One of the most painful ongoing legacies of the Argentine military dictatorship is the issue of the children of the disappeared who were adopted and raised by military members and pro-military supporters, an issue I mentioned briefly here.
This story is certainly not the only one of its kind, but it gets at many of the issues that make this so difficult for children of the disappeared, many of whom are only now learning who their biological parents were and what their fate was.
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.
Montenegro’s case is but one of more than 500 cases of children stolen from their parents. Yet its repercussions could be felt long and wide in the ongoing process of remembering military rule in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. In the prosecution of her adoptive father, Argentina has the first significant evidence that, rather than adoptions of murdered civilians’ children merely being the act of a few low-level military officers and torturers, there may have been a top-level plan to systematically steal infants from so-called “subversives” whom the military saw as a threat.
Montenegro’s case specifically, and the incidents of over 500 others, also plays a major role in the evaluation and memory-production of the military regime. As was the case throughout Latin America, the Argentine military regime had significant support among many sectors of society both during and after its rule. Even after the military, disgraced in the Malvinas/Falklands War of 1982, left power in 1983, many Argentines preferred to “forget” the past and move on, leaving many torturers and military leaders to never face the consequences of their human rights abuses. While some were willing to admit the regime was necessary even if “excessive” and then move on, reports in the 2000s that the military kidnapped and adopted the children of prisoners who it “disappeared” even appalled many of the Argentine regime’s defenders, to say nothing of the impact it had on the children themselves who as adults had to confront the possibility not only that their upbringing had been a “lie” but that the people who raised them may have been complicit in brutal acts against their biological parents. These identity struggles took their toll in any number of ways. As the article points out,
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.
If she picked up a flier from leftists on the street, “he would sit me down for hours to tell me what the subversives had done to Argentina,” she said.
He took her along to a detention center where he spent hours discussing military operations with his fellow officers, “how they had killed people, tortured them,” she said.
“I grew up thinking that in Argentina there had been a war, and that our soldiers had gone to war to guarantee the democracy,” she said. “And that there were no disappeared people, that it was all a lie.” […]
By 2000, Ms. Montenegro still believed her mission was to keep Colonel Tetzlaff out of prison. But she relented and gave a DNA sample. A judge then delivered jarring news: the test confirmed that she was the biological child of Hilda and Roque Montenegro, who had been active in the resistance. She learned that she and the Montenegros had been kidnapped when she was 13 days old.
At a restaurant over dinner, Colonel Tetzlaff confessed to Ms. Montenegro and her husband: He had headed the operation in which the Montenegros were tortured and killed, and had taken her in May 1976, when she was 4 months old.
“I can’t bear to say any more,” she said, choking up at the memory of the dinner.
These issues are absolutely heart-breaking and agonizing for the victims, and reveal just how insidiously right-wing authoritarian regimes in Argentina specifically (and Latin America more generally) still affect societies today.
But it’s not just the children who are forced to reconcile their understanding of the past with these cases. The fact that civilians and even the Catholic Church were involved has further forced many Argentines who were willing to “move on” and “forget the past” to re-evaluate both the military regime itself, their responses to it, the issues that they tried to ignore over the years, and even what their attempts to ignore the horrible legacies of military rule say about themselves as individuals and as a society. These issues and the ongoing revelations that are appearing nearly 30 years after the military left power only further condemn the Argentine military dictatorship in the public’s eyes, showing the ways that memory-making continue to impact societies long after military dictators have left power.