Many of those arrested – and, in many cases, tortured and executed – during the 1976–83 dictatorship were young people in their teens and 20s who were kidnapped from their homes and streets with no acknowledgement from the authorities as to their whereabouts. In 1976 some of their mothers, frustrated by the intimidating silence they were met with when they tried to find out what had happened to their children, started what would become the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) movement.
At first just a handful of women, the Madres met weekly in the Plaza de Mayo, the historical centre of the city, as much to support each other as to embarrass the regime into providing answers; the wearing of white headscarves emerged as a means of identification. As their numbers grew, so did their defiance – standing their ground and challenging the military to carry out its threat to fire on them in front of foreign journalists, for instance. Some disappeared themselves after the notorious torturer known as the “Blond Angel of Death”, Alfredo Astiz, infiltrated the group, posing as the brother of a desaparecido (disappeared). He was sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2011.
In 1982, during the Malvinas/Falklands crisis, the Madres were accused of being anti-patriotic for their stance against the war, a conflict that they rightly claimed was an attempt by the regime to divert attention away from its murderous acts. With the return to democracy in 1983, the Madres were disappointed by the Alfonsín government’s reluctance to delve too deeply into what had happened during the “Dirty War”, as well as by the later granting of immunity to many of those accused of kidnap, torture and murder. The group rejected monetary “compensation” and both the Madres and the respect in which they are held were key in finally getting the amnesty laws overturned in 2005. The Madres continued to protest at the Pirámide de Mayo weekly until January 2006, when, after around 1500 protests, the Madres finally brought their long vigil to an end, citing confidence in President Néstor Kirchner. Now some of the Madres have branched into other areas of social protest: the emblem of the white headscarf was at the forefront of the movement to demand the non-payment of the country’s foreign debt, among other issues.
The Madres were mixed up in an extremely embarrassing scandal in 2011, when Sergio Schoklender, a lawyer employed by their association, was accused of embezzlement; he was charged in early 2012. Jailed in the 1980s with his brother, Pablo, after they were found guilty of murdering their parents, whom they accused of abuse, he was taken under the wing of the current president of the Madres, Hebe de Bonafini, when he emerged as a leading defender of prisoners’ rights in the dying months of the junta. According to the allegations, Schoklender had amassed a huge fortune by siphoning off funds intended to build low-price housing for the poor. De Bonafini is no stranger to scandal (indeed her daughter Alejandra was accused of involvement in the Schoklender corruption case). Most notably she publicly expressed support for the 9/11 attacks, saying that they were acts of revenge for global repression by the United States and NATO.