Adopted by their parents’ enemies: tracing the stolen children of Argentina’s ‘dirty war’

After the 1976 coup, the military brutally crushed its opponents. At least 500 babies were taken from their captured parents and given to military couples to raise. Many still live unaware of their true identity

One autumn afternoon in 1983, paediatrician Jorge Meijide was called to an apartment in the small town of Acassuso, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. His six-year-old patient turned out to have nothing more than a mild flu, but Meijide sensed that something else was wrong in the household.

The woman who claimed to be the child’s mother seemed to him too old to be his parent. On the walls hung photos of a man in military uniform: presumably the boy’s father.

In 1980s Argentina both details were more than suspect. The country was slowly returning to democracy after the “dirty war” waged by the military dictatorship under Jorge Videla, known as the “Hitler of the Pampa”. After the 1976 coup, Argentina’s military set about crushing any potential opposition and eventually 30,000 people were killed or disappeared, almost all of them civilians. Pregnant prisoners were kept alive until they gave birth and then murdered. At least 500 newborns were taken from their parents while in captivity and given to military couples to raise as their own.

Photos of young people who disappeared under the dictatorship are pinned to a noticeboard at the office of Mothers of Piazza di Maggio, formed by the mothers of the desaparecidos.
  • Photos of young people who disappeared under the dictatorship. Photograph: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

Soldiers frisk a man at a checkpoint in Buenos Aires in 1977. The military dictatorship of 1976-1983 left about 30.000 people missing.
General Jorge Videla, who was involved in the coup to overthrow President Isabel Martínez de Perón and led the military junta from 1976 until 1981.
  • Soldiers frisk a man at a checkpoint in Buenos Aires in 1977. The military dictatorship of 1976-1983 left about 30,000 people missing; Jorge Videla,, who led the military junta from 1976 until 1981. Photographs: Ali Burafi/AFP/Getty Images and Keystone/Getty Images

By 1983, hundreds of these “adoptions” were coming to light. But it was not until 2021 that large-scale efforts were made to trace the children.

Two years ago, the Argentinian government sent hundreds of DNA testing kits to its consulates around the world in an effort to put names to unidentified victims and to find the children of the disappeared, known as desaparecidos, many of whom are living today, unaware of their true identity.

The Argentinian consul in Catania, Sicily, completes the paperwork on a blood sample
  • The Argentinian consul in Catania, Sicily, completes the paperwork on a blood sample for analysis in an attempt to find the children of the desaparecidos. Photograph: Alessio Mamo

Meijide recounted what he had seen to the Abuelas de Playa de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), a rights organisation with a mission to find the children who were illegally adopted in those years. The doctor had no photo of the child but, as a gifted amateur artist, he was able to draw a likeness.

This was shown to relatives of people who had disappeared. A woman from Mar del Plata whose son had been abducted in 1977 thought the child resembled her family. This was enough to trigger a complaint to the authorities, who asked the boy to submit to a DNA test. The military man whose picture hung on the wall, Jorge Vildoza, a high-ranking Argentinian navy officer, was asked to appear in court. In a panic, he fled the country, taking the child with him.


That little boy is now a 45-year-old banker living in London. His name is Javier Penino Viñas, and his biological parents, Cecilia Viñas and Hugo Penino, were abducted in 1977. Javier, illegally adopted by Vildoza and his wife, Ana María Grimaldos, was indeed the grandchild of the woman who thought she recognised his features. He is the only known stolen child of desaparecidos living in the UK.

“After the Videla regime, obviously there was a democratic transition, and in that period the trials against the military began,” says Javier. “My adoptive father was quite high up in the navy, and the family knew that the transition to democracy was starting to cause problems for anyone in the military. That’s when we moved to Paraguay and ended up changing our identities.”

Javier Penino Viñas was abducted in 1977 by the military and illegally adopted by Jorge Vildoza, a navy officer and second in command at Esma, one of the most notorious prisons where militants where tortured and where Javier’s mother was detained when she gave birth.
  • Javier Penino Viñas in London, where he now lives. Photograph: Alessio Mamo

Back in 1983, at 5.30am on 21 December, the Viñas family received a phone call from their daughter Cecilia, Javier’s biological mother. She was being held in an illegal detention camp but had no idea where. She managed to call her family five more times, always with the same fervent request: “Find my son, please!”

Cecilia was born on 7 June 1947 in Mar del Plata. She and her husband Hugo were active in trade union and leftwing groups that opposed Videla’s far-right military regime. On 13 July 1977, the couple were kidnapped from their home in Buenos Aires. Cecilia was seven months pregnant. Women detained in the same facility as Cecilia would later testify that the baby was born into Vildoza’s waiting arms.

