For as long as she can remember, Maria Diemar has known she was adopted. Her Swedish parents were always open about her Chilean heritage, and growing up in Stockholm in the 1970s and 80s with brown skin and dark hair, it was impossible not to notice she was different.
When she was 11, Diemar’s parents showed her the papers that arrived with her in Sweden as a two-month-old baby in 1975. The file on her parentage offered a brief, unflattering portrait of a teenage mother who sent her newborn girl to be raised by strangers on the other side of the world. “They said she was a live-in maid, that she had a son who lived with her parents, and that she was poor,” recalled Diemar.
In her mid-20s, Diemar went looking for her mother. She contacted the Adoption Centre, the Swedish NGO that had organised her adoption. Sweden has one of the highest per-capita international adoption rates in the world, and in the 90s, the agency had launched a programme that helped adoptees reunite with their biological families. But they had no information on Diemar’s mother.
In 1998, she flew to Chile, requesting help from various sources: child welfare services, the family court that approved her adoption, the hospital where she was born, the civil registry. But none of them provided any information. When she visited the courthouse in Temuco, the nearest city to her birthplace, a court clerk stood in front of her, holding her file in hand, leafing through the ageing papers, and refused to give her so much as a peek. She left Chile empty-handed, but still determined to find her mother. “I came home with more questions,” Diemar said, “but I felt I had got closer to my family. I just needed to find them.”
A few years later, in the winter of 2002, Diemar heard about a Swedish TV documentary series that featured two adoptees searching for their biological families in Chile. Shortly before, Diemar had been given a promising lead: Chile’s National Children’s Service had come up with a possible address for her mother. Seizing on this new possibility, Diemar contacted Ana Maria Olivares, a Chilean journalist who had contributed to the documentary, to ask for help.
Diemar’s birth mother was said to be living in a small town in south-central Chile, but Olivares couldn’t find an exact address. She made several fruitless visits to the town over two weeks, knocking on doors. When she had to return to the capital, Santiago, she left the task of following up to her uncle, who lived in the area. In January 2003, he finally tracked down the woman named in Diemar’s adoption papers, but she declined to meet Diemar in person. She was married now, and was afraid that her husband would not take kindly to the appearance of a long-lost daughter who was not his. But she did want Diemar to know she had never intended to give her away. She said her baby had been stolen from her at birth.
Diemar was deeply distressed by this news. She knew that her Swedish parents had acted in good faith when they adopted her, but now it seemed they might have been deceived. In March 2003, Diemar met the head of the Adoption Centre board, who, she said, assured her that mothers often conjure up fantastical stories of abduction to cope with the shame of abandoning their children. At the time, Diemar said, she did not exactly accept the explanation, but she did not press the agency further. “I didn’t know what to think or feel,” she said. “It wasn’t until years later that I dared to start asking questions.”
Then, in September 2017, Diemar watched a film by Chilean documentary-maker Alejandro Vega, in which women, mostly from poor and minority backgrounds in Chile, described how they had been tricked or coerced into giving up their babies for international adoption. While he was working on a follow-up report in 2018, Vega made contact with Diemar, through an adoptees’ Facebook group. At her request, he reviewed papers relating to her adoption and found them to be full of errors and omissions. From what he had seen of her file, he believed there were fundamental problems in Diemar’s adoption.
This news was devastating. Diemar felt she had accepted that her adoption was done in the proper manner because she couldn’t handle the emotional fallout. Now the truth hit her with full force. “My whole body reacted,” she said. “I started to shake and cry.”
During the 70s and 80s, between 8,000 and 20,000 Chilean babies and young children were adopted by families across Europe and North America. The biological mothers were typically very young and very poor. These adoptions were part of a national strategy to eradicate childhood poverty, which the military dictatorship hoped to accomplish, in part, by removing deprived children from the country. International adoptions had begun decades before Augusto Pinochet took power, but in 1978, promoting adoption became the official policy of the government. Pressure on mothers to give up their children increased, and international adoptions surged.
To Alejandro Quezada, the founder of the campaign group Chilean Adoptees Worldwide, the effect of Pinochet’s policies was the “criminalisation of poverty”. State power was used against poor families to prevent them from raising their own children, and a climate of violence prevented most mothers from resisting. Not only were the victims poor, many of them were also members of the indigenous Mapuche community, a group that has long been persecuted. Under the dictatorship, the precarious existence of these women was seen as an obstacle to progress.
