Thousands of Chilean children were stolen from their mothers during the military rule of Gen Augusto Pinochet and sent abroad for adoption. A government investigation is looking into how the babies were taken.
Sara Jineo is still extremely upset about what happened when she took her four-day-old baby boy, Camilo, to the hospital in Temuco, southern Chile, in 1988.
“They tricked me,” she says. “They made me go to the hospital and said they were going to do a blood test on my baby.”
But the woman who took Camilo out of her arms never brought him back. “I looked all over the hospital and when I went outside and asked a policeman for help, he looked at me, laughed, and said I was mad,” she says.
Sara, who still lives outside Temuco, has been looking for her son for the last 30 years. She is convinced he was taken abroad. She says a local taxi driver told her about a woman taking a crying baby to the local airport on the same day Camilo disappeared. The child was apparently wrapped in the same distinctive baby blanket she had used.
Her situation is not unique. Sara is part of a generation of mothers and children trying to find each other after being involuntarily separated during Gen Augusto Pinochet’s military rule from 1973 to 1990.
Many of the mothers, including Sara, were Mapuche, the largest indigenous community in Chile.
Making up around 7.5% of the 17 million population, they often live in poverty in rural areas in the south and say they are treated like second-class citizens, deprived of their land and culture.
Though illegal adoptions did not start during the Pinochet years – and many were also going on in neighbouring Argentina – they were ramped up under his rule, and with a specific aim.
The Pinochet government wanted to eliminate extreme poverty, particularly among children. The strategy was to simply take children out of the country, according to Jeanette Velásquez, who works for volunteer group Hijos y Madres del Silencio (Children and Mothers of Silence).
She says social workers, nuns, doctors, lawyers and international adoption agencies were all involved in a slick operation, which sent babies to developed countries, including Holland, the United States, Sweden and Germany.
“Some women tell me horrific stories about how they were breast-feeding their baby when it was pulled from their arms. There was a lot of violence,” she says.
In other cases, the pressure was more psychological. Social workers would tell mothers they were too poor to keep the child, or that they had too many other children already to cope with another.
Vulnerable mothers, mainly single mothers, were specifically targeted.
Some women were forced to sign paperwork they did not understand. Some were even told their children had died.
• Some 20,000 children were adopted by foreign couples during the Pinochet era
• Chile’s Court of Appeals says at least 8,000 of those are suspicious cases
• Some activists believe that number is much higher
• Almost 200 mothers have been reunited with their children
Alejandro Quezada’s mother was one of those women. She was just 14 and a single mother, from a rural area outside of Valdivia, in the country’s south.
Shortly after giving birth at home, she took her baby son for a check-up at the local hospital. There, he was whisked away from her, with staff insisting he was ill. She was later told he had died and his body had already been disposed of.
“When she started screaming, they gave her an injection and she didn’t wake up for three days,” says Alejandro.
Women like Alejandro’s birth mother were never given death certificates or allowed to see the body of their child. They were told it would upset them and the climate of fear during the Pinochet era stopped them from asking further questions.
Alejandro only started piecing the story together much later in life. In 1979, when he was just a few weeks old, he was sent to The Netherlands.
He says he was adopted by a Dutch couple who considered themselves part of the Flower Power generation and wanted to help poorer countries. They were told his mother had voluntarily given him up for adoption.
“During my teenage years, I had so many questions about my identity,” says Alejandro. “Even though I love and appreciate my adoptive parents, I felt depressed and alone and went off the rails.”
In 1997, when he was 17 years old, he travelled to Chile with his adoptive family to meet the Dutch nun who had arranged his adoption. She took Alejandro to meet his birth mother.
He immediately noted their physical resemblance, but it was not an easy encounter. “I had so many questions for her and it was very frustrating, because we couldn’t understand each other and the nun wouldn’t let us see each other for very long,” he says.
Alejandro, who had grown up speaking Dutch, decided he needed to learn Spanish so he and his birth mother could talk to each other without a translator.
It was not until he was 30 and living in Chile that he finally learned the truth: his mother had never wanted to give him up but had been told he was dead.
The nun who arranged the adoption and used to shuttle back and forth between the two countries is now living in The Netherlands.
She has spoken publicly about the adoptions she was involved in and has insisted that she did the right thing. She said she believed that she created better lives for Alejandro and the various other children given in adoption.
Alejandro’s experiences led him to found a charity, Chilean Adoptees Worldwide, which helps other adoptees find their mothers.
The search is often arduous. The adoption documents rarely list the full names of both parents. Sometimes names and identity numbers were deliberately changed.
Alejandro has found the registry office in the capital, Santiago, to be a good source of information, as original handwritten birth certificates sometimes hold clues.
A government investigation started in 2018 as mothers demanded answers about why their children were taken from them against their will.
A growing number of people who were taken as children from their biological mothers also started discovering the truth behind their adoptions.
Because of the growing number of complaints a special police unit was formed last March, which is working with mothers in regions where many of the children were thought to have been taken.
A DNA test has become the final piece in the puzzle. The government and charities helping the mothers want them to do the test so their DNA forms part of a central data bank managed by the government that will help adoptees find matches.
But the women are expected to pick up the costs themselves and each kit costs around $100 (£83) – which is around half a month’s salary for the majority of them.
Jaime Balmaceda, a judge at the Court of Appeals, is involved in the government investigation. He is in charge of working out which of the adoptions were legitimate and which were not.
His theory is that money was changing hands and that is what he is trying to prove.
Not everyone is convinced the investigators are digging deep enough. Critics think that the Chilean state is trying to shield the judges, social workers, nuns and others involved in getting the children out of the country from prosecution.
Those who want to see justice done say the advanced age and poor health of some of those suspected of involvement in the forced adoption scheme should not be a barrier to prosecution.
Mr Balmaceda says delays in the investigation are not deliberate but that the process is long and often hampered by missing paperwork. “We are not trying to protect anyone, or waiting for people to die so they can’t be brought to justice,” he insists.
For Alejandro, jail-time for those behind his forced adoption has never been the goal.
The nun who arranged for him to be sent to The Netherlands recently visited Chile and faced questioning as part of the government investigation. But Alejandro says he does not want her to go to prison as she is in her 80s now.
“We’ve been treated inhumanely, but that doesn’t mean that we should treat other people like that.” Making sure something like this never happens again is more important to him.
“If you want to adopt because you want to help, that is one of the most noble things in the world,” he says. “But you need to make sure you have all the information, because children will have questions about their biological roots and you need to make sure that you know the answers.”