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Solving the Dirty War's mysteries

A quarter century after the end of dictatorship, Argentina struggles to heal wounds.

BUENOS AIRES — Julia Delgado's parents were arrested by Argentine military officers in the city of Cordoba in 1976. Her mother was six months pregnant.

Three months later, Julia was born in a military hospital and returned to the care of her grandparents. Her parents were never seen again. “I hope that someday we'll be able to recover their remains,” Delgado said. “Because we don't know where they are or what happened to them.”

Twenty-five years after the exit of its last brutal military dictatorship, Argentina is still trying to heal painful rifts. Children of the so-called disappeared search for their true identities. Nameless corpses are found in mass graves. Some of the perpetrators have faced justice; some have not.

The fractures from that era prove hard to mend. But Argentina's quest for truth and justice continues to advance.

[Opinion: "Dirty Secrets, Dirty War" - A new book about Argentina's past and why the truth matters.]

“For the first time, we can say that we're beginning to bring the past into the light of day,” said Alvaro Fuentes of the organization Children of Exile. Fuentes was born in Mexico, after his parents fled the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 until 1983 — the period that the English-language media calls the “Dirty War,” a term originally used by the military to justify its violent counterterrorism campaign.

Argentines usually prefer to call it “The Era of Dictatorship,” during which an estimated 22,000 to 30,000 people were kidnapped. Most of them were taken from their homes under cover of night, and secretly detained for torture and execution — in euphemistic brevity, “disappeared.”

Although the vast majority of their bodies have never been found, it's always been thought that many were buried in mass graves at detention centers. The first one was discovered last year, a pile of 10,000 burned and broken bone fragments. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology team announced at the beginning of last month that they have traced the DNA of 42 skeletons to the families those bodies belonged to.

Very often, the disappearance of adults means another sort of disappearance for young or unborn children. Unlike Julia Delgado, who was returned to her birth family, many babies of the disappeared were adopted by childless couples linked to the military regime.

A group called the “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo” took the lead in finding the birth families of these stolen children. By confirming tips with DNA tests, they've organized 10 reunions in the past year, bringing the total count to 97. It's estimated that there are still upwards of 500 grandchildren who don't know who their biological parents are. Of course, it's not clear that all of them would want to — the moment of revelation has been deeply disturbing for some.