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Children of the Disappeared: “The documents enable us to touch them…”

December 17, 2009

Rosario, Argentina, 3 pm, December 7, 2009

I get a call at my hotel room. “Someone wants to talk to you,” says the concierge. Then Sabrina is on the line. “We are all down here, I brought the family,” she says.

She is a tall 31-year-old with dark brown hair, alabaster skin and a snub nose. She would pass for a European exchange student if it weren’t for her Argentine “che” Spanish accent. I sit down with her, her brother Sebastian, and her uncle Jorge. As I listen to her talk, I think that two years ago, Sebastian and Jorge, Sabrina and I would have been living in three separate universes. We would have never been able to hold this conversation.

Sabrina’s voice comes back into my mind’s focus. “I knew I was adopted”, she says with a nonchalant, self assured tone. (“It is clear that Sabrina had a good life; her charisma, her inherent happiness show she was adopted by loving foster parents,” prosecutor Melba Colalongo said to me a few hours after this meeting.) Sabrina looks at me in the eye as she speaks. “I was found in an orphanage and adopted in 1978. I thought it was likely that my parents were disappeared, so in 2008, I asked the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo to do a blood test!”

The Grandmothers run a leading, sophisticated human rights group in Argentina seeking the children of their disappeared children. During the dirty war carried out by the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s, many of the children of the disappeared were taken from their parents and either handed over to relatives, given to childless families within the Army or state security services, or left at the doors of orphanages across the country. The Grandmothers have launched an aggressive national campaign to try and find these now-adult grandchildren.

”]Tribunal No 1

Agent Daniel Amelong


I had come to Rosario, Argentina, to testify in the Guerrieri case this morning at the Oral Tribunal No 1 [See images at Diario de los Juicios]

, located in a huge, old, two-story mansion in a downtown signorial avenida. I brought with me a bulging file folder of formerly secret records from the intelligence agencies of four different countries – documents that would serve as evidence for the prosecution. After entering the courtroom, I sat facing four judges, with the victims’ lawyers on the right, prosecutors on the left, and the four defendants with their lawyers behind me. Members of the public, journalists and relatives of the victims observed from the other side of a glass wall in the back of the chamber.

Pascual Guerrieri, Daniel Amelong, Jorge Fariña and  Eduardo Constanzo are accused of having assassinated 14 Montonero insurgent prisoners held by Intelligence Detachment 121 at an Argentina Army clandestine detention center near Rosario, in order to cover up a secret plan known as “Operation Mexico.” The operation was revealed for the first time in January 1978, when Tulio [Tucho] Valenzuela denounced in Mexico City that Lieutenant Colonel Guerrieri had forced him and another prisoner to come with Major Fariña and Lieutenant Amelong to kill the Montonero leadership in exile in Mexico. Valenzuela had escaped his captors and told an incredulous audience of reporters and exiled Argentines that his wife Raquel Negro, six months pregnant, and his one year old son Sebastian, as well as other prisoners, were being held hostage in Rosario in exchange for his collaboration in Operation Mexico.

The Mexican government frustrated the operation and expelled the Argentine intelligence officers. The news played in the Mexican headlines for days. But far from Mexico City, the scandal had a tragic ending. According to the testimony of Constanzo – the only participant to break the code of secrecy surrounding the operation – once back in Rosario, Guerrieri ordered the clandestine detention center disassembled and all its prisoners killed to guarantee the cover up of Operation Mexico.

Raquel Negro was taken to a hospital where she delivered twins: a girl who was handed to an orphanage and a boy, whose whereabouts are unknown. Raquel was never seen again. Tucho Valenzuela left his written testimony and died a few months after his clandestine return to Argentina.

The Judges in the trial had requested my testimony in the case because in 2007 the National Security Archive discovered and published a series of records – including mug shots, interrogation transcripts and an expulsion order for the Argentine intelligence agents – in the archived files of the Mexican Federal Security Directorate (Dirección Federal de Seguridad—DFS) in Mexico City. Thousands of miles away, in Paraguay’s infamous “Archive of Terror,” Archive researchers also found secret Argentine documents shared by Argentine security forces with the Paraguayan secret police that confirmed Operation Mexico.

After my testimony, as I walked out of the front door of the Tribunal, I saw a demonstration of human rights groups right across the street. I wanted to take a picture but then I remembered I was wearing a suit and my glasses would darken under the sun’s rays. With such a look, a photographer would seem suspicious and might provoke an uncomfortable situation with human rights activists. Luckily a young photographer was nearby and approached me, and said in a friendly tone, “I saw your testimony. I was there. It was excellent! My name is Sebastian!”


Banner before the Tribunal


Sebastian, Carlos, Sabrina

I managed to say, “Oh! I recognize you from pictures in the newspapers.” When I told him I would like to take some pictures, he brought me across the street. “Let me introduce you to my sister. Sabrina this is Carlos.” Sabrina said: “That was the best testimony, so well organized, with undeniable evidence.” We hugged; we took pictures and decided to meet later at my hotel.

Back at the hotel lobby, with the taciturn, thoughtful air of someone who knows his story in detail, Sebastian tells me what happened. “After my father, Tucho Valenzuela, escaped from Operation Mexico in Mexico City, the military sent me to my grandparents.” Sebastian stares into space as if watching an invisible screen. “My mother Raquel was pregnant with twins. Our research led us to believe my mother was taken to a hospital to deliver my siblings before they killed and disappeared her. The whole family started to search for my siblings in the 1980s. We gave blood samples to the Grandmothers’ reuniting program. We never lost hope,” he says. He has an intense look and eyes that seem to be transported to the historical events. Dark olive skin, petit, short hair, bearded, he does not look like Sabrina.

