The tale of Carlita Artes, less than a year old when she was kidnaped in 1976, apparently by security forces, is a story of horror shared by perhaps 400 more of the littlest victims of Argentina's war against suspected leftists in the mid-1970s.
For the past nine years, Carlita Artes has been living as "Gina Ruffo," the daughter of Eduardo Ruffo, a onetime kingpin of the far-right death squad known as the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, which, along with sectors of the police and military, conducted the campaign of terror against the left.
Carlita, like most of the missing children who rights activists believe are still alive, is "doubly-disappeared" -- first kidnaped and now kept hidden by her abductors, who fear prosecution.
According to Carlita's grandmother and an Argentine human rights group, the child and her mother were abducted in 1976 in the Bolivian town of Oruro in a joint Argentine-Bolivian security operation during which her father, Uruguayan Enrique Lucas Lopez, was tortured and killed in the capital of La Paz.
Shortly before his death, Lucas Lopez had fled Buenos Aires, where his boss, Juan Jose Torres, the exiled former president of Bolivia, had been murdered.
Military documents obtained later in La Paz by Argentine human rights groups show that Carlita and her mother, Graciela Rutila Artes, a student leader and activist in Torres' Revolutionary Workers Party, were turned over to Argentine security personnel on Aug. 26, 1976. From that day, all traces were lost of the mother, one of at least 8,900 persons who disappeared during the military-led war against leftist terrorists and suspected dissidents.
A search by Carlita's maternal grandmother, Matilde Artes Company, has turned up a series of documents and photographs showing that the child was adopted by Ruffo.
In early 1984, Carlita disappeared a second time, when Ruffo fled efforts by Argentina's new democratic government to bring him to justice.
The girl, her grandmother said, is a "stolen object, which is neither enjoyed, nor allowed to be enjoyed by others, but rather hidden away." Artes Company, like other women who belong to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group, has conducted a search for her missing grandchild worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The grandmothers group is an offshoot of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children disappeared during the military repression.
The legacy of the children, either abducted with their parents or born in one of the 340 clandestine detention centers run by Argentina's military during the past decade, is one of the most painful issues faced by the 18-month-old government of civilian President Raul Alfonsin.
"In their perversity, the military contrived to punish our children through their children," said Mirta Acuna de Baravalle, secretary of the grandmothers' group, whose 28-year-old daughter Ana, then five months pregnant, was abducted by security forces in a late-night raid in August 1976. Neither the expectant mother nor her baby was heard from again.
"Only one who has lived it can feel all the pain, the indignation, the impotence of feeling that we count for nothing," Baravalle said.
The grandmothers' group has compiled dossiers on more than 170 missing children. Of the 28 children identified to date, 25 either have been returned or are being returned to their natural families or relatives have won the right to visit them in their adoptive homes.
In three cases, however, bodies of missing children have been found. In January 1984, unmarked graves near Buenos Aires yielded bodies of two children, 6 and 4, who had been shot point blank in the face. They had been buried with their parents in 1976 by the military as "subversives killed in a shootout." And a year ago, the body of 2-year-old Emiliano Gines, who died an orphan's death of acute pneumonia in a children's hospital, was found in an unmarked grave in the provincial capital of La Plata.
Tracking down leads is daunting -- more so given the frequent efforts by the military to hide the identity of children they reportedly considered "war booty." Frequently, the grandmothers have had to wait for anonymous tips or even anxious queries from adoptive parents wondering if their child is one of the missing. In the case of children born in the detention centers, relatives usually lack photographs or other evidence to help them carry out their search.
Recently, however, the grandmothers found help in a test of "grandpaternity" similar to one used in inheritance cases. Working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they have instituted a test using "genetic markers" in the blood that frequently can demonstrate familial relationships beyond reasonable doubt.
The grandmothers achieved a breakthrough using the genetic test earlier this year when it was shown, with 99.8 percent certainty, that a girl who had been given a phony birth certificate that made her 16 months younger, was really 8-year-old Paula Logares. Logares, who disappeared with her parents in Montevideo in 1978, was living with a family headed by a policeman believed to have been connected with the parents' disappearance in Uruguay seven years earlier.
In the Logares case, besides taking blood from her paternal grandparents and her maternal grandmother, doctors "reconstructed" genetic markings of her deceased grandfather by using samples from two aunts and an uncle.
Since the Logares case, doctors have established that in four of five other cases the child under study is that of disappeared persons.
To help with the task, the government recently opened a center at a hospital for the scientific identification of the missing children.
"We are dealing with two groups of people," said Dr. Ana Maria Dilonardi, chief of immunology at Durand Hospital and head of the project. "One is the identification of children grandparents want back. The other is the construction of a genetic bank of all grandparents who might have disappeared children. That way, even if a grandparent dies, if a child appears we can identify him using a computerized genetic bank."
The plight of the missing children increasingly has dominated public attention here. Bookstores are selling a moving account of the grandmothers' struggle entitled "War Booty."
In early April, a movie called "The Official Story," a fictionalized drama about a missing child, opened to rave reviews and a big box office draw. Argentine Norma Aleandro shared the "best actress" prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of an unknowing adoptive mother suddenly faced with the truth about her daughter's origin.
Many observers here, however, seem to agree with the judgment of the leftist weekly El Periodista in the Artes case that "the real story far surpasses 'the official one.' "