The Dirty War's family secrets

A former military officer faces kidnapping charges for taking a baby from a disappeared woman.

By Marta Gurvich

Over the phone, the exArgentine military doctor spoke with a controlled politeness. "We had a family meeting," he explained patiently, "and decided not to comment about the case with the press."

With only a hint of exasperation, the doctor then fended off my inquiries seeking a response to the charges against him. He had always acted in "good faith," he insisted, "in accordance with the Geneva Conventions for a military doctor in an anti-subversive war or in any other war." When asked if he had adopted the two Argentine children whom he had raised, he responded opaquely, "They are my children."

In two phone conversations earlier this year from his exile in Paraguay, Norberto Atilio Bianco sounded nothing like the medical monster that the case against him would suggest. He was firm but courteous, declaring that he did not want to sound "authoritarian." Only briefly did Bianco express annoyance, when he talked about "journalists [who] have been climbing on trees to film or take photographs." He even requested that I voluntarily end the second conversation so that he would not be forced to hang up.

But Bianco stands accused in Argentina of participating in one of the Dirty War's most disturbing practices. According to witnesses from the military hospital at Argentina's Campo de Mayo, Bianco oversaw nighttime Caesarean sections or induced early deliveries of babies of "disappeared" women who were kept alive only long enough to give birth.

A few minutes after the deliveries, Bianco would take the babies away from the mothers and then drive the women to a nearby military airport, witnesses have told the official Argentine truth commission, known as CONADEP. At the airport, prisoners, including these women, were sedated, shackled together in groups of 30, and loaded onto Hercules military cargo planes. At about 11 p.m., according to commission testimony, the planes flew out over the Rio de Ia Plata or the Atlantic Ocean, and the victims were tossed into the dark water below. Back at the hospital, witnesses said, some of the babies went to orphanages, but most were given to Argentine military officers. Military wives, some of whom could not have children themselves, welcomed the infants. The babies some times arrived wrapped in army coats.

"There is no precedent that I know of for this type of case, the secret police systematically stealing the fruit of the womb of the people they tortured and killed," declared Roberto Juan Marquevich, one Argentine judge who dealt with the lost baby cases in the '90s.

During the Dirty War from the mid-'70s through the early '80s, Argentina's military disappeared as many as 30,000 Argentines, according to estimates by human rights groups. Some of the most difficult cases to solve were the mysteries surrounding the missing babies. The military recognized that the children had to be kept in the dark about their origins. "The leaders of the Dirty War were afraid that the children of the disappeared would grow up hating the Argentine army because of the fate of their parents," the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in 1987. "The anguish generated in the rest of the surviving family because of the absence of the disappeared would develop, after a few years, into a new generation of subversive or potentially subversive elements, thereby not permitting an effective end to the Dirty War."

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group formed in 1977 to search for these babies, estimates that as many as 500 infants were born in the detention camps. After years of detective work, the Grandmothers documented the identities of 256 missing babies. Of those, however, only 56 children were ever located and seven of them had died.

Aided by recent breakthroughs in genetic testing, the Grandmothers have returned 31 of the children to their biological families. Thirteen were raised jointly by their adoptive and biological families, and six cases are still the subject of court custody battles. In some of the cases, the children- now young adults raised in comfortable surroundings as wards of military officers-have resisted being reunited with their natural families.

Then, in the '90s, military leaders made rumblings about a new coup d'etat if the civilian government continued efforts to punish officers for the Dirty 'War. To pacify a disgruntled military, the civilian government pardoned senior officers. Key documents about human rights crimes were destroyed.

The case against Dr. Bianco, therefore, stands as one of the Dirty War's last active disputes. It continues to this day because an agronomist named Abel Madariaga has pressed a legal claim that his son may have been kidnapped by Bianco, who also allegedly participated in murdering the boy's mother, Madariaga's wife, Silvia Quintela.

This March, after lengthy negotiations, Paraguay extradited Bianco and his wife, Susana Wehrli, to Argentina, to face kidnapping and other charges. Upon their arrival in Argentina, Judge Marquevich found sufficient evidence to believe that the couple's son and a daughter-who remain in Paraguay-were the children of disappeared women.

Bianco and Wehrli were jailed pending trial.

As in other struggles to extract truth from the Cold War's shadowy violence, justice in this case has been long in coming.

The story of Madariaga's lost son began more than two decades ago, on the morning of January 17, 1977. Silvia Quintela, then 28 and four-months pregnant with her first child, was walking along Hipolito Irigoyen Street in a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Buenos Aires. It was summer in South America and the slight brown-haired woman, a medical doctor by training, was planning to meet a friend at a train station and then head downtown on business.

