She was told her babies were dead. Instead they were sold abroad. What happened when she met them 40 years on?

<span>Sean and Emily with their birth mother, Sara, outside her house in Santiago.</span><span>Photograph: Sofía Yanjarí/The Guardian</span>
Sean and Emily with their birth mother, Sara, outside her house in Santiago.Photograph: Sofía Yanjarí/The Guardian

For Sara Melgarejo, the wait at Santiago airport was agonising. The 65-year-old had travelled about 30km north from San Bernardo, a working-class suburb of the Chilean capital, for the reunion. She walked the length of the building trying to calm her nerves, holding her breath for the arrival of the two children she had spent the last 40 years believing were dead. “My heart was racing and my body was trembling,” she says, “but I felt pure joy.”

Siblings Sean Ours, 40, and Emily Reid, 39, walked into arrivals together, having arrived on a flight from the US. Even though they had never met Sara in person, there was no question that she was their biological mother – they share the same eyes, the same infectious smile.

“When I saw her there waiting for us, all pretty in pink, I started crying. I just gave her the biggest hug because it was the first time that we were able to feel her, to tell her that we loved her,” Emily says.

“To be able to just hold her, and for all of us to hold each other together, was so surreal. It was a long time coming,” Sean says.

Their story is just one of tens of thousands relating to Chilean families torn apart by illegal adoption. Parents were typically told that their babies were lost or dead. In reality, they had been stolen and sold, facilitated by a network of social workers, faith officials and health and legal professionals across the country. Thousands of dollars were paid by American and European families for newborns they believed had been given up willingly. Mothers in Chile have recounted how hospital staff claimed their babies had died at birth and refused requests to see their bodies. Others were denied access to their babies, who were being looked after in children’s homes or public institutions, while some were coerced into giving them up for adoption.

Poor, young and Indigenous communities were targeted, and a climate of fear made it impossible to dispute the loss of a child

Not long after sunrise on a hot day in Santiago, four of these broken families were meeting in person for the first time. Brought together by Connecting Roots, an NGO dedicated to redressing the damage caused by decades of forced and illegal adoption, the group included daughters, sons, siblings and parents nervously waiting to set eyes on each other. They would then travel to their Chilean home towns to get to know relatives and share stories and photographs from the lives they had led apart.

This dark chapter in Chilean history affected an estimated 20,000 children, who went on to grow up in families across the US and Europe. The practice reached its peak during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship between 1973 and 1990, when the regime actively encouraged adoption as part of a strategy to eliminate poverty. Poor, young and Indigenous communities were targeted, and a climate of fear made it impossible for families to question or dispute the loss of their child.

Related: From the archive: ‘I just needed to find my family’: the scandal of Chile’s stolen children – podcast

The Chilean judiciary began to look into allegations of forced adoption in 2017, but no convictions have yet been made. As of April 2023, 645 cases of forced adoption that took place between 1965 and 1988 are being processed, while 209 have been concluded, according to the National Institute of Human Rights. While some individuals, including social workers, have been named as being actively involved in facilitating illegal adoptions abroad, the network was so extensive and the practice so longstanding that no one has been held accountable. Indeed, despite hundreds of accounts from mothers and children, the judge leading the investigation, Jaime Balmaceda, stated in March that so far he has “not been able to establish that a crime had taken place”.

Campaigners are frustrated at the government’s response. “So many voices have been silenced. We’re running out of time to get closure for everybody,” says Tyler Graf, who founded Connecting Roots to help reunite families after discovering that he had been stolen from his mother at birth. So far it has largely fallen to NGOs such as his, based in the US, and Chile-based organisations including Hijos y Madres del Silencio and Nos Buscamos, to lead the search for missing families. They work separately but have together helped facilitate at least 700 reunifications – a number that is steadily rising.

Volunteers at these NGOs use social media, DNA sites and official registers to search for information on potential relatives; often, the adoptees’ paperwork is found to be fake or in some way inconsistent. Hijos y Madres del Silencio is now using AI to build images of what the stolen children might look like.

In response to campaigners’ efforts, Chile’s minister of justice and human rights, Luis Cordero, announced in early March plans for a coordinated state response to help facilitate reunions, underscoring “the right of each person to know their origin”.

“It has been an emotional rollercoaster,” Emily says. “I am so angry and frustrated, thinking about how many people were deceived, and how our mother was treated – that we had to wait all these years for the opportunity to reunite with her. Now I’m finally able to say: ‘I have my mother’s eyes, I have her hair.’”

