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Adoption Scandal: Argentina Hounds a High-Profile Mom

11 minute read
Uki Goni / Buenos Aires

This is the tale of the enmity of three women: the first is perhaps the richest in Argentina; the second is the President of the country; the third, a grandmother in search of the children of desaparecidos, the 30,000 or so mostly young people who disappeared in the military junta’s death camps from 1976 to 1983. The objects of their contention are two adopted children, a brother and sister, who stand to inherit an immense fortune — or see it shrink, if their genes betray a past that might help dramatically diminish their mother’s business empire.

Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera, both 34, were adopted in 1976 by Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the owner of the media conglomerate Clarín, which holds hugely influential and profitable properties, including the newspaper that is said to have the largest circulation in the Hispanic world, the most visited Spanish-language news website and a vast television, cable and radio empire. Goldman Sachs has an 18% stake in Clarín, which Noble grew to its prodigious proportions after the death of her newspaper-publisher husband Roberto Noble in 1969. Now 84, she is estimated to be worth $1 billion. Marcela and Felipe are her only heirs.

Clarín has been a harsh critic of the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, with the conglomerate being particularly focused on allegations of corruption. The President was personally incensed by a 2008 cartoon in the newspaper Clarín that depicted her with an X taped across her mouth. Alluding to the country’s traumatic military rule, she decried the cartoon as a “mafia-like message” from “media generals” who were plotting her overthrow. Last year, the government sent an army of 200 tax inspectors into Clarín offices to investigate the company’s books; they found no irregularities. More ominous, when the President’s Peronist party still held a majority, the country’s congress passed a media-monopoly law to try to break up Noble’s television and cable holdings by placing a limit on the number of cable companies and channels one corporation could hold in cities and provinces. How soon the law actually gets implemented is in the hands of Argentina’s supreme court.

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Perhaps unwittingly, coming to the President’s aid is Estela de Carlotto, the head of Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (“Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo”), a human-rights group that since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983 has located and identified through DNA testing 101 children who were born in Argentina’s death camps to female political activists. The country’s junta allowed pregnant detainees to live only long enough to give birth, after which the mothers were murdered and the infants handed over to military families to raise as their own. In a small number of cases, the newborns were given to unknowing civilian families for adoption. Carlotto, who has been searching for her own grandson for decades, believes Marcela and Felipe were born in the camps; Abuelas has sued their adoptive mother to find out for certain.

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If Marcela and Felipe are indeed the offspring of prisoners, and if Noble’s enemies can dig up evidence that she knew they had been born in the camps, then she may be charged with what Argentine laws call crimes against humanity. At least one prominent member of the government is already alleging that part of her empire, specifically involving the newsprint company Papel Prensa, was built in collusion with the junta. If substantiated, this additional assault on Clarín may help the Fernandez administration break up Noble’s empire by alleging criminality at its inception. Argentina’s new Foreign Minister, Hector Timmerman, was ecstatic at the possibility. Two weeks ago, in Washington, where he was finishing his stint as the country’s ambassador to the U.S., Timmerman tweeted, “Media law, done. Papel Prensa, almost there. Origin of Felipe and Marcela, any moment now.” Carlotto, however, says she wants only to see justice done. “For Abuelas, this is not a fight between the government and a newspaper,” she said earlier this year. “I ask Mrs. Noble to free the children so they can think for themselves.”

The trouble is that Marcela and Felipe have provided their DNA three times already. The first time, they did so voluntarily, cooperating with court forensic experts in December. Court experts later confiscated toothbrushes and other materials from their home and, most dramatically, on May 28, after police chased them home after a court appearance. On that day, law-enforcement officials armed with a warrant raided their mother’s house in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro and forced Marcela and Felipe to strip and hand over all their clothing, including underwear, to obtain DNA samples. A source who witnessed the police chase says the experience was traumatic for the siblings. “Felipe burst out crying in front of the police when he was forced to undress,” says the source. “Marcela was also forced to undress, in a separate room in front of seven people, and then taken to a bathroom with two officers, where she was made to take off and hand over her underwear.”

“We are treated like criminals, though we have committed no crime,” Marcela and Felipe said in a prepared statement after the police raid. To make matters worse, the clothes seized on May 28 held traces of DNA from at least three different people, making it impossible to map DNA profiles for the siblings. The previous blood sample was rejected by Abuelas because the group believes the process was open to possible tainting. There have been documented cases of this in the past, which is why Abuelas will take only samples handled by the National Genetic Data Bank (BNDG), which holds the DNA information from the families of about 500 missing children. The Noble Herreras, however, do not trust the BNDG, because it is in the direct orbit of the office of President Fernandez. So the DNA collected in December remains unexamined.

