Chilean mothers’ long search for babies stolen during Pinochet’s dictatorship
Fifty years after coup that delivered Pinochet power, thousands still grieve the children stolen during his rule
Gladys Muñoz remembers her baby’s first cries as clearly as if they were yesterday. She holds onto that moment from 44 years ago, including her quick glance at his tiny feet – a memory she has fought to keep close in her mind as time has passed. It’s the only proof she really has that her child even existed.
Alberto was born premature to 17-year-old Muñoz and her husband on 10 April 1979 in a hospital in Providencia, a neighbourhood in the Chilean capital Santiago. Over the following days, as she recovered in hospital, Muñoz says she was denied access to her son.
Muñoz was told Alberto had been put in an incubator. All requests to see him or hold him were shut down. All she knew about him was his size and weight: 35 centimetres; one kilo and 325 grams. Looking back, even this might not be true.
Five days later, she was told her son had died. The hospital claimed he had been stillborn and was being held for scientific research. All she had to mourn her child were the clothes she had ready for him; there was no body, no memorial, not even a death certificate.
‘I always had this instinct that he could be somewhere out there’
Muñoz believes Alberto is one of the tens of thousands of Chilean children who were taken from their mothers to be put up for adoption, as part of an international trafficking scandal whose scale is only now beginning to be fully understood.
The practice was widespread during Chile’s military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet, from 1973 to 1990. It was abetted by a network of officials; judges, social workers, health professionals and international adoption agencies facilitated the overseas sale of babies and young children.
Chilean investigators have been looking into the circumstances of around 8,000 overseas adoptions between 1970 and 1999, as part of a criminal inquiry opened by judge Mario Carroza, from the Court of Appeals, in 2018. Subsequent investigations led by the Chilean legislature and international NGOs put the number of illegal adoptions closer to 20,000.
openDemocracy has spoken to six Chilean mothers whose stories are eerily alike, revealing a disturbing pattern of abuse that targeted their reproductive rights. These women recounted how after giving birth they were not allowed to see or hold their babies, were later told they had died and denied access to the bodies. Often, they were not given any documentation confirming the death.
International adoptions of Chilean children had begun decades before 11 September 1973, when Pinochet overthrew the country’s democratically elected government, but his regime actively promoted them, including those that were forced and illegal. A lack of regulation of international adoption processes made it possible for thousands of children to leave Chile with little scrutiny, to be adopted by families across Europe and North America.
Chile’s 1965 law introduced closed adoptions, which established a clean break from biological families, where adoptees were unable to access information about their origins. Chile enacted a law formalising the procedure for overseas adoptions as late as 1988, but this did not regulate the evaluation and selection of adoptive families. In 1999, the country signed and ratified the Hague Convention on intercountry adoption, which explicitly seeks to protect the “best interests” of the children and “prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children”.
Ana María Olivares, a Chilean journalist who first noticed a pattern of irregular adoptions between Chile and Sweden back in the early 2000s, says: “What happened here was part of national and international policy, where the countries turned a blind eye. These children were received without effectively asking what the conditions were in which they were born.”
Olivares worked on the story as part of her thesis for her journalism degree. Now she works with Chilean volunteer organisation Hijos y Madres del Silencio (Children and Mothers of Silence), which investigates the families severed by forced and illegal adoptions and helps to reconnect them.
‘It was like we were all in a prison’
Gladys Muñoz, who lost her son Alberto within minutes of his birth, remembers how she cried for days after she left the hospital without her baby. “We did nothing else, just cry. But I should have demanded to see him. That’s in my conscience and that bothers me, that maybe we could have done more.”
The pain has not gone away. 11 September marked 50 years since the bloody US-backed coup that overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende. For 17 years of Pinochet’s rule, the regime cracked down on all opposition and tens of thousands were imprisoned and tortured. More than 3,000 people were killed and at least 1,469 forcibly disappeared, their whereabouts unknown to this day.
The climate of fear forced many to stay quiet. Those who lost children were too scared to complain to hospitals or the judiciary – state institutions controlled by the military regime. “We suffered terror, there was nothing we could do. The psychological fear stays with you. It was like we were all in a prison,” Muñoz said.
“During this time, Chile became one of the world’s leading exporters of children,” says Olivares.
“The hospitals were run by the military; the mayors were no longer elected and were also put in place by the military, even the neighbourhood councils. It is very difficult to go to fight for anything. That’s why they always remained silent.”
It is only recently that many found the strength to tell their stories and to begin the long search for their stolen children.
