Argentine stolen at birth, now 32, learns identity

32-year-old man, stolen at birth, finally learns real identity

Published February 23, 2010 10:19PM (EST)

The search is finally over for Abel Madariaga, whose pregnant wife was kidnapped by Argentine security forces 32 years ago.

After decades of doubt and loneliness, of searching faces in the street in hopes they might be related, Madariaga has found his son.

"I never stopped thinking I would find him," the 59-year-old father said, squeezing his son's arm during a packed news conference Tuesday.

"For the first time, I know who I was. Who I am," the young man said, still marveling at his new identity: Francisco Madariaga Quintela, a name he only learned last week.

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group believes about 400 children were stolen at birth from women who were kidnapped and killed as part of the 1976-1983 dictatorship's "dirty war" against political dissidents, which killed as many as 30,000 people.

Madariaga and his wife, Silvia Quintela, were members of the Montoneros, a leftist group targeted for elimination by government death squads. He last saw his wife -- a 28-year-old surgeon who treated the poor in a Buenos Aires suburb -- being pushed into a Ford Falcon by army officers dressed as civilians as she walked to a train on Jan. 17, 1977.

Madariaga managed to flee into exile to avoid the same fate. Ever since, he has made finding the children of those who disappeared his life's cause.

Returning to a democratic Argentina in 1983, he became the grandmothers group's secretary and first male member. He lobbied the government to create a DNA database and dedicate judicial resources to the effort, and developed strategies for persuading young people with doubts about their identities to come forward and get DNA tests.

All the while, his own son's fate remained a mystery.

As it turned out, Quintela gave birth to the son the couple had planned to name Francisco in July 1977 while imprisoned in one of Argentina's largest and most notorious clandestine torture centers, the Campo de Mayo in suburban Buenos Aires. Surviving prisoners later reported that the newborn was taken from her the next day, and she disappeared shortly thereafter.

A military intelligence officer, Victor Alejandro Gallo, brought the baby, his umbilical cord still attached, home to his wife, Ines Susana Colombo. They named him Alejandro Ramiro Gallo and never told him he was adopted. The marriage didn't last -- Gallo was a violent man, Francisco Madariaga said -- and he never felt like he belonged, looking nothing like his brother and sister.

While the Gallo family fell apart, the younger Madariaga escaped in his own way, twice touring Europe as a professional juggler.

Meanwhile, Gallo was convicted of murdering a couple and their child during a robbery in 1994 and served a 10-year prison term.

Francisco Madariaga's doubts increased, until finally he confronted his adoptive mother. "She broke down and was able to tell me the truth," he recalled, adding that he can't say he blames her. "There was so much violence -- physical and mental -- and she suffered. She also was a victim."

On Feb. 3, encouraged by his friends, the young man and Colombo approached the grandmothers group to tell their story. Fearful of Gallo, they rushed to take a blood test the next day, and DNA results arrived last week. Father and son finally met on Friday -- the same day Gallo was arrested on suspicion of illegal adoption.

Colombo also has been detained and questioned, according to an attorney for the grandmothers group, Alan Iud. Colombo and Gallo are represented by public defenders who didn't respond to calls after hours Tuesday.

Trembling before the cameras, Abel Madariaga recalled his reunion with his son.

"When he came through the door that night, we recognized each other totally, and the hug that brought us together was spectacular," he said.

Over the years, the grandmothers group has succeeded in identifying 100 children of the disappeared. Madariaga has organized many news conferences announcing such victories. This time, his chest heaved as he presented his own son to the world.

"At times I wondered what the hell I was living for. I had to find a way to continue, thinking about everyday things, hoping for this moment of happiness," the elder Madariaga said. "Hugging him that first time, it was as if I filled a hole in my soul."

Francisco Madariaga stopped smiling only at the mention of the name he was given by the Gallos.

"Never again" will I use this name, he said. "To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is."

By Michael Warren

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