Sat, Jun 30, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Courts help Chilean women search for ‘stolen babies’


Prosecutors are revisiting one of the darkest chapters of Chilean history, when under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship hundreds and possibly thousands of babies were stolen from their mothers and given away just after being born.

On July 9, 1977, Margarita Escobar gave birth to a girl at Santiago’s Paula Jaraquemade hospital. She saw her daughter for only a few moments before staff took her away.

Four decades later, Escobar has not given up on meeting the grown woman her daughter might have become, buoyed by prosecutors’ push for the truth about Chile’s stolen babies and under-the-table adoptions.

Hospital staff kept her sedated back then, she said, adding: “Every time I woke up I asked about her again, until a midwife told me, ‘your baby was stillborn.’”

She was not allowed to see the body.

“Nobody even gave me a document. They sent me home,” she said. “I don’t know how I got there. I was totally doped.”

Fast forward almost 10 years to February 1985, and Maria Orellana gave birth in the same hospital to a boy she named Cristian.

“I heard that he was a boy, then they gave me an injection and that was the last I knew about it,” she said.

Like other mothers, she was told her baby had died and, as it would be “too cruel” for her to see the body and the hospital took care of the burial.

“Keep the memory that you had of your little boy,” she said she was told.

Like Escobar, Oreland was given no documentation.

“There is nothing. It is as if I had never even been in that hospital,” she said, determined like thousands of other mothers to find a child she never held.

Tasked with helping thousands of mothers in the same situation, Chilean Special Judge for Human Rights Mario Carroza has been investigating the kidnappings since January.

Most occurred during Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990), but others have been reported as recently as 2000.

Carroza has ruled out the state using child stealing as a means of repression, a tool commonly used by the military dictatorship in Argentina.

Instead, the goal was financial gain, making Chile’s situation more reminiscent of Spain, he said.

The first trial in a case of “stolen babies” under Francisco Franco’s 1939-1975 regime has just begun. The practice in Spain continued there long afterward for monetary gain.

“We have not established a link with a policy of state repression. It appears more like a kind of illicit association, an organization set up to make money from illegal adoptions,” said Pablo Rivera, a lawyer from the National Institute for Human Rights, who has filed complaints on behalf of the mothers.

At the heart of the scheme was a network of social workers, nuns, doctors and municipal officials who identified mothers in vulnerable situations.

“In general, the cases are related to low-income mothers who gave birth to a boy or a girl and were later deceived by hospital officials that they were dead or sick,” Rivera said.

A law, which remained in force until 1988, facilitated the scheme. It allowed the destruction of all records of biological families after adoption, Austral University historian Karen Alfaro said.

For Alfaro, the practice was “also part of the Pinochet dictatorship’s ideological struggle, a type of social violence inflicted on the poorest.”

Official figures showed that 26,611 adoptions were registered in Chile between 1973 and 1987, but no register exists for how many children went to families abroad.

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