(IPS) – The identification of the remains of victims of forced disappearance of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship – whose bodies were buried in secret graves or thrown into the sea – is moving forward, with periodic findings that have a strong impact on the families and on society as a whole.
“It was a very difficult experience to recover my father’s body. It brought mixed feelings, but the overall balance was positive,” Sandra Márquez, the daughter of former provincial senator Damián Márquez, who was seized in 1977, told IPS.
Nearly 35 years after his forced disappearance, his remains and those of 14 other victims were found in the Compañía de Arsenales Miguel de Azcuénaga, a former military arsenal in the northwest province of Tucumán where a clandestine detention centre operated under the de facto regime.
In March, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), a non-profit scientific organisation created to search for and identify the bodies of the “desaparecidos” or “disappeared”, identified the remains of three of the victims, including the former senator.
They were in one of five graves where bone fragments were also found, along with pieces of clothing and burnt tires.
“There were 15 complete skeletons and thousands of bone fragments that it was clear they tried to burn, which is why it is difficult to extract DNA samples for identification purposes,” the coordinator of the EAAF, Cecilia Ayerdi, told IPS.
The progress made by the forensic anthropologists has been based largely on information gathered in the legal investigation of forced disappearances in Tucumán. The testimony of former gendarme Omar Torres provided key details.
Torres testified that he personally saw general Antonio Domingo Bussi shoot prisoners in Arsenales. He said the former provincial strongman would visit the clandestine torture centre at midnight in combat fatigues, along with other officers.
According to Torres, ditches that were two metres deep and four metres wide were dug at Arsenales, and the prisoners were forced to kneel, blindfolded, next to the graves, and were shot in the head.
The bodies were later burnt, using tires and firewood, he said. The EAAF’s findings coincide with his testimony.
Bussi, who was de facto governor of Tucumán from 1976 to 1978, was cashiered from the army for corruption after the return to democracy, and arrested, tried and sentenced for kidnapping, torture and embezzlement.
But he was let off the hook by the amnesty laws passed in the late 1980s – which were struck down in 2005 – and was elected and served as governor of the province from 1995 to 1999.
He later faced charges of human rights abuses in trials that began in 2003 and was sentenced in 2008 to house arrest for life for crimes against humanity. He died in late 2011.
The remains exhumed in Tucumán were among the most recent discoveries. But the bodies of other victims of the dictatorship – which was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30,000 people – have also been found in cemeteries and clandestine detention centres in other provinces.
The bodies of some victims have even been found in neighbouring Uruguay, where the corpses of political prisoners thrown into the sea or the Rio de la Plata estuary washed up on the country’s coast during the dictatorship.
Victoria Montenegro’s parents were among the desaparecidos. She was seized as a baby along with her parents, a little over a month before the March 1976 coup that ushered in the dictatorship, and was raised by a military couple.
She recently found out that her father’s remains had been discovered in a grave in Uruguay.
After her biological father, Roque Montenegro, was taken away, his body was dumped into the Rio de la Plata, between Argentina and Uruguay. In May 1976, his remains washed up on the shores of the Uruguayan city of Colonia and were buried in an unnamed grave along with seven other bodies found on the coast.
By comparing DNA from the remains found in Uruguay with samples taken from the adult children of the victims of forced disappearance, the body of Montenegro was identified, 36 years after his death – and Victoria found out who her biological parents were.
For her, the news was both devastating and a relief. “I embrace the miracle that my dad has appeared, even though the terrorist state did everything possible to make sure he never would,” she said.
The EAAF has more than 8,400 DNA samples from relatives of some 4,500 desaparecidos. So far 515 have been identified, and there are 600 other exhumed bodies still pending identification.
Ayerdi explained that there are cases in which no direct family members have survived to search for the missing person. For that reason, the EAAF is seeking permission to carry out exhumations and obtain DNA samples from dead relatives, to help identify the bodies found.
But some people have refused to provide blood samples. “There are people who don’t want to be given bones, or who say their mourning process is over. And there are others who don’t even know that they can search (for their missing family members) this way,” she said.
In fact, the broad media coverage of the Montenegro case prompted a flood of calls from people interested in depositing samples in the blood bank of relatives of missing people.
The bank was created as part of the Latin American Initiative for the Identification of Disappeared Persons, launched in 2007 by the EAAF, which gave a major boost to the work of exhuming and identifying remains.
Up to that point, just 250 bodies had been identified. But in the few years since the blood bank was created, the number has doubled. And bodies continue to be found. Besides the graves in Tucumán, remains were recently discovered in Rosario, a city in the northeast province of Santa Fe.
In October 2011, more than 120 unnamed graves were exhumed in the La Piedad cemetery in Rosario, and 12 people have been identified so far, from the remains of some 300 people.
Ayerdi said that besides the effort to identify the remains already exhumed, the EAAF will continue working in clandestine detention centres like the Campo de Mayo in the eastern province of Buenos Aires and La Perla in the central province of Córdoba.
“What we need are more blood samples,” she said. Despite the media campaign that was launched, there is still resistance to undergoing the test, to build up the databank of DNA samples.
Sandra Márquez told IPS that although she and her brothers had never stopped searching for their father, who was 42 when he became one of the desaparecidos, they did not really believe when they deposited blood samples that it would lead to identification of his body.
But thanks to the EAAF, they were given their father’s remains and held a wake and a burial service.
“It was really tough to be given his bones, but we are very grateful because this is so important for the families. This helps us close a chapter. I hope others can have this experience. My father is no longer a desaparecido,” she said.