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Abuelas forced the court to act on May 28, aided by a law passed in November that allows judges to order compulsory DNA testing for individuals who refuse to submit to it. Carlotto told the press, “The state has to go all the way to discover the truth.” After the BNDG announced in early July that the May 28 sample was unusable, Carlotto alleged that the siblings knew beforehand that their clothes would be seized. Her contention was backed up soon after by Fernandez’s government, which openly accused the siblings of having purposely thwarted the DNA testing. Cabinet Chief Anibal Fernandez claimed they had “hired lawyers and geneticists who made other people wear their clothes first so there would be DNA traces” from them.

Lawyers for the siblings released a statement denying that Marcela and Felipe had contaminated their clothes with DNA from other people. The statement laid the blame for the failed DNA test on the government: “It is a moral aberration that the government accuses the alleged victims [of spoiling the DNA test] without proof.” Marcela and Felipe, the statement continued, “are the object of an unprecedented political persecution.” The judge in the case, Sandra Arroyo Salgado, is expected to order a new test but may first call the siblings to court to try to persuade them to surrender blood samples voluntarily.

The humiliating police procedure, however, has led to a loud public outcry in favor of the Noble Herrera siblings. In an editorial, the conservative daily La Nacion said, “The case of Marcela and Felipe Noble is a clear example of the trampling of human rights in the name of human rights.” And the siblings have not been silent about their ordeal. “We have never had any concrete indication we could be the children of desaparecidos,” Marcela and Felipe said in a statement earlier this year. “Our mother is the director of Clarín, a newspaper that has to bear a very strong campaign of official attacks, and we fear we have become a pawn in this war. But apart from that, our mother is simply our mother, the person who, in one of the greatest possible acts of love, chose us as her children 34 years ago. She always told us the truth. As far back as we can remember, she told us we are adopted,” said Marcela in a recent prepared statement.

Questions about the children’s birth parents have followed Noble for years. “I have often spoken with my children about the possibility that they and their parents may have been the victims of illegal repression,” Noble said in an open letter she published in December 2002, when she was arrested briefly on charges that she had knowingly adopted the children of desaparecidos, which she has consistently denied. Those charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence. “The adoption was an act of love and joy. It is a bond that unites the three of us forever,” said Noble in her letter.

The adoption procedures nonetheless seem to have been, at the very least, fortuitous. Noble claims that Marcela was left in a cardboard box on the doorstep of her San Isidro home in 1976, and court records from that time named a next-door neighbor and a gardener as witnesses. But a court investigation tied to her December 2002 arrest failed to substantiate these witnesses. As for Felipe, Noble was granted his adoption by San Isidro judge Ofelia Hejt on the same day as Marcela’s arrival in 1976, when a young mother walked in to hand over a baby boy to the court for adoption.

According to Abuelas, a likely match for Marcela is Matilde Lanuscou, born on March 30, 1976, who was thought to have perished with her family in a September 1976 gunfight in San Isidro. But during an investigation after the end of the junta, Matilde’s coffin was found to contain only baby clothes and a pacifier. Abuelas also believes that Felipe may be the son of Maria Gualdero, a member of a revolutionary group who was 20 years old and nine months pregnant when she vanished after a police raid in Buenos Aires on June 8, 1976.

Despite the rough treatment of Marcela and Felipe, Abuelas is convinced that compulsory testing is a necessary evil with an ultimately beneficial result, pointing to a recent, similarly fraught case. For a long time, Alejandro Sandoval Fontana, 32, had refused to submit to a DNA test that he feared would incriminate the man he had always considered his real father — Victor Rei, a military police officer — even after Rei was arrested and put on trial. “I became a ‘no’ man, total denial. I couldn’t accept the truth,” says Sandoval. When Rei got advance warning from friends in the security services that court officials were making a surprise raid on his house to take Sandoval’s toothbrush and other personal items for DNA testing, Sandoval moved quickly to protect the man he considered his father. “I grabbed Rei’s toothbrush, brushed our dog’s teeth with it and supplanted it for my own toothbrush, I did the same with Rei’s comb — I combed the dog with it and put it where I usually kept my own comb,” Sandoval says.

The court eventually realized it had been fooled, and a new surprise raid on the Rei home sequestered Sandoval’s personal items, resulting in a DNA match with desaparecidos Pedro Sandoval and Liliana Fontana. Sandoval was born at the Campo de Mayo death camp, and after his parents were murdered, he was raised by Rei. Following thre positive DNA match, Sandoval chose to embrace his real grandparents and uncles; he has cut all links with Rei and Rei’s wife. Victor Rei was eventually sentenced to 16 years in prison for Sandoval’s abduction.

Sandoval has advice for the Noble siblings: “Take your time, but try to understand that, apart from the person who raised you, there is a family waiting for you, and we will still be here waiting when you are ready.” Marcela and Felipe, however, are not only facing the possibility of giving up the woman they have always called Mother but complicating the politics of their motherland as well.

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