Aleida Gallangos was 2 years old when the police arrested her parents after a gunfight and then spirited away her brother, who had been shot in the leg. Her mother and father disappeared into jail and never came out, like hundreds of other leftists erased from history during the ugly underground war here in the 1970s. She was adopted by another family.
What happened to her brother, who was 3 when he disappeared, remained a mystery until last week, when Gallangos, after a three-year search, found him living in Washington, DC, working in construction under a different name.
It took Gallangos, who is 31, several days of talking to her brother on the telephone to convince him of his identity. Finally, the 33-year-old man born as Lucio Antonio Gallangos walked into an apartment where she was staying, embraced her and accepted his own past.
The reunion of the brother and sister who lost each other in a gunbattle three decades ago is a bright footnote in the dismal history of Mexico's clandestine war against leftists. Gallangos' brother, who goes by Juan Carlos Hernandez, is the first of more than 500 people known to have disappeared in Mexico's "dirty war" to be found alive, largely because of her efforts to trace him.
"I did it simply because he is my brother, because I wanted to see him, to know how he was," Gallangos said. "I wanted to know if he was alive, if at any time he had suffered torture."
Gallangos, a midlevel manager at a factory in Ciudad Juarez, is one of hundreds of people in Mexico trying to piece together family histories torn to shreds by the disappearances. She tracked down her brother using baby pictures, orphanage photos, adoption records, telephone books and a captured number on her caller ID, which led her to the Washington area. The biggest obstacle was the reluctance of his adoptive parents to disclose where he lived, she said.
Along the way she got help from Mexican prosecutors investigating the disappearances, television reporters from Univision and the editors of the newspaper The Washington Hispanic, who published several articles appealing for help and paid for a private investigator. On Dec. 23, Univision broadcast an item about her search. The next day, Christmas Eve, her long-lost brother called her.
"Who are you looking for?" he asked. She told him his own story.
It was a story she herself had only learned after President Vicente Fox took office in 2000, opening to the public classified documents about the purges of leftists.
In June 1975, the police raided a house where the Gallangos brothers and Carmen Vargas were staying with the children. A gunfight broke out. The Mexican authorities suspected that the brothers were members of a communist terrorist group, the Red Brigade of the Sept. 23 Communist League.
The three adults were taken into custody after the gunfight. The police took the boy, Lucio Antonio, to a local hospital to be treated for a leg wound, then transferred him to an orphanage. He was adopted a month.
As Roberto Gallangos and his wife were being carted off to jail, they gave their daughter to a friend, who later adopted her. She was not told of her origins until she was 16 years old.