One of the most notorious cases involved Silvia Quintela, a leftist doctor who attended to the sick in shanty towns around Buenos Aires. On Jan. 17, 1977, Quintela was abducted off a Buenos Aires street by military authorities because of her political leanings. At the time, Quintela and her agronomist husband Abel Madariaga were expecting their first child.
According to witnesses who later testified before a government truth commission, Quintela was held at a military base called Campo de Mayo, where she gave birth to a baby boy. As in similar cases, the infant then was separated from the mother.
What happened to the boy is still not clear, but Quintela reportedly was transferred to a nearby airfield. There, victims were stripped naked, shackled in groups and dragged aboard military planes. The planes then flew out over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean, where soldiers pushed the victims out of the planes and into the water to drown.
After democracy was restored in 1983, Madariaga, who had fled into exile in Sweden, returned to Argentina and searched for his wife. He learned about her death and the birth of his son.
Madariaga came to suspect that a military doctor, Norberto Atilio Bianco, had kidnapped the boy. Bianco had overseen Caesarean sections performed on captured women, according to witnesses. He then allegedly drove the new mothers to the airport for their death flights.
In 1987, Madariaga demanded DNA testing of Bianco's two children, a boy named Pablo and a girl named Carolina, both of whom were suspected children of disappeared women. Madariaga thought Pablo might be his son.
But Bianco and his wife, Susana Wehrli, fled Argentina to Paraguay, where they resettled with the two children. Argentine judge Roberto Marquevich sought the Biancos' extradition, but Paraguay balked for 10 years.
Finally, faced with demands from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Paraguay relented. Bianco and Wehrli were returned to face kidnapping charges. But the two children -- now young adults with small children of their own -- refused to return to Argentina or submit to DNA testing.
Though realizing they were adopted, Pablo and Carolina did not want to know about the fate of their real mothers and did not want to jeopardize the middle-class lives they had enjoyed in the Bianco household. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Argentina's Dapper State Terrorist" or "Baby-Snatching: Argentina's Dirty War Secret."]
Another Argentine judge, Alfredo Bagnasco, began investigating whether the baby-snatching was part of an organized operation and thus a premeditated crime of state. According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Argentine military viewed the kidnappings as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy.
"The anguish generated in the rest of the surviving family because of the absence of the disappeared would develop, after a few years, into a new generation of subversive or potentially subversive elements, thereby not permitting an effective end to the Dirty War," the commission said in describing the army's reasoning for kidnapping the infants of murdered women. The kidnapping strategy conformed with the "science" of the Argentine counterinsurgency operations.
According to government investigations, the military's intelligence officers also advanced Nazi-like methods of torture by testing the limits of how much pain a human being could endure before dying. The torture methods included experiments with electric shocks, drowning, asphyxiation and sexual perversions, such as forcing mice into a woman's vagina. Some of the implicated military officers had trained at the U.S.-run School of the Americas.
The Argentine tactics were emulated throughout Latin America. According to a Guatemalan truth commission, the right-wing military there also adopted the practice of taking suspected subversives on death flights, although over the Pacific Ocean.
For their roles in the baby kidnappings, Videla, now 86 and already in prison for other crimes against humanity, was sentenced to 50 years; Bignone, 84 and also in prison, received 15 years.
Yet, as Americans continue to idolize Ronald Reagan -- with scores of buildings named after him and his statue on display at Washington's Reagan National Airport -- a relevant question might be what did the 40th U.S. President know about these barbaric acts and when did he know it.