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ARGENTINA: Remains of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Identified

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 8 2005 (IPS) - The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team announced Friday that it had identified the remains of three of the founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who were forcibly disappeared in 1977.

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group, was founded during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship by mothers searching for their children, who were victims of forced disappearance.

The investigators confirmed that the bodies of Azucena Villaflor de Vincenti, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce de Bianco had been thrown into the sea shortly after the three women were kidnapped by the security forces.

"I was 16 when they kidnapped her," Villaflor’s daughter Cecilia de Vincenti told IPS. "I had no hopes that she would ever be found, but in April we were told that her body might have been located, so we underwent DNA testing."

De Vincentini, 44, remembers Villaflor as "a very affectionate mother to her four children. She was a typical housewife of that era, who enjoyed waiting for her kids when they came home from school."

The confirmation that the remains had been identified reached her in May, nearly 28 years after her mother was "disappeared". "I feel happy, but also terribly disappointed. My father died in 1980 believing she would return, but they had already killed her by then."

Silvana Turner, a member of the team of anthropologists, explained to IPS that the bodies of Villaflor, Ballestrino and Ponce had washed up on the beach in the town of Santa Teresita, around 400 km south of the capital, in December 1977.

The bodies were taken to the local cemetery and buried in anonymous graves after their fingerprints had been taken, as a matter of routine.

With the fingerprints and other elements, the team launched an investigation that came up with preliminary results in 2004. That enabled them to obtain authorisation to have the bodies exhumed, and DNA testing confirmed the identities of the three women.

The investigation was also able to verify that the three women, who had reportedly been seen by survivors of the "dirty war" in the Navy School of Mechanics – the de facto regime’s largest clandestine detention and torture centre – were victims of the "death flights".

Depending on the source of the statistics, between 11,000 and 30,000 leftists and others were "disappeared" by the regime. In the early years of the dictatorship, hundreds of political prisoners were thrown into the sea, alive but drugged, from helicopters and planes.

Villaflor’s daughter was shaken by the confirmation that her mother was one of the victims of the "death flights".

"I knew my mother was tortured, but we thought that she might later have been taken to an island in Tigre," she said, referring to a river that runs into the Rio de la Plata. But now she knows that this is not true, and that in fact her mother was killed just two weeks after she was taken away.

The story began almost immediately after the 1976 coup d’etat. Desperate over the kidnapping of her oldest son, Néstor de Vincenti, Villaflor began to get together with the relatives of other victims of forced disappearance in the Stella Maris parish church in Buenos Aires.

When the writs of habeas corpus failed to bring results, she suggested that the relatives walk in circles around the pyramid in the Plaza de Mayo, the large square outside the presidential palace, to draw attention to their plight.

Villaflor also had the idea that if only women took part in the protests, the regime would not dare take measures against them.

But she was wrong.

The operation against the group began with the infiltration by Adolfo Astiz, at the time a young member of the navy, who pretended that his brother had been "disappeared".

On Dec. 8, 1977, when the group met in the Santa Cruz church in Buenos Aires, Astiz pointed to the women who would become his victims.

Outside the church, a group of military officers seized Careaga, Ponce, French nun Alice Domon, who was supporting the Mothers in their search, and four other relatives of victims of forced disappearance.

Ponce was also searching for her son. Careaga had already recovered her own daughter – who was kidnapped, pregnant, at the age of 16 and held for four months in 1977 – but she decided to stay in the movement and continue supporting her fellow Mothers.

Villaflor and Leonie Duquet, another French nun, and three others were kidnapped near Villaflor’s home two days after Careaga and the others were abducted. None of them reappeared alive.

Turner told IPS that for now there is no more information to provide, but she suggested that the bodies of other founding members of the Mothers may be in the process of being identified, although she preferred to await the final results rather than offering details that could generate false expectations.

The forensic anthropology team was set up in 1984 to give scientific, non-governmental support to families in the search for the bodies of victims of the dictatorship’s human rights crimes.

Since then, more than 600 unidentified bodies have been exhumed, 150 of whom turned out to belong to victims of forced disappearance.

The team became famous in 1997, when they unearthed and identified the remains of legendary Argentine-Cuban guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967.

They have also worked in Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru, El Salvador, Ecuador, Panama, Honduras, Romania, Ethiopia, Iraqi Kurdistan, South Africa, Croatia and Uruguay.

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