* * *

‘It never crossed my mind that something so evil could have happened

Emily, Sean and Sara

  • At Santiago airport (above), Sean and Emily meet their birth mother, Sara, for the first time since she was told they were dead. Main image: the family outside Sara’s home in Santiago

Emily and Sean were raised together in Alexandria, Virginia, by loving parents who explained to them from a young age that they were adopted. “We grew up with little souvenirs our adoptive parents had brought from Chile, so we’d have stuff to remember where we came from – I still have the little statue of a llama,” Sean says.

“But our parents were white, so we were often stared at because we look different from them. Growing up, I struggled to figure out who I was,” Emily adds.

What they did know was that they shared the same birth mother who, they understood, had given them up willingly as she was unable to look after them. “Our parents adopted me first, in 1983, then a year later the American agency told them: ‘We have your son’s sister now – would you like to adopt her as well?’” Sean says.

Their adoptive parents had signed up to an agency in Washington DC, and Telma Uribe, a Santiago-based social worker, helped facilitate the adoption. The couple paid more than $35,000 in fees. Decades later, it would emerge that Uribe had been involved in hundreds of illegal or irregular adoptions. In 2017 investigators found an archive in her house detailing more than 500 children who had been adopted abroad between 1950 and 2001.

  • ‘There are no words for what happened to me,’ Sara says. Now the family are focusing on spending time together, sharing memories

It is hard for Sara, now 65, to recall what happened 40 years ago; what she does remember is clouded in pain. She was 25 when she gave birth to Sean in Santiago, and she already had two young children; many women who were already mothers believe they were targeted because those involved in the scheme thought losing another child wouldn’t affect them so much.

As Sara recovered in hospital after the birth, she was informed that the baby had been stillborn. She didn’t even have a chance to name him, to feel his skin. “They told me he was dead and made me sign a paper,” she says. “It was a death certificate – but it was fake.”

The next year, it happened again. Sara believes she was singled out by the same hospital staff and social workers. She gave birth to Emily, only to be told the baby had died. “There are no words for what happened to me.”

“She was never able to hold us,” Sean says. “She signed paperwork she thought was a death certificate, but it was an agreement to release us from her custody.”

“In my mind, they were dead,” Sara says. “After that, I didn’t want to know anything else. I wanted those experiences to fade away.” She dedicated her life to working with children as a nanny. “It never crossed my mind that something so evil could have happened.”

Sara was told about her two children by Connecting Roots six months ago, but she is still in shock, processing complex feelings: anger at what happened; happiness that her children are once again in her life. For now, she is focusing on spending time together. She is finally able to cook for them, her way of showing love. “We made humitas together. I was teaching them how to blend the sweetcorn and wrap the mix in the leaves. To see them has brought me so much joy.” Tears falling, she adds, “There are no words to describe losing a child, then getting them back. The most important thing now is that I have them close. My babies came back to me.”

* * *

‘I’ve been waiting for this for so long’

María, Romina and their mother

  • ‘I felt relief to feel my mum hug me’: Maria with her birth mother

  • Maria reuniting with her mother at Santiago airport (top) and holding a photograph of herself as a baby (above)

María Hastings can hear her mother cooking in the kitchen, and her sister and niece pottering in the next room. She smiles. This seemingly ordinary scene is full of meaning for the 37-year-old.

María discovered the identity of her biological family in December 2022. She grew up in Tampa, Florida, and knew from an early age that she had been adopted from Chile. “I had no interest in finding my biological mum. I thought I had been given up willingly, so I was OK with that. I grew up with two loving parents and two sisters, and I was happy with what I was given in life,” she says. “All I knew was that I was from Santiago. I was told I’d been born to a single mother who was living in poverty and unable to take care of me. I never thought I’d be able to look for her – I thought it would be too difficult.”

It was only when she read a magazine article in November 2022 about Chilean twins who were adopted in the US, but whose adoption turned out to be illegal, that she began to think about her own story. “I just got a feeling that I should reach out to Connecting Roots,” she says. “A week later I heard back from them and we started this journey of unravelling my real story.” María’s adoption papers named the social worker Ruth Chia Barrios, who has since been linked to more than 100 illegitimate adoptions from Chile to Denmark.

María’s story begins in the vast Chilean countryside, layered with hills and volcanoes, close to the southern city of Temuco. Her mother, who doesn’t want to share her name publicly, is from Chile’s Indigenous Mapuche community. “My mum couldn’t read or write, and we grew up speaking Mapudungun,” says Romina Ramín, María’s biological sister, who is three years older.

Their mother worked in the home of a wealthy family in Santiago during the 80s, when she was in her mid-20s. “They exploited her – they only gave her permission to come home once a year,” says Romina, who was cared for by her grandmother in the south. “When her employers found out she was pregnant, they threw her out.” She was forced to live on the streets. “She went to a square to sleep, and to cry, because she had nowhere else to go.”

