of recoveries to 105 in August.
Still, the process of accepting the truth can be long and tortuous. For years, Ms. Montenegro rejected efforts by officials and advocates to discover her true identity. From a young age, she received a “strong ideological education” from Colonel Tetzlaff, an army officer at a secret detention center.
Read the full story HERE.
See also the excellent film The Official Story.