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A Reunion Underlines Mexico's Past Abuses

Justice: Groups seek truth about people still missing from nation's '70s war against rebels.


SAN MARTIN CUAUTLALPAN, Mexico — The young woman brought up as Luz Elba Gorostiola had a void in her life. Though her adoptive family raised her with great love, she learned in her teens that her birth parents were leftist guerrillas killed long ago by police in a shootout. But she never knew their names--or her own.

Her adoptive parents, Alejandro and Maria Gorostiola, could only tell her that one June night in 1975, Alejandro's brother Carlos came to their door with a toddler wrapped in a sweater. "Raise her like your own child," he said. "Her parents have just been killed in a battle."

For many years, a woman named Quirina Gallangos also was haunted by her own loss, ceaselessly hunting for her two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, Aleida and Lucio. All five disappeared in mid-1975, at the height of the government's crackdown against a small but tough revolutionary movement known as the Communist League of September 23. None was heard from again.

Until this September. Now Luz Elba Gorostiola, 28, knows that she is also Aleida Gallangos. And Quirina Gallangos, 79, is speechless with tears to be able to hug her granddaughter again after 26 years.

Their reunion symbolizes the emerging power of information in the new Mexico--how information wrested from a long-secretive political system is answering questions about past abuses that even a new and more legitimate government seems unable or unwilling to confront.

The Gallangos and Gorostiola families have a total of seven members who are still missing from Mexico's war against leftist insurgents from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. They are among more than 530 documented cases of desaparecidos, or persons who were forcibly "disappeared."

When the 71-year presidential reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party ended last December with Vicente Fox's inauguration, hopes rose that families such as these would learn what had happened to loved ones. But the president stalled on his campaign pledge to open the door on Mexico's past, worried that the still-influential PRI would react angrily to such scrutiny and undermine his agenda.

Nevertheless, a growing army of academics, journalists and family members mobilized. They came together to share knowledge, demand access to security archives and push for information that would let them know if the desaparecidos were alive or dead.

Among them was Jorge Torres, a tenacious if inexperienced 28-year-old freelance journalist. Torres learned of the Gallangos family's history and wrote a compelling story focusing on the missing toddlers with a headline that asked: "Where Are They?"

On Sept. 16, Alejandro Gorostiola bought the Sunday newspaper with the national magazine supplement, Dia Siete, that carried the article. He read it as he rode home on a bus and burst into tears. He knew immediately and called his adopted daughter. Several days of delirium followed as the families discovered each other.

Luz Elba grew up as just another of the Gorostiola family's 10 children. But over the years, she recalled, she began to sense that she didn't fully belong. She was told at age 16 that she was adopted.

"It was as if I was the ugly duckling: 'And me: Where do I come from?' " she recalled. "I was very quiet, very withdrawn."

Since the tear-filled reunion with the Gallangos family, which still calls her Aleida, "I feel like I have a star on my forehead." she said. "To be able to find my family--and to know they looked for me all these years and that they love me, that I have two big families now. . . . I am so happy when I hear people say I look more like my mother, or that I have my father's eyes."

The Gorostiola family had reason to shelter Luz Elba after she arrived that night in 1975. When Carlos dropped off the 2-year-old, he said that the parents had been killed and that he had rescued the girl from the shootout. He disclosed only her first name, Aleida, and he gave Alejandro and Maria an explanation for the name that he said anyone claiming the child would know.

Carlos also said Aleida's 3-year-old brother, Lucio, had been shot in the leg in the clash and was taken away by police.

Carlos--a comrade of the toddlers' father, Roberto Gallangos, in the Communist League--then vanished back into his clandestine life. A year later, he too was killed by police--executed, his family believes, judging by the 27 bullets in his body when it was handed over for burial.

Carlos' other brother, Francisco Gorostiola, and Francisco's 17-year-old pregnant wife, Ema, who also were members of the Communist League, disappeared in 1976 after being wounded in a gun battle. Police often patrolled the street and watched the Gorostiola house back then.

Mother Never Stopped Search for Missing Kin

The Gallangos family also was hit hard during those times. Roberto's younger brother, Avelino Francisco, disappeared around June 1975. He was never heard from again.

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