  • Romina, María’s sister (with her, top and above), says their mother never gave up hope of finding her again

Their mother sought help at a shelter run by nuns, who offered to feed and house her until her baby was born. Once she gave birth, another children’s home run by nuns said the baby could stay there while she went in search of work. “But when she got back, they said her daughter wasn’t there. They told her, aggressively, that because she’s poor she couldn’t have her daughter, and she should not come back because they had taken her daughter to France. She was scared of them. It was the middle of the dictatorship; she had no resources, she was poor,” Romina says. “So my mother lived with that pain. She always looked like a woman full of sadness that she kept to herself. My mother has since told me she still lived with the hope of seeing María again.”

When mother and daughter embraced for the first time in February, “it was like a weight was lifted that I didn’t know was there,” María says. “I felt relief to feel my mum hug me. She whispered in my ear, ‘I’m so glad you’re finally here. I’ve been waiting for this for so long. I can’t believe it. Oh my gosh, I love you.’” At that moment, Romina says, “Her pain vanished. She looked at me and said, ‘I feel full, daughter. Now I can die in peace.’”

Romina describes meeting her sister as like a dream. “I ran to her and when she hugged me, I felt as if she was also hugging herself – that girl who was taken away.”

The family has started the long process of healing and learning about one another. They don’t yet speak the same language, but believe their familial connection transcends any barriers. “I want to learn all about them, their personalities, likes and dislikes. There’s a little spark when my mother will make a joke or do a funny dance, or give me a hug and say, ‘I love you, my daughter,’” María says. “She just seems really happy.”

* * *

‘Growing up, something felt like it was always missing

Peter, Jorge and Mariza

  • Peter holds a photograph of himself as a baby

  • ‘We can’t dwell on the past: we’ve got to start healing and grow from this,’ says Peter of being separated from his birth mother, Mariza

One of Jorge Leyton Mancilla’s earliest memories is of his younger brother. “I have a blurry image of going to a hospital after he was born. There was an old iron bed where my mum was with a baby, and I saw his face. I remember because he had a similar face to my other brother. He was dark and squinty, wearing a light blue hat.” That would be the last time he would see his brother for more than 40 years.

Two months after Mariza Mancilla gave birth to her son in August 1981, she came down with pneumonia. She was hospitalised in her home town of Ancud, on Chiloé Island in southern Chile. At the time, she was living alone – because of the dictatorship, her husband, a communist, had fled to Punta Arenas, the country’s southernmost city.

While in hospital, Mariza was told that her son had also contracted pneumonia and had been taken away for treatment. “One day she woke up and was told, ‘Your baby died,’” says Jorge, now 45. “She was told her baby’s body was being taken for scientific research, and that was that. There was no option to demand an investigation because she was living under a dictatorship.”

Growing up, Jorge says his mother never spoke of their younger brother again. She would keep this sadness to herself for the next four decades. It was only last year that she and her family learned the truth: the baby had been taken by hospital staff, whose identities are unknown, moved through a network of officials and sold for international adoption at just 11 months old.

“They said that I had been poisoned by her breast milk because she had pneumonia when she breastfed me,” says Peter Smiloff, now 42, whom his mother had named Luis. Mariza had never doubted the circumstances of her son’s disappearance. To find out that he was actually alive was a complete shock, and she struggles to talk about it. For most of his life, neither Peter nor his adoptive parents suspected that his adoption might not have been legitimate. “My parents were always very supportive of me,” he says. And as far as he was aware, his birth mother had given him up voluntarily.

Peter grew up in New York in a very multicultural community. “I always knew there would come a time in my life when I wanted to know my birth origins. I was getting older and I was concerned about my health, and I wasn’t aware of my medical history because I didn’t know anything about my family. It was time to know more about myself, where I came from.”

The little information Peter did have included the fact that his parents in New York had adopted him through an agency called Today’s Adoption. “I discovered the agency was dissolved back in the 90s, shut down by New York state. There were two specific names on my adoption papers who were linked to all these cases [of forced adoption] in the 80s and 90s,” he says. “When Connecting Roots confirmed that mine had been an illegal adoption, it was hard to deal with. It felt like this hole in my life kept getting bigger. I was getting further from the truth.”

  • Peter with Mariza (above left) and the pair with Jorge, the brother Peter hadn’t seen for 42 years (above right)

Eight months later, Peter received a call telling him that his mother had been found. “It hurt,” he says. “But I came to the conclusion that what happened then is a tragedy, it’s horrible, but we can’t really dwell on the past: we’ve got to start healing and grow from this. We have to concentrate on the now and make that bond.”