Cecilia’s last call to the family was in March 1984. According to some witnesses, she was eventually murdered in the camp. During the democratic transition many victims were discovered in mass unmarked graves, some in municipal cemeteries. Others washed up on Argentina’s beaches, having been drugged and thrown from aircraft into the ocean by the military – known as “death flights”.

Some experts say that behind the illegal military adoptions was a quasi-Catholic belief that, while the parents of the children were irredeemable sinners who deserved to die, killing their newborn children would be a sin. However, the Argentinian historian Fabricio Laino believes there was a more cynical logic at work. “The military were convinced they could ‘save’ and ‘reform’ these children. They wanted to redeem them from families who, according to them, would surely have raised them in a subversive environment.”

Baltasar Garzón, a former Spanish judge and human rights activist, is convinced that something more atavistic was behind it.

“The appropriation of children, as well as rape, has always been aimed at humiliating and subduing the enemy. Taking away the enemy’s child was a bargaining chip. They change a person’s life by taking them out of their environment and biological family. And the method used in Argentina was especially perverse: waiting for the mother to give birth, then taking the baby from her, torturing her, killing her and making her disappear.”

For decades, hundreds of children have been raised by the same people who were responsible for the torture and death of their biological parents. After the return to democracy, members of the military fled with their adoptive families – often to countries where extradition was prohibited.

In the mid-1980s, Vildoza moved with Javier and his wife from Paraguay to South Africa, making Cecilia’s family’s search for the boy increasingly difficult.

Esma detention centre in Buenos Aires
  • Esma detention centre in Buenos Aires: the cells have been dismantled but when it was operational, torture was an everyday occurrence. Photograph: Erica Canepa

The entrance to the former clandestine detention centre in Buenos Aires known as Comisaría 5.
The interior of Comisaría 5.
  • The former clandestine detention centre in Buenos Aires known as Comisaría 5. Photographs: Erica Canepa

Vildoza was identified by survivors as the second-in-command at Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Esma), one of the most notorious torture and extermination camps of the dictatorship, where more than 5,000 prisoners were held – including Cecilia. Detainees were hooded and tortured daily. They were subjected to electric shocks, waterboarding, even amputations. More than 30% of prisoners during Videla’s dictatorship were women. Female prisoners, including pregnant women, were sexually abused and gang-raped. Former prisoners testified that torture was ordered by Rubén Chamorro, head of Esma, and his deputy Vildoza.

Around the time Javier turned 12, his adoptive mother revealed that she and Vildoza were not his birth parents.

“It was quite an emotional day,” he says. “I remember her making very sure that I knew that my biological parents had wanted me, and that I had not been abandoned. She even made the point that if one day I wanted to find out who my biological parents were, she would have helped me. As for my adoptive father, he probably thought that I would start putting pieces together the minute I found out I was adopted. It was only later that I started to figure out I could be one of the kids who were illegally adopted.”

Over time, Javier became aware of his true identity as the son of desaparecidos and the historical context in which he grew up.

“Between 12 and 18, [Vildoza] basically told me the entire story,” he says. “He told me so much about my origins, and he opened himself to be judged by me. He even told me shocking things he had done, things I realised I was the only one in my adoptive family to know: about how he used to work, and things about the [death] flights.”

When he turned 21, Javier took the next big step. At the beginning of 1998 he discovered there had been a complaint about his illegal adoption and that the Viñas family had been searching for him for almost 20 years. That spring, he returned to Argentina for a DNA test.

DNA testing at the National Genetic Data Bank in Buenos Aires.
Sample taken from Paolo Prvitera in the presence of the Argentinian Consul in Catania.
  • DNA testing at the National Genetic Data Bank in Buenos Aires; sample taken from Paolo Prvitera in the presence of the Argentinian Consul in Catania. Photographs: Erica Canepa and Alessio Mamo

“When I presented myself for the DNA test, I pretty much knew the whole story. What I didn’t know was that the Viñas family were my maternal family, because my adoptive father was convinced that they were not.”

However, the test result left no room for doubt: Javier was the son of Cecilia Viñas and Hugo Penino.

“When I saw the pictures of my biological parents … it was very touching,” says Javier. “I looked a lot like them. I was a mix of them. Right after they gave me the result, they put me in front of my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandfather, and then my uncle and my aunt. And I got to meet them all at once. It was very intense, especially because I wasn’t expecting the DNA test to match. I thought the test was just the beginning of the search. So when it matched, I was like, ‘wow.’ The quest was over and all of a sudden I had a new family.”