Like many other Argentines, Silvia Quintela was a Peronisra, a follower of the populist military officer and political leader, Juan Perón. During their studies at the School of Medicine in Buenos Aires, Quintela and her husband were members of the Peronist Youth. As a surgeon, Silvia Quin tela treated the poor at a small clinic in the town of Beccar, near a shantytown called La Cava. She was also active in the province's medical association.

In 1973, Perón won election as president, but his death the next year put his third wife, Isabel. in office. In 1976. with inflation running rampant and political turmoil spread- ing, the military seized power and declared a "state of siege." In secret, military death squads began rounding up and eliminating thousands of political opponents. A chilling new word entered the lexicon of repression: the disappeared.

As human rights allegations mounted, Amnesty International sent an investigative team that verified some cases of illegal detentions and killings. But in Washington on December 31, 1976, Henry Kissinger's State Department assured Congress that "torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment have not been general practice in Argentina."

Less than three weeks later, Silvia Quintela became one of the army's growing number of targets. At about 9:30 a.m. on January 17, three Ford Falcons screeched to a stop around Quiritela. Men in civilian clothes jumped out of the cars and grabbed her. They forced her into one of the Falcons and sped away. That afternoon, seven men in civilian clothes broke into the home of Silvia's mother, Luisa Quintela. After tearing up the rooms, they told Mrs. Quintela that her daughter had been arrested.

Immediately, Luisa Quintela and Silvia's husband Madariaga began searching for Silvia. But Madariaga's life was in danger, too, so he fled Argentina. He sought political asylum in Brazil and later in Sweden. But wherever he went, Madariaga asked Argentines who had escaped the detention camps what they might know about Silvia.

Back in Argentina, women whose sons and daughters had disappeared founded a group called Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named after the plaza in front of the Pink House (the presidential offices). Each Thursday, the women would don white kerchiefs and march around the plaza carrying photos of their missing children.

Because of the number of pregnant women who had disappeared, a second group was founded called Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Grandmothers looked for the babies in orphanages, examined records of adoptions and collected information from nurses and doctors who had treated the pregnant women and their babies. But the state of siege made the searches difficult. Some of the nurses who gave information also disappeared.

As international concern mounted, Patricia Derian, Jimmy Carter's new assistant secretary of state for human rights, made the Argentine Dirty War one of her top causes. Though the Argentine military denounced Derian's interference, the Lives of some high-profile captives were spared. But the Argentine military also had U.S. allies. One was Ronald Reagan, who publicly defended the generals. In one radio commentary, Reagan told his listeners that Denan "should walk a mile in the moccasins" of the Argentine officers before criticizing them.

After Reagan won the White House in 1980, he quickly restored friendly ties with Buenos Aires. In 1981, Reagan even authorized the CIA to collaborate with Argentine intelligence in training the Nicaraguan contra rebels-in Honduras But the days of the dictatorship were numbered. In 1982, the British defeated Argentina in a war over the Falk land Islands, and the next year, the disgraced military regime collapsed.

To resolve the cases of thousands of disappeared, new President Raul AlfonsIn created CONADEP to collect testimony from survivors and witnesses. Madariaga also returned to Argentina and intensified the search for his wife. In the months that followed, the story of Silvia Quintela and her baby slowly came into focus.

Testifying before CONADEP, Beatriz Castiglione de Covarrubias, a survivor of the detention center at Campo de Mayo, recognized a photo of Silvia Quintela and recalled that Quintela was held at the camp while her pregnancy progressed.

Juan Scarpetti, another Campo de Mayo survivor, reported that Quintela gave him medical treatment when he arrived unconscious. When he awoke, he recognized Quin tela, whom he had known when they were both members of the Peronist Youth. Scarpetti testified that Quintela gave birth to a boy some time during the second quarter of 1977. He said he never saw her again.

At the Campo de Mayo hospital, according to other wit nesses, pregnant women were kept under guard and either blindfolded or forced to wear black sunglasses. Even during labor, the women were tied hand and foot to their beds. Some were given experimental treatments to accelerate the births. Others were subjected to Caesarean sections. Witnesses identified Maj. Norberto Atilio Bianco as one of the doctors in charge.

Dr. Silvia Cecilia Bonsignore de Petrillo testified that on one Sunday in 1977, she was called in from home to perform an urgent Caesarean. When she arrived, she found soldiers patrolling the floor and Bianco in his military uniform. Bianco ordered Bonsignore to operate on a pregnant woman he had brought to the hospital. Bonsignore recalled that the patient was a thin woman with dark hair. "She cried inconsolably during the Caesarean," said Bonsignore, who called the surgery "the bitterest moment" of her life.

