Los Desaparecidos: Tracing Argentina’s Missing and Their Children Using DNA Analysis

Figure 1 – Madres de la Plaza de Mayo raising awareness during their weekly marches in central Buenos Aires [4].

Operation Condor was a violent and widespread right-wing initiated campaign to suppress political oppression throughout South America, during which the “Dirty War” of Argentina occurred. Members of the Batallón de Inteligencia 601, a special intelligence division of the Argentine Army that existed between 1973-2000 infiltrated and gathered data on groups that were to be oppressed; this information was then used by the division to target and kill, kidnap, or otherwise abuse people who threatened or opposed the oppression [1]. Between 1975 and 1978, the military intelligence calculated that 22,000 individuals had been killed or disappeared [2], and there is widespread speculation that as many as 30,000 people disappeared within Argentina during the entire dictatorship [3]. The missing are referred to as ‘desaparecidos,’ Spanish for ‘the disappeared.’

During this time, children of the disappeared, either taken with their parents or born in detention centers, were often distributed amongst military families, given new identities, and raised with the belief that they were the children of their adoptive parents [4]. Since the beginning of the “Dirty War,” extensive work has been done to identify both the buried missing and the falsely identified grandchildren. This work is being conducted by NGOs such as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, as well as by governmental organizations such as CONADI, the National Commission for the Right to Identity, a branch of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. EAAF seeks to identify the desaparecidos through the application of forensic scientific techniques, while Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo and CONADI aim to provide the improperly identified grandchildren with the knowledge of their true identities.

EAAF was established in 1984 to investigate the location and identity of missing individuals and return them to their proper families. Their investigative methods begin with the collection of written and spoken accounts of the missing, and then progress to the analysis of documentation and records to determine where the remains might have been buried, often identified as N.N. for “ningún nombre,” Spanish for “no name.” Next, the archeological component of exhuming the remains and finally the forensic component of using DNA testing to identify the remains takes place. In 2008, EAAF was given authorization by the Federal Chambers of Court to extract small samples such as bone or teeth from the skeletons that had previously been exhumed, and it is from these samples that DNA analysis occurs [5].

Using more than 5,000 blood samples from relatives of the desaparecidos, EAAF compares the DNA of the skeletal remains and compares them to their extensive DNA database of relatives. The blood samples taken from relatives are

collected on an FTA card, which lyses the cells and stabilizes and immobilizes the nucleic acids, facilitating their storage at room temperature for extended periods of time and with minimized decay [5]. To minimize the chance of false identification, especially as sample identifdication becomes increasingly difficult, identification methods shift from visual observations to data analysis, and finally to scientific identification, as illustrated in Figure 2 [6].

Figure 2 – Analysis techniques used to minimize misidentification as identification gets more difficult. *STR-based DNA analysis analyzes short tandem repeats in DNA sequences to determine degree of relation (with more shared repeats between more closely related people). ** Odontology involves the examination and analysis of dental structures and features as an identification technique [6].

Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, a group started by mothers of the desaparecidos, has raised awareness of the extent of the human rights crimes and the number of disappeared during the “Dirty War.” Additionally, they have worked tirelessly to identify their grandchildren, doing so through direct support, supporting scientific advancement, and lobbying for government involvement in the identification process. Their efforts to engage the government resulted in the establishment of CONADI. CONADI, in collaboration with the National Bank of Genetic Data, provides free DNA analysis to any person born between 1976 and 1983 who questions his or her identity [7]. The National Bank of Genetic Data was established in 1987 and stores DNA samples that belong to relatives of unidentified grandchildren either known or believed to exist. Because DNA is shared between biological relatives, these samples can be contrasted against DNA samples from people born during the time of the dictatorship. The use of DNA analysis through extended family relations began with the “grandparenting index,” in which human leukocyte antigen (HLA) was compared [8]. Multiple genes located on chromosome 6 are responsible for coding for HLA proteins [9], and by detecting variations in the proteins themselves as well as the genes that code for them, researchers are able to determine the degree to which two individuals are related, with more closely related individuals sharing a larger number of alleles.