‘All I got was a piece of paper’
Cipriana Bustos Oyarzun was 19 when she gave birth to Pamela, her second child, in Sótero del Río Hospital in Puente Alto, one of Santiago’s poorer neighbourhoods. Like Muñoz, she remembers hearing her baby cry after the caesarean, and recalls a doctor telling her it was a “cute little girl”. It’s a memory she has held onto for 48 years – but she can only imagine what Pamela looked like when she was born. She was never allowed to see her baby.
After five days recovering in hospital, a doctor whose name she can’t remember told Bustos that her the baby had died of “foetal distress”. She was not allowed to see or bury her baby and hospital staff provided no further information.
Now nearly 70, Bustos recalls her desperate attempts to find out about the daughter she had only ever heard cry at birth. “I demanded to see her, but they wouldn’t let me. I went to the office and they told me to go to the secretary’s office, but they did not attend to me either. I went to the morgue but I couldn’t even manage to get there because I felt like I was fainting, and couldn’t walk properly because I’d just been operated on.”
Almost 50 years later, Bustos Oyarzun holds on tightly to the only documentation she was ever given to show she had a baby. “All I got was a piece of paper. That’s where it stayed, but I always had the doubt. I never forgot her.”
Bustos Oyarzun and Muñoz are just two of the hundreds of Chilean mothers who feel they were targeted by the state for forced and illegal adoption of their babies because they were vulnerable. Often young, many of them lived on the poorer outskirts of Santiago. Though they were in the city, their experiences mirrored those of people in rural areas across Chile, especially Indigenous communities such as the Mapuche, who have also reported many of their children being stolen.
Many of the mothers’ report that it was their second child who was taken, perhaps the perpetrators thought we wouldn’t “suffer as much”, the women now believe.
Karen Alfaro, a leading researcher into Chile’s forced adoptions scandal, says the Pinochet dictatorship “sought to control the birth rate, especially in the case of rural women – it was a way of controlling the ‘quality’ of the country’s population.”
Alfaro, who has a doctorate in social history and contemporary politics, says poorer women were also targeted due to assumed ideology. Throughout the 1960s and the rise of socialist Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, “poor women were [seen as] protagonists during all the mobilisation processes; they were liberal, they were sexually free. So controlling their bodies was a goal.”
In 1978, Pinochet introduced the National Childhood Plan, which sought to enshrine the ‘traditional’ family but focussed heavily on engineering it through forced adoptions. In her research, Alfaro noted that the plan set out to “significantly increase the number of adoptions in Chile, as a way to provide homes for children.” It also wanted to “create a movement of public opinion favourable to adoption, inform and motivate adoption and speed up processes”. Pinochet’s wife, Lucía Hiriart, was appointed head of the organisations and government agencies related to children and family policies in Chile.
Alfaro, now dean of Universidad Austral de Chile’s philosophy department, says: “The whole system made it possible to capture young mothers or girls at an early age in order to be able to follow them and force them to give their children up for adoption, or take the child once they delivered their children in hospitals”.
‘I was young, I believed in everything the doctors told me’
A decade after Muñoz lost her son, Mercedes Tapia, aged 27, was in the same maternity ward in Hospital del Salvador. It was 30 August 1989 and Tapia’s son Jacob had been born by a caesarean. Jacob had an older sister, nearly six-year-old Bárbara, whom he would never see.
Fast forward to the present and Bárbara, now 39, sits with her mother in the family house in northern Santiago, photographs of past generations behind them. The two women exchange comforting glances as they recall the day Jacob arrived and disappeared.
Tapia was taken to hospital two days before Bárbara’s sixth birthday, and today her daughter still remembers the excitement she felt about meeting her new little brother. “I actually handed out my birthday invitations, and my mother told me, when your little brother arrives, we’re going to celebrate.”
“But he never arrived,” says Tapia, her voice breaking. Now 61, some memories of that time are blurry but certain details remain. She remembers that every ultrasound scan during her pregnancy was normal and doctors found nothing wrong with the baby. But when she was admitted to hospital to give birth, a midwife warned her that her baby would die. A social worker asked if she would allow his body to be used for scientific research, Tapia recalls. “They practically brainwash you, saying: your son is going to die, he’s not going to live”. Later, someone came and asked her to sign a blank piece of paper. “I signed it.”
She recalls waking up alone in a room after surgery. “A midwife came and told me, your baby died. I think they put me to sleep because I woke up drowsy, I did not know where I was. I didn’t feel him, I didn’t hear him cry, I didn’t see him. So I don’t even have that memory.”
When Tapia and other relatives asked for the body to arrange a burial, they were told the child had a deformity too shocking for them to see.
Unlike Muñoz, Tapia was given Jacob’s birth and death certificates, but she has never felt the details of either make sense. She shows me handwritten documents yellowed with age. The box next to “Vivo” is crossed out in pen, meaning he was born alive, but a note scribbled next to it reads: “Died 30.8.89”. Written below, in a different pen, is a note saying that that Jacob received a tuberculosis jab, despite being apparently alive for only an hour and a half. The vaccine is normally given to newborns within a few days of birth and up to six months old.
