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Originally published Saturday, October 8, 2011 at 8:33 PM

Argentina trial could prove 'dirty-war' baby theft

A trial in Argentina could prove for the first time that the nation's military leaders engaged in a systematic plan to steal babies from perceived enemies of the government during the "dirty war" of the 1970s and '80s.

The New York Times

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Victoria Montenegro recalls a childhood filled with chilling dinnertime discussions. Lt. Col. Hernan Tetzlaff, the head of the family, would recount military operations he had taken part in where "subversives" had been tortured or killed. The discussions often ended with him "slamming his gun on the table."

It took an incessant search by a human-rights group, a DNA match and almost a decade of overcoming denial for Montenegro, 35, to realize Tetzlaff was, in fact, not her father — nor the hero he portrayed himself to be.

Instead, he was the man responsible for murdering her real parents and illegally appropriating her as his own child, she said.

He confessed to her what he had done in 2000, Montenegro said. But it was not until she testified at a trial here this spring that she finally came to grips with her past, shedding once and for all the name Tetzlaff and his wife had given her — Maria Sol — after falsifying her birth records.

The trial, which is in the final phase of testimony, could prove for the first time that the nation's military leaders engaged in a systematic plan to steal babies from perceived enemies of the government.

Jorge Rafael Videla, who headed the military during Argentina's dictatorship, stands accused of leading the effort to take babies from mothers in clandestine detention centers and give them to military or security officials, or even to third parties, on the condition the new parents hide the true identities. Videla is one of 11 officials on trial for 35 acts of illegal appropriation of minors.

Just as wrenching, the trial is further revealing the complicit role played by civilians, including judges and members of Argentina's Roman Catholic Church.

The abduction of an estimated 500 babies was one of the most traumatic chapters of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. The frantic effort by mothers and grandmothers to locate their missing children has never let up.

It was the one issue civilian presidents elected after 1983 did not excuse the military for, even as amnesty was granted for other "dirty war" crimes.

Yet even today, Montenegro says, she still does not hate the Tetzlaffs.

But "the heart doesn't kidnap you, it doesn't hide you, it doesn't hurt you, it doesn't lie to you all of your life," she said. "Love is something else."

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