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Orphaned in Argentina's dirty war, man is torn between two families

But if Alejandro's experience serves as a road map, the effort to find the rest is sure to be marked with doubt and wrenching pain. Like him, many will come to two awful realizations: that the parents they have known raised them illegitimately and that, in some cases, their adoptive parents participated in the deaths of their biological parents.

Some, like Evelyn Vazquez, have done everything to thwart investigators, believing they must protect the parents who raised them. Others, like Manuel Goncalves, said recouping their lost identity has meant everything. "When I learned I would never know my parents, it was very hard, but I also learned the truth," said Goncalves, 33.

Truth vs. the right to privacy is at the heart of a heated debate in a country that is still grappling with how to deliver justice a quarter-century after its last dictatorship ended.

Robbing the cradles

The roots of the state terror go back to the mid-1970s, when the incompetent administration of President Isabel Martinez de Perón was powerless to stop bombings and assassinations.

The generals moved on March 24, 1976, toppling the president and instituting a ruthlessly efficient strategy: round up suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers and torture them. Whether useful information was gleaned or not, the detainees were killed, up to 30,000 of them, according to rights groups.

What the military had not considered was what to do with the babies born in the torture centers.

Alan Iud, coordinator of the Grandmothers' lawyers, said military planners decided to kill the mothers, draw up fake birth certificates for the orphaned babies and hand them over to military families.

"The handover of the children to members of the armed forces evidently was a mechanism by which each appropriator could show his commitment with the regime," Iud said.

Prosecutors are now preparing for a trial in which the military dictator from 1976 until 1981, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, and other high-ranking officers will be tried on charges of having operated a baby-theft ring fueled by what investigators call a depraved ideology.

"They thought that you did not give the sons of subversives to the grandparents of subversives because they'll be subversives, too," said Judge María del Carmen Roqueta, who oversaw Victor Rei's trial.

Among the mothers whose fate was sealed upon her arrest on July 1, 1977, was Liliana Fontana. Taken prisoner with her companion, Pedro Sandoval, she was thrown into a torture center nicknamed the Athletic Club. Only 20, she did not know that her jailers had sinister plans for her, Sandoval and the baby she was carrying.

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