Adopted as a young child, Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragán grew up in Argentina believing her biological parents died in an accident. But Sampallo grew suspicious as the story changed several times. In 2001, after taking a DNA test, she finally learned the truth: her parents, Mirta Barragán and Leonardo Ruben Sampallo, were dissidents imprisoned by the nation’s military dictatorship in 1977—when Mirta was six months pregnant—and never heard from again. Sampallo was likely born in a torture camp. Now 30, she is suing her adoptive parents for kidnapping (a verdict is expected April 4). Osvaldo Rivas and Maria Cristina Gomez Pinto face up to 25 years in prison.
As many as 30,000 people were killed or disappeared during Argentina’s military rule from 1976 to 1983.
Sampallo’s case brings to light a shocking practice of the time: political prisoners’ children were handed over for “rehabilitation,” sometimes to those who actively participated in their parents’ deaths. “We’re not just talking about a handful,” says Pablo Policzer, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Latin American politics. “We’re talking about hundreds.” Indeed, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), a human rights group of victims ’ family members, have located 87 others like Sampallo. On their website, they estimate there are approximately 500 more “with their identities changed.”
Sampallo’s charges against her adoptive parents, which are the first of their kind, help bring about “a clear break with the past,” Policzer says. While Argentina has undergone a series of historic trials related to the former military rule, the process hasn’t been smooth. In recent months, former coast guard officer Héctor Febres and Lt.-Col. Paul Alberto Navone—both of whom, it was believed, would provide information on the kidnapped babies— were found dead. It makes Sampallo’s efforts all the more important. Standing in front of the courthouse after giving testimony, she dedicated her work to “all of society, and the rest of the children in my condition.” M
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