Jacob’s death certificate states that he died of asphyxia and was buried in the general cemetery. His mother believes she was targeted while pregnant, maybe even from the time she saw her first doctor. “They catch you, and from there the information comes down from the top. I was young, I believed in everything the doctors told me, I had her [Bárbara] and we had no problems, so we were supposed to have a healthy baby.”
Tapia adds: “There are no words to explain the pain, the pain of deceit, of betrayal. Because doctors betray you, the people around me betrayed me. It’s unimaginable. It is so personal, so much that I swear my chest hurts when I talk about it.”
When openDemocracy asked the Hospital del Salvador about Muñoz and Tapia’s babies, Victoria Pinto Henriquez, the director of Hospital del Salvador, said she was “not aware of any details relating to the two cases”. Pinto Henriquez’s statement said: “Due to the date of the requested information, there are no staff members who can provide further details on these records.” She noted that the hospital had conducted similar searches of its database and physical archives for cases being investigated by authorities. But, she said, “despite the search conducted in both the local office archive and external storage, no birth record books from that date or any other were found”.
Since the first cases came to light in 2014, after an investigation by Chilean outlet CIPER, hundreds of adoptees raised abroad have begun to trace their roots back to Chile with DNA ancestry tests and the help of Chilean groups such as Connecting Roots, Hijos y Madres del Silencio and Nos Buscamos, or European organisations Chilean Adoptees Worldwide and Chileadoption.se. Collectively, they’ve facilitated more than 700 reunifications.
Many adoptees, victims of a forced and illegal process, have been found in the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and other European countries. So far, only the Netherlands and Sweden have launched official investigations into their role in inter-country adoptions. Alfaro’s research records cases of foreign foster parents paying between $6,500 to $150,000 to adopt a child.
‘Your heart says no, he’s not dead’
It was only after seeing a TV news report about illegal adoption in 2019 that Tapia and her family began to actively look for Jacob. Bárbara, who now works with Connecting Roots, went to the cemetery to find her brother’s records, but there was nothing. When she went to the hospital, they said Jacob’s files had been burned. But as her mother, Mercedes says, “I never felt that my son died – your heart says no, he’s not dead”.
For adoptees, the search for their birth families is a long and complicated process that includes visiting registry offices for birth certificates, tracing family names and scouring likely identity papers for leads. For mothers, it is even harder. Documentation is scarce, often, they don’t remember the names of hospital staff from all those years ago, and they are obstructed at every turn by a culture of silence and denial. Ultimately, all they can often do is submit their DNA to sites such as MyHeritage and hope their child searches for them.
Earlier this year, Bustos Oyarzun, who lost her newborn daughter Pamela nearly half-a-century ago, filed an official police complaint. But hers is one of more than 600 cases currently under investigation by Chile’s justice ministry, out of 8,000 suspicious overseas adoptions initially included in the inquiry by judge Carroza. Neither the ministry nor the judge Jaime Balmaceda, who replaced Carroza in the case, responded to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.
“There were systematic human rights violations,” legislator Boris Barrera told openDemocracy. Barrera, who led the congressional committee that investigated the scandal in 2018, says it was “a child trafficking machine that developed throughout Chile with the same methodology, using the same forms, the same deceptions. They were crimes committed by agents of the state”.
Barrera has asked Chile’s President Gabriel Boric to set up a truth and reparation commission and to build a DNA database to enable families to connect. In the meantime, there are attempts to develop a protocol for Chilean consulates around the world to provide adoptees with information about their birth families, should they request it, rather than forcing them to travel to Chile to conduct the forlorn search.
“We believe that all the testimony of this must remain in history so that it will never happen again,” says Barrera.
Many of the mothers interviewed by openDemocracy said they are not seeking justice or reparations; all they want is to find their children.
The struggle is at its worst at night, says Gladys Muñoz, who is plagued with questions of where her son is, what kind of person he grew up to be. “I would like to feel him and ask him to forgive me for not looking for him sooner,” she says. “To take a child from a person and not give any explanation – one has to live with that for the rest of their life. It’s like a torture because you can’t forget it. I have never forgotten my son, never, never.”
“I am not interested in ensuring justice, because justice is not going to give me back the 30-odd years of being without my child,” Mercedes Tapia says.
She hopes that she will be reunited before it’s too late. If she doesn’t find him before she dies, she’ll “leave with this sorrow”.
“So my legacy is for Barbara to say to Jacob – if he appears someday – that I loved him in silence. That I never gave him away,” she pauses, overcome with emotion. “That I always waited and hoped that I would meet him.”