For Javier, there were also grimmer implications. The joy of finding his biological family turned to confusion when Javier was asked to collaborate with the authorities to bring his adoptive parents to justice.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to do that,’” says Javier. “Look, I understand the quest for justice, I respect that, but don’t expect me to be part of it or to deliver them to the authorities. I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for my adoptive parents. And they have brought me up with love since I was a baby. For me to flip around all suddenly and say ‘these are evil people and I hate them’ – it was an impossible request.”

He explains: “My adoptive parents loved me very much. They left the country, went into hiding and lived on the run from Interpol for more than 20 years. You don’t do that only for ideology or because you are scared of being caught, but because of love. I always felt love for them.”

Javier’s reaction is common in children of the desaparecidos. Many of them say their kidnappers acted out of love. They often maintain relationships with their adoptive parents, even after discovering the truth.

“They instilled certain values in their heads,” says Alicia Lo Giudice, head of the Abuelas psychological support group. “There are cases of grandchildren raised by soldiers who took everything the military told or taught them as the supreme truth. In these cases it is very difficult to dismantle all this discourse and begin to make them understand that they grew up with people who were directly responsible for the death of their parents.”

An open book with some headshots in it
  • Jorge Castro Rubel with a book published by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, in which a blank square can be seen next to the photos of his parents. Photograph: Erica Canepa

Marcela Solsona, 45, is the 129th grandchild found by the Abuelas. In 1997, she discovered that she was not the biological daughter of the couple who raised her. In 2013, while living in Valencia, Spain, she was contacted by the Abuelas, who had received information that indicated she might be a possible daughter of desaparecidos. However, Marcela refused to take the DNA test, even when the case reached court. She did not return to Argentina for five years.

“I was very frightened of the consequences of the DNA results,” says Marcela. “I was afraid that whoever raised me would be incarcerated.”

Marcela knew what the DNA result would be. She knows she is the daughter of a desaparecida, and who her real parents are. She found out one evening in 2016 on the Abuelas website. By entering a date of birth, the site lists possible matches. Marcela viewed the profiles of missing inmates who gave birth in June 1977. She scrolled through the images and froze when she saw a black and white photo of a girl who looked just like her: Norma Síntora. She was convinced the woman in the photo was her mother but, fearing that the truth could lead to the persecution of her adoptive parents, she chose not to have the test for another three years, when in 2019 she had to return to Argentina for family reasons. At that point she underwent a DNA test and discovered what she already knew: she was the daughter of Norma Síntora and Carlos Alberto Solsona, both militants.

CDs containing interviews of family members and friends of desaparecidos parents collected by Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo
  • CDs containing interviews of family and friends of desaparecidos’ parents collected by the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo to build a memory of each lost grandchild. Photograph: Erica Canepa

On 21 May 1977, Norma, who was 26 and eight months pregnant, was kidnapped. Nothing more is known about her. Carlos, on the other hand, managed to flee to Spain. Today, Marcela volunteers with the Abuelas, encouraging anyone with doubts about their identity to come forward.

“I put myself in the shoes of those who were looking for me,” she says. “They are families who never chose to lose us. Taking the test was the best decision of my life.”

Marcela talks to her biological father every day on the phone and sees him often. Yet, despite this, she continues to call the people that illegally adopted her “mum” and “dad”. She will not say who they are and it is the only topic that she refuses to address during our interview.

After his DNA test, Javier Penino returned to South Africa and then moved to London, where he continues to have a relationship with his adoptive mother. Vildoza died of a heart attack in South Africa in 2005, still a fugitive with a $100,000 bounty on his head.

Grimaldos was arrested in 2012 in Argentina, where she had travelled for medical tests. Accused of “child abduction and detention, falsification of public documents and suppression of marital status”; prosecutor Horacio Azzolin and lawyers representing the Abuelas demanded a 12-year prison sentence. But Javier defended her in court, testifying that his adoptive mother was under the impression that he had been adopted legally.

Nevertheless, Grimaldos was given a six-year prison sentence.


The ‘Nietera’, a cork board with photos of the found grandchildren and the corks of bottles opened to celebrate the finds at the National Genetic Data Bank, Buenos Aires.
  • The ‘Nietera’, a board with photos of the found grandchildren and the corks of bottles opened to celebrate at the National Genetic Data Bank, Buenos Aires. Photograph: Erica Canepa

More than 1,000 of the Argentinian regime’s torturers and killers have been tried, with 700 convictions. Some are still fugitives. Much of the investigation into the military’s atrocities and the search to find illegally adopted children has been done by the Abuelas. Wearing white headscarves, the mothers of abducted militants first appeared during the dictatorship, when they silently marched in front of the national congress to demand information about their missing children. Today, they are a symbol of courage and the struggle for justice.

