Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Media Mogul’s Adopted Children – Were Their Parents Desaparecidos?

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 28 2004 (IPS) - Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the owner of Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s leading media group, adopted two infants in 1976 who are suspected of being the children of “desaparecidos” or victims of forced disappearance under the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

The media baroness was arrested for several days in December 2002 in connection with an ongoing lawsuit involving the identities of her children and the circumstances of their adoption – a story that has been basically ignored by the local press.

The 78-year-old media baroness, who is the widow of Clarín founder Roberto Noble, does not rule out the possibility that her adopted children, Marcela and Felipe Noble, are the offspring of desaparecidos, the two young peoples’ lawyer, Eduardo Padilla, told IPS.

But Marcela and Felipe refuse to undergo DNA testing under the normal conditions requested by the human rights group Abuelas (Grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, in order to determine their biological origins.

When asked whether Herrera is sure that her son and daughter, who are now in their late 20s, are not the children of desaparecidos, Padilla said the businesswoman “could never categorically state anything like that.”

“She believes that they did not come from the families” who have brought the lawsuit, specified the lawyer.

Could they belong to other families whose grandchildren disappeared? “That will never be known,” said Padilla, who added that Marcela and Felipe “have no interest in modifying their situation as the adopted children” of Herrera.

Herrera is the director and main shareholder of Grupo Clarín, one of Latin America’s largest media conglomerates, which owns the Clarín newspaper, the Canal 13 TV station, the Todo Noticias cable channel, and the Radio Mitre station. She also holds shares in other national and provincial media outlets.

In 2000, the relatives of two couples who were “disappeared” in 1975 and 1976 filed lawsuits aimed at clarifying the identities of Marcela and Felipe.

Roberto Lanuscou and Bárbara Miranda were kidnapped in September 1976 by the security forces and killed shortly afterwards. When they were seized from their home, two of their three children – ages four and five – were also killed.

Although the bodies of Lanuscou, Miranda and their two young children were found in 1984, the remains of their youngest daughter, Matilde, who was six months old in 1976, were never found. The couple’s surviving relatives believe Marcela Noble might be Miranda.

Enrique García was killed by the security forces in 1975, and his wife, María del Carmen Gualdero, was pregnant when she was kidnapped in June 1976.

Based on coinciding dates and testimony, Gualdero’s family believes that Felipe Noble might be the son she gave birth to while she was held as a political prisoner in a clandestine torture centre.

Doubts surrounding the biological identities of Marcela and Felipe Noble first arose 20 years ago, when anonymous tips began to reach the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation dedicated to seeking the children of the desaparecidos.

The missing children were either born into captivity to political prisoners, or kidnapped when their mother or parents were seized.

The Abuelas have so far identified 78 of a total of 500 young people who were stolen by the military regime as infants. The great majority of the children were given to military families, who raised them under false identities.

An estimated 30,000 activists and real or perceived opponents of the dictatorship were “disappeared” in the de facto regime’s so-called dirty war.

In just 14 of the 78 cases that the Abuelas have solved, the children had been adopted in good faith by families who, when investigations indicated that their children could be the offspring of desaparecidos, agreed to have them undergo genetic testing to determine their biological identities.

But Alcira Ríos, an Abuelas lawyer who represents the Lanuscou-Miranda and García-Gualdero families, said “We believe that in this case there was no good faith, because (Herrera) had a lot to do with the repression.”

In an interview with IPS, Ríos recalled Herrera’s good relations with the late Ramón Camps, who was chief of the Buenos Aires provincial police during the dictatorship. Camps was prosecuted for serious human rights abuses.

After years of gathering evidence and a number of failed attempts by the Abuelas to establish a dialogue with Herrera, Ríos’ clients took legal action in 2000.

In her investigation of the adoption procedures, Ríos found several irregularities.

According to Herrera, Marcela was left on her doorstep in a box, as a baby.

Judge Ofelia Hejt, who was appointed by the dictatorship, awarded Herrera custody even though she only presented two witnesses. And as it later came out in the trial, the witnesses were the media mogul’s chauffeur and a neighbour, who merely repeated the baby-on-the-doorstep story that they had been told.

Padilla said Herrera has a passport and photos of Marcela that were taken abroad, which prove by their dates, “beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she does not come from the Lanuscou family.”

With respect to Felipe, Herrera says his biological mother brought him to Hejt’s courtroom the day the businesswoman was there requesting custody of the infant girl. She was also given custody of Felipe that same day.

It later emerged that the woman who identified herself as the infant boy’s biological mother had presented a false identity document.

