- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

BUENOS AIRES — Cesar Castillo grew up feeling that something was wrong.

For one thing, he looked nothing like the rest of the family. They were short, with dark skin and mestizo features. Mr. Castillo was of a paler shade, he had corkscrew curly hair and by the age of 11 he was taller than the man he considered his father.

Moreover, he seemed to have inherited a personality completely different from those of his parents. While they were conservative, reserved and submissive, he was liberal, outgoing and an effusive talker.

In March, he confirmed a suspicion that had lurked in the back of his mind for half his life: He is not Cesar Castillo. His name is Horacio Pietragalla Corti. In 1976, when he was 5 months old, his mother was killed by a death squad in the wave of repression known as the “Dirty War,” during a period of military dictatorship. His father was killed in 1975.

For Horacio Pietragalla, who still lives with his adoptive parents in Buenos Aires but uses his father’s family name, the discovery lifted a shadow from his mind.

“There’s no longer a lie in the way,” said Mr. Pietragalla, 27, a towering man with a broad, earnest grin. “I began to realize things I never did before: my parents’ inability to relate to me, why I never felt at home, the fears my [adoptive] mother had.”

Mr. Pietragalla is the most recent of 75 persons who grew up with false identities and believing invented family histories until they were identified as the children of dissidents killed in the late 1970s. He has become one of the most vocal, capturing national media attention in an effort to help some of the estimated 500 others who were stolen in infancy during the military regime and have not discovered their identities.

Mr. Pietragalla’s slain parents, Liliana Corti and Horacio Pietragalla, were among the 9,000 to 30,000 people who were kidnapped, tortured and killed by security forces during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Between 1975 and 1980, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of babies belonging to slain political prisoners were stolen and secretly given new identities, often in the custody of military officers.

The baby thefts were part of a “systematic plan,” according to the National Commission for the Right to Identity (CONADI), a government agency.

Many children, like Mr. Pietragalla, were abducted after their parents were killed. But the military regime also kept pregnant women alive in concentration camps until they gave birth, then executed them.

Some babies were abandoned, in city parks or hospital nurseries, but most were placed in the families of military officers and other members of the regime, and raised as their children.

These clandestine adoptions became so institutionalized that prison camps doubled as maternity wards, and military officers and their wives put their names on “adoption” waiting lists, according to Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group made up of relatives of the abducted children, which was formed to find them and to return their identities.

“Some repressors say they kept the kids so that the families wouldn’t raise them to become subversives like their parents,” said Alba Lanzillotto, a member of Grandmothers, as it’s known colloquially. Mrs. Lanzillotto is searching for a niece born to a younger sister detained while she was pregnant in 1976.

“Another explanation is that they weren’t content just disappearing one generation of militants, so they had to destroy the next generation also. And perhaps it was to satisfy their own needs as well.”

Baby theft is the only crime for which agents of the dictatorship have been held accountable for human rights abuses.

Two immunity laws passed in 1986 and 1987 cleared lower-ranking officers and imposed a definitive date, called the “final point,” after which rights abusers from the Dirty War could not be tried. Former President Carlos Saul Menem later pardoned the top-ranking officers.

But kidnapping children and changing their identities were excepted from the sweeping immunity granted to members of the security forces, allowing the prosecution and conviction of dozens of military officers, including former dictator Jorge Videla, under house arrest for his role in overseeing the theft of children.

The justice carried out in these cases might have dissuaded many grown-up victims of baby theft, especially those raised in the families of military officers, from investigating their past.

“If they find out they were appropriated, their [adoptive] parents would go to prison,” said Claudio Goncalves, 26, also stolen as a child, who works in a production company that recently began the first television and radio campaign for Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in the interior of the country, to encourage people with doubts about their identity to come forward.

Mr. Goncalves was luckier than most orphans of the dictatorship. After killing his mother, soldiers dropped off the 5-month-old at a local hospital. He was adopted by a civilian family who did not know his background. His grandmother tracked him down when he was 19.

“In my case, it made sense getting to the truth,” said Mr. Goncalves, “But it’s terrible for those in a military family. A lot of them must be waiting for their adoptive parents to die before they come to Grandmothers.”

For children brought up in the families of military officers, adding to the fear of sending to prison the people who raised them since infancy is the dreadful realization that these people were accessories, or worse, in the slayings of their mothers and fathers.

Mrs. Lanzillotto remembers a young man who was so certain he was the biological child of a naval officer that he insisted before a judge on taking a DNA test to prove the relation and clear his father’s name. The test proved he was the son of a couple killed by the military regime.

“Everything that he had believed until that moment was blown to bits,” Mrs. Lanzillotto said. “To find out at twentysomething that your whole life has been based on a lie, that those people aren’t your parents — that they killed your parents or were accomplices — makes it very difficult for these kids to uncover the truth. They have to be brave to do it.”

It was no easy step for Mr. Pietragalla either, even though he had the luck of being raised by civilians who had adopted him in good faith.

Shortly after his mother’s death, the infant Horacio Pietragalla was taken from a hospital clinic by military officials a mere two hours before his grandfather showed up looking for him. He ended up in the custody of Col. Hernan Tetzlaff, a death-squad leader who had promised the baby to another couple.

Lina Castillo worked as a maid for Col. Tetzlaff and his wife. When she saw them arguing about the fate of the child, she offered to adopt him. The colonel and his wife agreed, false documents were made and the orphan child became the son of Mrs. Castillo and her husband, a carpenter.

Horacio Pietragalla grew up in an apartment three floors above that of Col. Tetzlaff, who was his godfather.

Mr. Pietragalla says he remembers telling friends at the age of 14 that he suspected he was the son of slain dissidents when he first read about the cases of abducted babies. But it was not until late last year that he made contact with CONADI and Grandmothers.

Then in March, he asked the doorman of his apartment building whether he was the child of people who were disappeared. The doorman said yes and that nearly everybody in the building knew it, but was afraid or unwilling to say anything.

The information was repeated that same day by Col. Tetzlaff’s daughter, Marisol, a childhood friend. She herself had recently discovered that she had been abducted as a baby, and in 2001 a federal judge had sentenced Tetzlaff to eight years in prison for kidnapping her. Tetzlaff died in a military hospital last month.

Finally, Mr. Pietragalla’s adoptive parents confirmed the truth.

In April, he received definitive confirmation from a gene bank that holds blood samples from close relatives of abducted children. The DNA of his blood sample matched that of his grandparents, who had searched for him but died years ago.

The news has shaken up his life.

Mr. Pietragalla and his girlfriend, Magali Escriu, canceled plans to move to Brazil, and he quit his job delivering beer to supermarkets. He is working in public relations for Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose members are pleased at how openly he embraced the truth about his past.

He has been eager to learn every detail of his parents’ lives from newfound aunts, uncles and cousins. And though most victims of baby thefts have chosen to maintain a low profile, Mr. Pietragalla recently held a news conference and has appeared in magazines and on television.

“The idea is to encourage other people who are unsure about their identity to come forward,” he said. “You can’t go on with doubts for your whole life. At some point, you’ve got to know where you come from so you can understand who you are.”


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