So far, about 130 of the 500 kidnapped children have been found. The Abuelas have created a network in various European countries and have launched a worldwide campaign called #ArgentinaTeBusca (Argentina is looking for you). Those with doubts about their identity can contact the Abuelas and take a test at the nearest Argentine consulate. The sample will then be sent to the National Genetic Data Bank in Buenos Aires.

Estela Carlotto, president of the Abuelas de Playa de Mayo
  • Estela Carlotto, president of the Abuelas de Playa de Mayo, at home in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Erica Canepa

“Since the scientists could not compare the DNA of the children with that of the parents following their disappearance, they decided to compare them with those of the grandparents and of the entire alleged biological family,” says Mariana Herrera, the data bank’s director.

Late in December 2022, the Abuelas announced they had found two more grandchildren stolen from their parents during the dictatorship, but activists warn of the need to act fast, as witnesses grow old and grandmothers pass away.

The president of the Abuelas, Estela Carlotto, is 92 years old.

“Shortly after the murder of my daughter Laura, I swore to her, in front of her grave, that I would not let a day go by without fighting for justice for her and her partner, and that I would search for all the kidnapped children until we found them all,” says Carlotto. “And that’s what I’m doing, it’s my life.”

Her 22-year-old daughter Laura was killed by the military in 1978. While detained, she gave birth to her son, Guido. Carlotto found him in 2014.

Trauma runs deep in the families of the desaparecidos who have lived for decades in a limbo of unresolved grief, and it also afflicts the children.

“I understand that the need for justice is strong,” says Javier. “And I’m glad I was able to participate in getting closer to truth and justice for both my biological and adoptive families. But trust me, it was tough.

“And forty-five years later, I still don’t have any certainty about the fate of my biological parents, and that is simply not right””

‘They will not have spring’: a mural in memory of the disappeared.
  • ‘They will not have spring’: a mural in memory of the disappeared. Photograph: chrisstockphotography/Alamy

This investigation is a joint cross border project carried out by the the Guardian, La Repubblica and Le Monde, funded by the European Commission under the Stars4Media programme.


Lorenzo Tondo, Elena Basso in Buenos Aires and Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Argentina sends out DNA kits in drive to identify thousands ‘disappeared’ under dictatorship
Move is part of groundbreaking effort to name 30,000 murdered by regime after 1976 coup

Lorenzo Tondo in Sicily and Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires

28, May, 2021 @12:17 PM

Article image
Maradona Jr pleads for DNA donors in search for Argentina’s stolen babies
The son of the footballing legend is carrying on his father’s quest to trace the children taken from parents murdered by the junta

Lorenzo Tondo

11, Jun, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Global heating ‘may lead to epidemic of kidney disease’
Deadly side-effect of heat stress is threat to rising numbers of workers in hot climates, doctors warn

Natalie Grover

21, Oct, 2021 @6:01 AM

Article image
More rights defenders murdered in 2021, with 138 activists killed just in Colombia
Most of 358 victims worked on land, environmental and indigenous rights, with more killed in Mexico, India and among Afghan women

Karen McVeigh

02, Mar, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists
Campaigners fear ban emboldens anti-choice governments as more aggressive opposition, better organised and funded, spreads from US

Lizzy Davies

18, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘Best a human can be’: indigenous Amazonian Karapiru dies of Covid
Karapiru Awá Guajá, among the last of the hunter-gatherer Awá tribe, survived a massacre and a decade alone in the forest, inspiring others with his resilience and ‘extraordinary warmth’

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

30, Jul, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
‘No peace without justice’: families of Italy’s mafia victims wait for closure
Italy’s sluggish legal process under the spotlight as devastated relatives fight for cases to go to trial

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

12, Jul, 2021 @4:00 AM

Article image
Giulio Regeni: trial of Egyptian security agents charged over death begins in Rome
The accused, all members of the National Security Agency, are being tried in absentia after the researcher’s kidnap and killing in Cairo

Ruth Michaelson in Rome

14, Oct, 2021 @9:36 AM

Article image
‘We were punch bags’: North Korean prison beatings form of torture, says UN
Reports of forced labour and severe punishments for detainees add to growing evidence of abuses worsening during the pandemic

Lizzy Davies

27, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Jailing of Syrian intelligence officer ‘step towards justice’, say former detainees
Anwar Raslan’s conviction in Germany sends signal that Assad regime systematically uses torture, say detention system survivors

Ruth Michaelson

13, Jan, 2022 @3:25 PM