Due to these and other irregularities, federal prosecuting Judge Roberto Marquevich ordered Herrera’s arrest in 2002 on charges of using forged adoption documents.

Although Marquevich was later removed from the case, the prosecution continued under Judge Conrado Bergesio.

Padilla admitted that Judge Hejt may have been “overly hasty” in awarding Herrera custody of the two infants without first investigating where they came from or trying to find their relatives. But the procedures followed were the normal ones at the time, he argued.

Besides, “if there were irregularities, they were committed by the judge, not Mrs. Herrera,” who adopted the children “in good faith,” he said.

Bergesio found that the case was without merit (a decision that did not lead, however, to dismissal, but to a continued search for evidence), and urged Marcela and Felipe to undergo DNA testing under conditions that they themselves were to set.

The two youngsters agreed to voluntarily provide blood samples, but in the national forensic medical institute, and at a time that they would decide.

The plaintiffs appealed, and in late September, a federal court upheld the decision that the case against Herrera lacked merit, but ordered Marcela and Felipe to give blood samples in the National Genetic Databank (BNDG), which was created by a 1987 law after intense lobbying by the Abuelas.

The DNA samples in the BNDG are used by the Abuelas to carry out genetic screening in the search for their missing grandchildren.

However, the court ruled that Marcela and Felipe’s DNA samples were only to be matched against those of members of the families who brought the legal action against Herrera.

The Abuelas had asked for the DNA samples to be stored in the BNDG, in order to compare them to samples from other families as well.

Ríos decided to appeal. “The law that created the BNDG states that the DNA samples must be extracted and stored there. I cannot allow this verdict to stand as it is because it runs counter to the law, which stands above the supposed right to privacy regarding the results” of the genetic testing, said the lawyer.

But the Nobles’ defence counsel also had a bone to pick with the late September ruling, because it made it mandatory for Marcela and Felipe to provide DNA samples, and because these were to be kept in the BNDG.

“The kids had already agreed to undergo the testing voluntarily,” said Padilla. “When?” asked IPS. “Whenever they felt like it,” responded the attorney. “A databank is for storing data, which is what the kids don’t want,” he added.

“The Abuelas, who are not a party to this trial, want us to leave the samples in the BNDG because they are trying to get hold of them. But another trial is necessary for that,” said Padilla.

The question is now up to the appeals court to decide.

However, the late September ruling was not unanimous. The minority decision written by one of the three judges, Alberto Mansur, underlined “the serious irregularities” found in the adoption documents, as well as Herrera’s “suggestive” ties to people who played a conspicuous role in the dictatorship.

Mansur also wrote that 35 people born in 1976 are still missing, and recommended expanding the investigation to include these cases in order to determine beyond a doubt whether Marcela and Felipe are the biological children of desaparecidos.

If evidence was found that Herrera knowingly adopted children who were forcibly taken from women who were later killed by the de facto regime, she could be tried on charges of theft, kidnapping and concealment of minors and suppression of identity.

Ríos said she will continue to pursue the case to obtain a ruling that obligates Marcela and Felipe to allow their DNA samples to be matched with those of all of the relatives of infants who went missing in 1976.

“By now, after seeing so many legal maneuvres and subterfuges, we have no doubt that they (Marcela and Felipe) are ‘ours’. No one knows who they are, they are Jane and John Doe, they appeared out of nowhere and have no identity, and no one knows what hospital they were born in,” said Ríos. “These are young victims of forced disappearance.”

For that reason, she argued, “we cannot take the risk of agreeing to have their samples compared only to those of the plaintiff families.”

Padilla said Marcela and Felipe “want to bring this whole process to an end once and for all,” but in a “dignified” manner.

“They don’t want to leave their DNA samples in a databank for anyone to test whether they are or aren’t (children of desaparecidos), because that will not clarify the truth about anyone.”

Their therapists indicate that Marcela and Felipe suffer mental health problems, “which were created by the Abuelas and their lawsuit,” said the lawyer.

“Not all psychologists agree that it is best (for an adopted child) to find out their biological identity,” he maintained. “Some say that identity can be completely replaced and transcended by the identity” created through adoption, he added.

But with respect to the process of forging an identity, it is not exactly the same thing to have been abandoned as to have been kidnapped, IPS ventured, to which Padilla responded “That depends on who you’re talking about.”

“Everything is mixed up in this case,” said the lawyer. “It’s as if the DNA samples were being sought ‘to find out the truth about what happened in Argentina’. But what does what happened in this country have to do with this case? Will what happened in Argentina change because they are or aren’t (children of desaparecidos)? The truth about what happened in this country is past, it’s history.”

But for the families who dream about finding their missing grandchildren, the past is very much alive.

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