As Mariza ran towards Peter at Santiago airport, she was lost in his arms. “I just felt like I held on to her for ever,” he says. “The hug she gave was a motherly hug. I felt for the first time complete, and it was also the beginning of her feeling complete, too.”

For Jorge, “It’s like my brother has been born again.” Jorge and his mother had been estranged in recent years, and a particular joy for Peter is seeing the pair reconnect: “It’s like she got both sons back.”

They are enjoying spending time together, against the backdrop of southern Chile’s lakes and mountains, as a family. Peter has been learning about the town he would have grown up in, and visiting the graves of his biological father and his older brother Alvaro, who died in his 20s, the one he so closely resembled as a baby.

“I notice my mother and I have similar features, too. We have the same smile and cheekbone structure,” he says, smiling. Their familial connections go beyond the physical: “We have the same anxieties. She’s battled with depression; I’ve battled with depression. When she cries, I see that we cry in the same way.

“Growing up, I could never explain it, but something felt like it was always missing. When I went down to Chile and met her and my family, that void was filled.” Similarly, Mariza feels she lived with a lingering pain throughout her life and could never explain its cause. Now she knows the truth.

* * *

‘My family never gave up hope’

Ben, Wladimir and Luis

  • Ben hugs his birth family on arriving at Santiago airport

In late summer 1989, María Margarita Vera’s eight-month-old baby, Gustavo, was taken for a checkup in the children’s hospital in Chillán, central Chile. The family was made to leave him overnight, and upon returning the next day, they were told he wasn’t there, that he had been moved to a different clinic, with little explanation. His 29-year-old mother, who had few economic resources and was barely able to read, was told by officials to sign some papers, then sent home. The hospital eventually claimed the baby was lost.

“Because of her suffering she started to take refuge in alcohol,” says her elder child, Wladimir Figueroa, now 38. “I think the most painful thing for her was that she knew nothing about him – even though she had breastfed him and brought him into this world.”

Gustavo was brought up as Ben Fruchter by adoptive parents in the US. Now 35, he discovered his biological family last year. “The day I found out, it took the wind out of me. I was hounded by ‘what if’ questions, wondering what my life would have been and whether, if I’d known or tried to reach out sooner, my mother would still be around.”

Back in Chile, Gustavo had been known as the lost boy, the brother who one day tragically disappeared. But Ben had no inkling he had a whole family searching for him. “They never gave up hope,” he says.

After their mother died in 2000, Ben’s seven siblings kept searching for him. All they had was his birth name, Gustavo Alfonso Figueroa Vera. When Facebook arrived in Chile in about 2006, they would search for his name every few days, until in July last year Wladimir heard out of the blue from Connecting Roots. “It was the most beautiful thing that has happened to me,” he says.

Meanwhile, Ben was “still grasping the fact that I had been taken as a child. But just knowing a whole family out there, that I’d never met or spent time with, hadn’t given up on me … ” He pauses, lost for words.

  • Ben holding the ID card of his birth mother, who died in 2000 (top left); with his biological father, Luis (top right); and with his adoptive father, David (above, front left), meeting the family he hadn’t known existed, including brother Wladimir (second left)

When Wladimir made the five-hour drive from the family’s home town of Chillán to Santiago airport in February to greet his brother for the first time, he was full of nervous energy. The journey was “torturous: the faster we went, it seemed we weren’t getting any closer”.

The waiting continued at the arrivals hall. Then Ben walked through the doors. “There aren’t words to describe the feeling of being there together, of hugging and having that blood connection,” Wladimir says.

Ben suddenly found himself a brother to seven siblings and an uncle to nieces and nephews. When they all embraced for the first time, he “felt a sense of being at peace. Even though I hadn’t been with them for the last 30 years, I definitely felt that family bond.”

Ben’s birth father, Luis, is now in his 70s, and didn’t make the trip to the airport for health reasons. His siblings took Ben on a tour of their home town to spend time with him. Ben was struck by their similarities, in appearance and personality: “He’s one of those people who, when he speaks, you really listen.”

As they walked around Chillán, Ben’s brothers shared anecdotes from their childhood. It was a way to bring Ben into these memories, to fill in the blanks of a life story that could have been. “I told him about the trees we climbed when we were kids,” Wladimir says. “The neighbours we played with – and the ones we ran away from when we broke their windows with our ball. He heard the stories of our lives as children: playing in our grandfather’s yard, helping him raise the chickens, going to church on weekends. It was sad at the same time because our mother wasn’t there to see him home.”

Ben felt conflicting emotions. “I was thinking: had I stayed, what would my life be like? Would I be in Chillán or Santiago? Would I have a family of my own now? What kind of adventures would we have had together?

“It gets a little bit heartbreaking when I think about it. But no one can change the past, so we are working on making new, happy memories.”