Argentinian Grandmothers Are Using DNA to Track Down Stolen Children

A national genetic bank and novel identification techniques have helped identify over 100 children abducted during Argentina’s “Dirty War”

Estela de Carlotto
Estela de Carlotto, president of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. de Carlotto’s grandson was recovered 36 years after he was abducted and adopted by another family. MARCOS BRINDICCI/Reuters/Corbis

It’s been over 30 years since Argentina emerged from a military dictatorship that devolved into a “Dirty War.” But even now, reports UPI’s Andrew V. Pestano, Argentinian women whose babies were abducted under the military junta are looking for their children. And they have added a powerful tool to their quest to find the missing: DNA.

From 1976 to 1983, Argentina’s military dictators ran a program to root out dissidents and political opponents. They called it the “Process of National Reorganization,” but Argentinians called it the “Dirty War”: A brutal reign of terror that resulted in the disappearance of up to 30,000 people who were abducted, tortured and killed. Many children were disappeared or born after their mothers were raped in prison, and then adopted by childless couples in the military and police forces.

In 1977, writes Pestano, a group of bereft grandmothers formed a group called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo). They set out to find over 400 stolen children. Today, writes Pestano, they’ve identified 117.

The organization’s website describes the painstaking process, which includes investigations into adoption records, registered births and informational campaign among the age range affected. And in the 1980s, the grandmothers lobbied for a national genetic database that stores blood samples from grandparents and other relatives.

The grandmothers' quest has even led to new advancements in DNA identification, reports PRI. Since 1984, geneticist Mary-Claire King has worked with the organization, coming up with a novel way to use mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from mothers, to identify individuals. This is especially useful because many abducted children are the products of rapes by unknown military police officers at detention camps — and even if mothers have disappeared, surviving grandmothers’ DNA can be used to identify the missing.

“The grandmothers like to say that this proves that God is a woman because she put mitochondrial DNA on earth specifically for the use of the Abuelas,” King tells PRI. Meanwhile, the work of the grandmothers continues — they say they won’t rest until they restore identity, family and liberty to each abducted child.

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