By Meredith Shea

In 1976, it was disturbingly clear that Argentina would not undergo a peaceful transition to democracy. As the military tortured and killed those considered opponents to the authoritarian regime, many lived in fear of a new kind of punishment: disappearing. Thousands of people were taken by the government, their identities wiped clean from government records. In combination with the censorship of the press and speech, the number of total disappearances is still unclear. The estimates range from between 11,000 and 30,000 people from 1976-1983.[1]

The missing Argentines during this “Dirty War”, as it is called, faced rape, murder, and mass grave burials. Children were taken as well, but they—along with their mothers—faced a new kind of brutality. Argentine women were raped and sometimes murdered, their babies stolen and raised by authoritarian loyalists and military personnel. The aim was to foster the growth of a generation that supported the dictatorship. The regime, however, did not anticipate the determination of the surviving mothers and grandmothers.

To speak out meant to die, but in Buenos Aires in 1977, a group of mothers started to meet on Thursdays at the Plaza de Mayo.[2] They rallied in front of Argentina’s government buildings and chanted for information on their children. No other group had spoken out against Argentina’s Regime so openly. As they chanted, their numbers grew, and their nonviolent demonstrations developed into an organized movement. They carried pictures of their children and wore white scarves as symbols of peace in hopes of uniting the women in the crowd.[3]

The police harassed the women as they demonstrated, and the founders of the movement disappeared.[4] Nevertheless, the women continued their weekly protest until the international community took notice. The images of women gathering peacefully to protect and call for their lost children evoked a strong reaction both domestically and abroad as the demand for morality and reform intensified in Argentina. As human rights groups helped to establish an office and a newspaper for the movement, it became harder for the Argentine government to deny claims of human rights abuses to the international community.[5]

With the establishment of a civilian government in Argentina in 1983, the mothers refused to pardon the Dirty War officials, nonviolently protesting the immunities granted and working diligently to create organizations to find the remains of lost children, locate missing ones, and console the mothers of children with uncertain fates.[6]

Now, in 2012, children of the Dirty War are adults. Many are learning from their “parents” or from the new government that they are not biologically related to their families.[7] Some have even learned that the people who raised them and loved them are the ones who tortured and killed their real parents. Now, these children face a new challenge as courts order the surrender of DNA samples and trial testimonies to imprison their kidnappers.[8] The children of the Dirty War are conflicted, forced not only to acknowledge the families who raised them as kidnappers, but also to assist law enforcement in punishing them. Of the children with surviving parents, this all happens while reuniting with complete strangers and calling them their family.

The Madres de La Plaza, fighting for their children and grandchildren, risked their lives to protest the inhumanities of the terrorist regime. Now, for many families, it is these mothers and grandmothers who will facilitate the healing from the lasting hurt of Argentina’s Dirty War.


Meredith Shea is a senior at Penn, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Creative Writing. She is currently writing her thesis on the relationship between human rights and democratization in Latin America. 

[1] “Speaking Truth to Power: Madres of the Plaza de Mayo.” Women in World History. 1994.

[2] “Baby Snatching: Argentine Dirty War Secret.” The Consortium.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Speaking Truth to Power: Madres of the Plaza de Mayo.” Women in World History. 1994.

[5] Baby Snatching: Argentine Dirty War Secret.” The Consortium.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Daughter of ‘Dirty War,’ Raised by Man who Killed her Parents.” New York Times. 2011.

[8] Ibid.

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