However, the relatively high chance of non-related individuals coincidentally appearing to be related with this analysis, roughly 7% among Caucasians, led to the necessity for a more advanced identification method [10]. The HLA technique was replaced with mitochondrial DNA analysis, a technique that analyzes DNA extracted from mitochondria, and is therefore not able to be analyzed by other methods. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited from only maternal lineage, is highly polymorphic, and contains a dense amount of genes, making it a useful target for DNA analysis in the identification of humans [11]. Autosomal marker analysis was eventually incorporated into the analysis process, and the analysis techniques were improved such that they could determine genetic relationships with close to 100% accuracy [8]. The success of these analytic methods is largely due to the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a technique that allows for the amplification of DNA samples that were initially too small to be analyzed.

In November of 2009, amendments to the criminal procedure code were passed [12], allowing courts to order DNA samples be obtained from alleged children of the desaparecidos. Proponents of this law highlight that ‘missing’ children will be identified, and that grandparents and society have the right to know the truth because of the government’s involvement. Opponents of this law believe it to be an impermissible invasion of privacy and argue that the government should not be allowed to exercise such extreme intrusion rights. This opposition is supported by the fact that some people do not want to undergo DNA testing, do not want to implicate and threaten the people who raised them and who they consider to be their “parents,” and do not want to face the emotional aspects of having lived a “false life.”

Thus, with regard to the children of the desaparecidos, the rights of the individual and the rights of society contradict one another; individual rights oppose compulsory testing, while societal rights favor unconsented testing. Given the legitimacy of the two arguments, which outweighs the other? Perhaps neither one does, and instead of debating the ethicality of each fundamental right, there should be a focus on determining methods of encouraging children of the desaparecidos to supply their DNA samples willingly. This would eliminate issues of ethicality while simultaneously expanding the truth available to society about the atrocities that occurred at the hand of their government.


1.“Argentina reveals secrets of ‘dirty war.’” 01/29/2010. http://www.buenosairesnews.net/story/594721
2. Arancibia Clavel, E. 1978. Obtained from the Dinges archive: Document from Enrique Arancibia Clavel files, ca July 14,1978, doc. label Carpeta V 232-238. http://www.johndinges.com/condor/documents/22000calculo.htm
3.Castillo, M. “Trial over terrifying ‘Operation Condor’ under way.” CNN. 3/5/2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/05/world/americas/argentina-operation-condor-trial
4. Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. http://www.abuelas.org.ar/english/history.htm
5. Argentine Forensic Antrhopology Team. First Report. Latin American Initiative for The Identification of The Disappeared. Genetics and Human Rights. Argentina Section. http://www.eaaf.org/eaaf/LIID_01-56_eng.pdf
6. International Committee of the Red Cross. Missing People, DNA Analysis and Identification of Human Remains. A guide to best practice in armed conflicts and other situations of armed violence. Second edition 2009. http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/icrc_002_4010.pdf
7. Ministerio de Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Nación Argentina.  “Derecho a la identidad.” http://www.derhuman.jus.gov.ar/pdfs/prensa/ddalaidentidad_carpetadeprensa.pdf
8. Stern, A. “Science in the Service of Human Rights: Argentina 37 Years After Coup.” The Huffington Post – The Blog. 3/28/2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alex-stern/argentina-dirty-war-dna_b_2941724.html
9. “HLA gene family – Genetics Home Reference.” Genetics Home Reference – Your guide to understanding genetic conditions. http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/geneFamily/hla
10. Hui, K.M., and J.L. Bidwell, eds. 1993. The handbook of HLA typing technique. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.
11. DNA Diagnostics Center. “Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).” http://www.forensicdnacenter.com/mt-dna.html
12. “Ley 26.549 (modifica CPPN) obtención coercitiva de ADN.” Instituto De Estudios Penales. http://www.iestudiospenales.com.ar/legislacion/leyes/1021-ley-26549-modifica-cppn-obtencion-coercitiva-de-adn.html

Suggested for further information: Our Disappeared/ Nuestros Desaparecidos. Dir. Jun Mandelbaum. Geovision, 2008. DVD.

Ariana Olshan is a junior at The George Washington University studying Biology, Psychology and Spanish. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.