World

Genetic bank that ID's Argentina's stolen babies turns 30

Martin Ogando and his 91-year-old grandmother, Delia Giovanola, flip through a stack of photos until they reach an image of a man Ogando never saw in life: his father.

The two share similar skin tone and blue eyes — products of the same genetics that finally allowed Ogando to discover his birth identity through DNA tests in November 2015.

The tests showed that he's the biological son of Jorge Ogando and Stella Maris Montesano, a child born in captivity in a clandestine detention center and taken away from parents who were forcibly disappeared in 1976 during Argentina's dictatorship.

"I found out the truth about my life," Ogando said of the tests that also reunited him with his grandmother. "A beautiful, but heavy truth."

During the 1976-1983 dictatorship, Argentina's military rulers systematically stole babies born to political prisoners, most of whom were then killed. Some 30,000 people died or were disappeared for political reasons during the dictatorship, according to human rights groups.

The search for those children spearheaded by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo human rights group, led to breakthrough advancements in DNA identification.

The group emerged from gatherings of grandmothers who marched every week in front of the main square in Buenos Aires to demand the missing children. They also traveled around the globe in search of experts to find out if it was possible to determine the parenthood of the stolen babies, perhaps from blood samples.

"What were we supposed to do?" said Giovanola, one of the founders of the Grandmothers group. "Blood from whom? First we needed to find the baby. And then, the problem was that we lacked the blood samples from the parents. That's why the whole family on the mother and the father's side began to give blood."

The Grandmothers turned for help to U.S. geneticist Mary-Claire King, who in 1984 worked with Argentine colleagues to identify by genetic analysis the first confirmed stolen child. She later developed a system using mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from mothers, to identify individuals.

That led officials in the post-dictatorship era — with strong prodding from the Grandmothers — to pass a law formally creating Argentina's National Genetics Bank, the first of its kind in the world, which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

The institution's head, Mariana Herrera, noted that the institution was created by the government to solve crimes committed by the state itself. "There's nowhere else where this has turned into a policy to repair human rights abuses," she said.

The bank contains a database of blood samples collected from families searching for kidnapped children as well as adults who suspect they might have been stolen as infants.

To date, 122 cases of stolen children have been resolved — most by the Genetics Bank — but several hundred remain unaccounted for.

The bank has become a world authority in the matter, helping Colombia, Peru and El Salvador find the disappeared from their own conflicts. It's also provided information to the group Bring Back Our Girls of Nigeria, which has been hunting for the children stolen by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

The 40-year-old Ogando, a Doral, Florida, resident who was known for most of his life as Diego Berestycki, contacted the Grandmothers and carried out the test after the man who raised him died.

"I would have loved to have met my parents. From what my grandma tells me, I looked a lot like my dad. I even walked like him," Ogando said.