BUENOS AIRES -- Alejandro Rei refused to accept the truth, even after the man he thought was his father pulled the car over one night and told him he had been adopted.
"You are the son of the disappeared," Victor Rei told him, his eyes tearing up.
Alejandro did not know it then, but Victor would have had intimate knowledge: He had been a military intelligence officer, a cog in a ferocious military machine that in the 1970s smashed two rebel groups in Argentina by kidnapping and torturing suspected guerrillas and dissidents. The victims were shot and buried in unmarked graves, or sedated and hurled alive from airplanes over the south Atlantic.
In the mournful lexicon of Latin American dictatorship, they were the "disappeared." And on that night in 2004, Alejandro was hearing that his real parents had been victims of the military junta during the "dirty war."
For nearly five years, though, Alejandro would be torn between recognizing the fate of his real parents and his loyalty to the people who raised him.
Victor's revelation was the beginning of a long, tortuous process that would include police raids, DNA tests, a trial that put the father Alejandro had known behind bars and, finally, a rocky reunion with the biological family that had wanted him back since 1977.
"When all this happened, I began to carry a weight called guilt, and I blamed myself for all of this," said Alejandro, now 32. "It was not until 2009 that I realized I was not guilty for all that had happened."
With 400 children still unaccounted for, Argentina is accelerating a search to clear up one of the great mysteries of South America's most brutal military dictatorship: What happened to the stolen babies? What is known is that, like Alejandro, children were snatched from doomed mothers in clandestine detention centers, mostly from 1976 to 1978, then raised by military families or their accomplices.
Those spearheading the search belong to a group of grandmothers dedicated to finding their lost grandchildren. They have allies in President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government and the help of a powerful tool: a law approved in November to quicken the identification process by forcing young adults thought to be children of the disappeared to provide DNA samples.
Driving the effort is an urgent reality: The grandmothers are dying off.
"We do not have time to keep waiting, because we are all very old," said Estela Barnes de Carlotto, 82, who is president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and is searching for her daughter's son. "There are grandmothers who are 90 or older who have not yet found their grandchildren."
So far, 100 stolen babies -- most now in their early 30s -- have been found.
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.
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All of the Dirty War was completely horrifying, but the baby stealing has to get to me the most. What the fuck kind of people do this? And the fact that it was on an institutionalized level (i.e. not just some random officer stealing a baby one day) makes it all the worse.