“I am expecting a baby… a 31-year-old baby!” Sabrina jokes, referring to her twin brother. “We are all waiting for our 31-year-old baby… You know Carlos, we have to have some dark humor about this so we can keep living a healthy life,” she declares.

Then she returns to the story. “I knew Sebastian was looking for his siblings and I was a possible match. I thought I might be Raquel Negro’s daughter. I knew he was working for the human rights groups looking for disappeared children. I used to look at the front door, expecting him to pop up any time. I used to go to the porch in case he walked by, trying to see me. I thought of going to his office at work and asking him. But there was a possibility of a mismatch so I had to restrain myself.”

Sebastian blurts out, “Everyone in my human rights organization knew the results before me! No one told me anything. Can you believe that? It was not until I received an official announcement in an envelope that I knew.” Then Sabrina: “It was a 99.99% chance of me belonging to the Negro-Valenzuela family! Sebastian got the news later than me. I waited a few days and I  called him. We arranged to meet at a pub. We had beer after beer, talking for a long time. By the time we stopped, it was so late… I could not go home safely. Sebastian suggested I accompany him to the home of Jorge Negro, who was on vacation. Can you imagine? My uncle’s house!!!”  Jorge Negro and his wife were travelling and would not return until the next day. When they arrived early that morning they found a note from Sebastian saying, “Sabrina is sleeping in your room. Please wake me up when you come back so I can introduce you.”

Jorge then says, “When I got home, I had no idea of what awaited me. I had been driving all night coming from Buenos Aires, fighting sleep. I was telling myself I would soon be home and could relax. After reading the note my sleepiness was gone!! I had to watch TV to stop my mind from spinning while I waited for Sebastian to wake.” Then Sabrina: “I woke up the next morning and heard voices. I was so nervous, I opened the door and there was this man, Jorge, he was on the phone talking to someone. I could only see his back, he did not see me.” Jorge is a tall, fair-skinned Spanish descendant with a warm demeanor. Sabrina continues, “I gently closed the door back and waited for a while. Then…I just went out and said good morning… we talked. Then Sebastian woke up. We went on talking. I had so many questions.”

My immersion into the Negro Valenzuela family story began in mid 2007, when the first documents proving the existence of “Operation Mexico” were found by our associate researcher in Mexico. Being in Rosario now was the culmination of two years of work that involved colleagues in Mexico City, Washington, D.C., Asuncion, Paraguay, Panama City, Buenos Aires and Rosario itself.

In the lobby, I opened on my laptop screen the 21 documents I had brought from the United States, Argentina, Paraguay and Mexico for Jorge Negro to see, since he had not attended the trial. One document found in the U.S. State Department is Tucho Valenzuela’s press conference transcript denouncing the clandestine operation and revealing that “my wife, who is six months pregnant, whose name is Raquel Negro, and my son, who is one year old, Sebastian, are captive in the hands of the enemy.”  I can see Jorge, Sebastian and Sabrina freeze as they read. They are transfixed as they stare through a window into the past. Then I read an Argentine document from the Archive of Terror in Paraguay: “Returning from Mexico, the official commission that accompanied Tucho….”

Tucho Valenzuela’s name is mentioned a half a dozen times in the documents, Raquel’s maybe twice. Most of the records have to do with evidence about the Argentine illegal counterinsurgency operations surrounding their parents’ disappearance. But Sabrina explains her feelings to me: “It is as though the documents enable us to touch them….”

I have lump in my throat. I bring their story back to the reunion at Jorge Negro’s house. “I wonder,” I say “did you guys cry when you met for the first time?” Jorge nods in acknowledgment. Sabrina smiles gently. Then Sebastian says, “Sabrina is strong, she did not cry. I am a crybaby. I cried.”

(At night afterwards, I did too.)

  1. Sheryl Shirley permalink
    March 23, 2010 8:44 am

    Dear Carlos,

    I just wanted to say “hi” and tell you I enjoyed this touching story about Sabrina and Sebastian Negro-Valenzuela. Usually have my students read Arditti’s Searching for Life: Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. Your story would be a good complement to Arditti’s book.

    I hope you are well.

    Thank you for continuing to do such important work.

    Sheryl Shirley,

    Associate Professor
    Plymouth State University
    Plymouth, NH

  2. March 31, 2010 6:44 pm

    querido Carlos, la nota está muy buena y creo que pese a leerla en inglés puedo comprobar la forma conmovedora en que ha sido redactada.
    Ha sido bueno conocerte.
    Espero seguir en contacto contigo.


  3. Carlos Osorio permalink
    March 31, 2010 7:17 pm

    One our first research on line assistants in 1994 in the Guatemala Human Right Project. People like you help power the engine that moves us. You were crucial in giving us a first glimpse into what the Guatemalan military structure looked like. Thanks for your kind words. Keep in touch.


  4. March 31, 2010 11:24 pm

    nota medio del exterior

    • April 1, 2010 9:32 am

      No entendi bien tu comentario. Si, efectivamente, la nota la hice para dar a conocer el juicio en Rosario a una audiencia norteamericana. Esa fue la ida. Gracias por tu comentario

  5. June 8, 2016 1:30 am

    Reblogged this on Pur3+hEART$<3Always Prevail.


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