In October, 1976, Liliana Carmen Pereyra was taken from her apartment building by paramilitary forces associated with the junta that had taken over the government of Argentina in 1974.
Liliana was held at the Naval Mechanics School (“ESME”) outside Bueno Aires for several months, until she gave birth (according to witnesses) to a son, in February 1977. Of 5,000 prisoners known to have been held in ESME, only 150 survived.
For more than 30 years, the fate of Liliana’s son was unknown. He was one of an estimated 500 infants or children “disappeared” by the junta. Liliana’s mother, Jorgelina Pereyra, has worked since 1974 with the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group that has sought answers and justice for the disappeared.
DNA evidence has been a crucial element in proving the identity of disappeared children, when other investigations locate such persons.
Seattle Academy Biology and Biotechnology classes have studied the case of Liliana Pereyra and her missing son for a number of years.
Several years ago, Melinda Mueller sent an email to Jorgelina Pereyra, through the Argentina human rights organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Melinda and Seattle Academy students wanted to tell Mrs. Pereyra that her daughter’s story was known to us, and that she and her missing son were in our thoughts. To our amazement, Mrs. Pereyra responded.
Seattle Academy teacher James Watson provided this translation:
Your mail moved me, knowing that the disappearance of my daughter and her son, born in captivity, whom I still haven’t found, is something you know about so far away. It’s good to know that those young people know that DNA tests serve as proof and evidence in crimes but also it’s good that they know that this system has helped a lot in finding our grandchildren, and also that they know the horror that many families lived through during the military dictatorship from 1976-1983 in Argentina.
Through you as intermediary, I want to send my warmest greetings to your students and to thank them for their interest in the case of my grandson still disappeared, who is one of many for whom we still struggle untiringly in order to return to them their identity, their family, and their liberty.
Thanks for your words about Liliana and I know that by spreading the word of the problems with human rights in Argentina, you are honoring her memory. I want to tell you that besides my daughter Liliana whom was disappeared and killed by the military dictatorship, I have with me two children: Marcelo and Maria Alejandra, who have given me a grandson named Santiago who is 3 years old, and we all are hoping for the son of Liliana.
Sincerely, Jorgelina Pereyra
So what happened to the son of Liliana Pereya?
In 2007, investigations by the Abuelas led to court-ordered DNA testing of a young man named Hilario Bacca, and the couple who had raised him as their son. Bacca’s DNA was not a match to his “parents”—but it was a match to Jorgelina Pereyra’s DNA: Hilario was the missing son of Liliana Pereyra. He was the 100th person to be positively identified as one of the “disappeared children.”
During the course of their study in Biotechnology, SAAS students learned and practiced the techniques used to obtain and analyze DNA evidence in cases such as the disappeared children of Argentina. They learned to extract DNA from cells, purify the DNA, and to amplify their samples to a volume sufficient for further analysis. They then learned to create, from their DNA samples, a “bar code” DNA fingerprint, and how to find out the exact “spelling” (“sequence”) of their DNA sequences. Finally, they learned how to use professional databases to test the reliability of the results: How likely is it, for instance, that two unrelated individuals would have identical DNA sequences?
The SAAS students then worked in teams to prepare a “briefing” on the DNA evidence, for an audience of volunteer parents. Streaming video of their presentations are posted below.