The Argentinian government has sent thousands of DNA testing kits to its consulates around the world in a groundbreaking effort to put names to unidentified victims murdered in the “Dirty War” waged by the brutal military dictatorship four decades ago.
Last month, the Argentinian authorities, in collaboration with the National Commission for the Right to Identity, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo movement and investigators from the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), launched its international Right to Identity campaign, committed to putting a name to every woman, man and child killed by the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and early 80s.
After the 1976 coup, Argentina’s military set about systematically crushing any potential opposition, and eventually “disappeared” and murdered 30,000 people, almost all of them civilian, unarmed non-combatants.
The abuses meted out to “los desaparecidos” in Argentina’s Dirty War have inflicted a deep trauma on the Argentinian psyche. Pregnant prisoners were kept alive until they gave birth and were then murdered. At least 500 babies were taken from their parents while in captivity and given to childless military couples to raise as their own.
The task of identifying victims of the dictatorship is a herculean one, starting with discovering where the military buried the bodies of their victims.
After the return of democracy it was discovered that many victims were hidden in mass unmarked graves, some in municipal cemeteries. Others washed up on Argentina’s beaches after they were drugged and thrown into the Atlantic Ocean from aircraft in macabre “death flights” organised by the military.
Last year, the EAAF, which was nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2020, started a campaign to identify some 600 remains recovered in the years after the war and believed to be people “disappeared” by the junta. However, their efforts have been thwarted by missing genetic data.
Now the search for the missing families has been extended internationally with the government instructing Argentinian embassies and consulates around the world to help find missing relatives who could supply DNA to assist with the identification.
The first DNA collection kits arrived two weeks ago at the Argentinian consulate general in Rome.
It is hoped that testing in Italy will reveal many of the missing identities. Hundreds of thousands of Italians emigrated to Argentina in the late 19th century and early 20th century and almost 700,000 Argentinians hold dual citizenship. Many Italians also travelled to Argentina during the military dictatorship to join the resistance against the far-right regime. In October 1982, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published a list of 297 Italians aged 17 to 29 who disappeared while in Argentina.
Maco Somigliana, who has been a member of the EAAF team since 1987, said: “We’ve been able to identify around 1,000 remains of victims of Argentina’s dictatorship. There are 75 Italians reported as kidnapped during the dictatorship and we’ve been able to positively identify five of them so far.”
The Guardian has seen an official list of 45 desaparecidos of Italian origin, who have yet to be identified. The search for their families, which has already started, will be led by two Argentinian consulates in Italy, which will collect DNA in Italy, Albania, Malta and San Marino.
Those who believe they may be relatives of desaparecidos will have to give a blood sample so the mitochondrial DNA can be traced. The drop of blood, taken and collected in a special container, will then be sent on a diplomatic flight to Córdoba in Argentina, where the EAAF forensic laboratory is based.
Ana de la Paz Tito, Argentina’s consul general in Rome, said: “With the help of science, Argentina has strengthened its path towards the search for truth. Bones can speak. Science can make bones talk.
“The right to identify the bodies of the desaparecidos, their children, is a fundamental right, such as freedom, health, work and education. This right, in my country, had been violated by the state itself. And that tragedy pushes us Argentinians, today, to bring truth to those victims and their families. Because the truth helps us increase our collective memory and avoid the repetition of these tragedies.”
Once the remains have been identified, they will be returned to their families. This procedure is free and confidential and there will be financial compensation for relatives of the victims.
Jorge Ithurburu, president of the Rome-based human rights organisation 24 Marzo, which takes its name from the date of the coup, said: “It is important to identify these people – burial is a right for all – but it is also a way to allow relatives, who have lived for decades in a sort of limbo, to mourn their loved one.
“The idea is to ensure these people stop being desaparecidos and that we give them a name, give them justice and that finally we are able to find out the cause of their death,” he said.
Finding and identifying the bodies is a task that requires patience.
Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers of the “disappeared” who confronted the military junta demanding to know the fate of their children, was herself kidnapped and then thrown into the Atlantic in December 1977.
Villaflor’s body washed up on a faraway beach shortly afterwards and was hidden by local police in an unmarked grave. It was not until 2003 that Villaflor’s murder was certified after Somigliana’s team found where the police had secretly buried her.
The EAAF have since applied the skills they acquired in Argentina elsewhere, identifying victims of summary executions and genocide around the world, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Africa, Mexico and Asia, including the identification of the body of Che Guevara, the Cuban-Argentinian revolutionary, in Bolivia. They also participated in the case of the 43 students massacred in 2014 in Mexico’s drug war at the request of the families of thevictims.