Another camp doctor, Jorge Comaleras, testified that Bianco was also in charge of removing the mothers after they gave birth. Bianco took them away in his own car, a Ford Falcon, Comaleras said. The women were driven to the airfield at Campo de Mayo, where the Hercules cargo planes departed shortly before midnight. The planes headed in a southeasterly direction toward the Atlantic and returned about an hour later. Silvia Quintela apparently was put aboard one of the death flights, the Grandmothers concluded.

But the fate of Quintela's son remained a mystery. Madariaga discovered that during the Dirty War, Bianco and his wife, Susana Wehrli, registered two children as their own: a girl, Carolina, in October 1976, and a boy, Pablo, on September 1, 1977. But no one had seen Wehrli pregnant, and a friend recalled that Wehrli had once confided that the babies were adopted. The birth certificates were purportedly signed by two doctors who had worked with Bianco, but the courts concluded that the certificates were bogus.

Based on the testimony about Silvia Quintela giving birth to a son in the second quarter of 1977 and the September 1 date on the boy's birth certificate, Madariaga suspect ed that Pablo Bianco might be Silvia's baby. In the Argentine Federal Criminal Court, Madariaga accused Bianco of kidnapping. Madariaga demanded a genetic analysis on Pablo to determine the boy's true identity.

In 1986, an Argentine judge ordered the genetic test. But the Biancos could nor be found. In 1987, another Argentine judge sought the couple's arrest and requested an Interpol search. Finally, after Bianco and his wife were located in Asunción, Paraguay that same year, the judge sought their extradition back to Argentina. Three Paraguayan courts approved the motion, but another court accepted Bianco's appeal that the extradition would endanger his two children.

In response to that ruling, the Grandmothers asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to compel Paraguay to return Bianco to Argentina. In the meantime, the Biancos lived under a form of house arrest in Asunción, though both were allowed to work. Wehrli was a teacher at a Catholic school, and Bianco was a doctor working for a private company.

When I reached Wehrli by phone in Paraguay, she refused to discuss the case and referred calls to her lawyer, Guilda Fatima Burgstaller. The lawyer did not respond. But after repeated attempts, finally reached Bianco by phone. He was eerily calm and polite, seemingly determined to present an image as a reasonable person.

"I won't defend myself in the press," the exiled doctor declared, his voice level. "I've only presented my case to the courts. This is the position I've been holding in silence for many years, and I won't change now." Bianco then added, without clarification, "Those of us who have acted in good faith are suffering this disgrace."

He defended his actions. "Those who know me-they are not a few-know who I am, know about my good will, know that I always considered that human rights is a life principle," he said. "Human rights has to be practiced in each act of life. ... I did nothing I should feel ashamed about. And this is all I'm going to say because I do not want to comment."

Patricia Derian, Jimmy Carter's assistant secretary of state for human rights, shook her head when asked to comment on the Bianco case. "I have a hard time understanding the willingness of people to commit these kinds of acts," Derian remarked at her home in Alexandria, Va. "But their later lives are equally grotesque as they wrap themselves in a cloak of normalcy. ... Maybe your conscience is like your outer layer of skin. It just keeps flaking off all the time until you have a whole new layer of skin."

After their extradition to Argentina in March, Bianco and Wehrli conceded in court that they were not the biological parents of Pablo and Carolina, but denied that they had kidnapped the children. The couple insisted that they had the consent of the biological mothers. To determine the real identity of the children, Judge Marquevich again urged Paraguay to conduct a genetic analysis on the two children.

So far, however, Pablo and Carolina have refused to cooperate with the investigation. Luis Alfonso Resck, a consultant to the human tights department of the General Prosecutor's office in Paraguay, met with the Biancos and the two children last November. Both Carolina, 20, and Pablo, 19, are now married, and Carolina brought along her own two small children.

At the conference, Carolina and Pablo announced that they did not want to return to Argentina or to meet with the Grandmothers, Resck said. The two young adults accepted that they were adopted. But both declared that they consider the Biancos to be their parents. Carolina and Pablo simply wanted to get on with their lives, Resck said.

The Grandmothers, however, cite a recent Argentine Supreme Court ruling requiring genetic analysis on all suspected children of the disappeared. The Grandmothers have also detected some softening in Carolina and Pablo's resistance to a meeting. Since the extradition of Bianco and Wehrli, the two young adults may, finally, be edging toward a decision to examine the fate of their biological mothers. 4 Marta Gurvich is an Argentine journalist on a Fulbright/Antor thas scholarship in New York. The Nation Institute's investigative unit made its resources available to her in preparing this story.