While there were few families looking to adopt brown-skinned babies in Chile, there was more interest abroad. By sending them to wealthier countries, Chile’s government “believed they were saving these children”, says Karen Alfaro, a professor of history and geography at the Austral University of Chile, and an expert on Chile’s international adoptions. But the larger goal, according to Alfaro, was rebuilding relations abroad. Many countries had severed relations with Chile after the 1973 coup that overthrew the nation’s democratically elected government. “The dictatorship promoted adoption as a mechanism to rebuild diplomatic relations,” Alfaro said, “especially with countries that had received Chilean exiles and whose governments were critical of human rights violations.”
Meanwhile, in Sweden, international adoption had come to be seen as a righteous cause. The first generation of parents to adopt from overseas in the 60s believed they were doing something good for others, says Tobias Hübinette, an assistant professor of intercultural education at Karlstad University. It was “an extension of Sweden’s foreign policy and developmental aid towards the so-called Third World”.
But from the early 70s, accounts emerged from Chile of women being coerced by child-welfare workers into giving up their young children. Some said they had been falsely told by doctors and nurses at government-run hospitals that their babies had died at birth. The mothers were never given death certificates or allowed to see their babies. Those who attempted to involve the police, or took their stories to the media, were intimidated and treated as mentally unstable by the very people involved in taking their children.
In the past decade, journalists and criminal investigators in Chile have turned up more and more evidence of irregular adoptions in the 70s and 80s. Alfaro found that would-be parents in Europe and the US were paying international adoption agencies between $6,500 and $150,000 for each child. A cut of these fees often found its way to Chilean professionals who helped to identify “eligible” children and extricate them from their marginalised and uneducated parents. “International adoption agencies had representatives in Chile who developed networks of paid mediators, most of whom were public officials, to provide children for adoption,” Alfaro said. “There were social workers paid to issue false reports of child abandonment, and there was money for doctors and nurses to generate birth certificates that would say the baby died at birth, and judges paid to approve transfer of custody.”
Alejandro Vega’s 2017 documentary described the adoptions as “a very lucrative business in a dark period”. “The situation in which our country lived – a state of emergency under a dictatorship – turned even maternity units into businesses,” Vega told me. It is unclear how much international adoption agencies knew about the activities of their networks in Chile. At the very least, it seems that some agencies made little effort to find out the truth behind the stories about stolen children.
In September 2018, under pressure from groups working to reunite families divided by abusive adoptions, Chile’s lower house of congress created a commission to investigate these historical allegations. Mothers and adoptees gave heart-wrenching testimony. One woman, Maria Orellana, told the commission how, on the morning of 18 February 1985, she arrived at a hospital in Santiago at 39 weeks and six days pregnant. She had gone into labour the night before, and on that day her baby was delivered by caesarean section and then taken away. For three days Orellana asked to see her child, until a supervisor informed her that the baby had died. Even then, they said, she couldn’t see him, as the sight of the body would be too traumatic. “Better to keep the memory of the baby,” she was told. Orellana still searches for her child, putting her faith in God that one day mother and son will be reunited.
In July 2019, the commission released a 144-page report, describing “mafias” of healthcare professionals and public officials who used nefarious methods to take children from their mothers and ensure a regular supply of babies in what had become a “lucrative business”. What had been an unregulated practice before Pinochet took power had been legally codified during the dictatorship. The result was that unscrupulous adoptions practices carried on with impunity. The report concluded that the adoptions were crimes against humanity.
As a child, Maria Diemar dreamed of hugging her birth mother and reuniting with her. “I thought I was going to look like my mum,” Diemar said. “That felt important to me.” As an adult, after the revelation that she may have been forcibly taken from her, Diemar accepted that, no matter how comforting a reunion might be, it wouldn’t change the sorrow of the past. Still, as more information emerged about the adoptions from Chile, she kept on with her search.
In the official record of her transportation to Sweden, which she received in 2019 from Chilean police investigators, Diemar read that in 1974, an engineer and a school counsellor in Stockholm, unable to have children of their own, had decided on adoption. They wanted to give a home and family to a child who had neither. Their application was approved in Sweden that November, and a request was sent via the Adoption Centre to child services in Chile.
At the same time, in Lautaro, a town carved out of the forest in southern Chile, a young Mapuche woman was in her first trimester of pregnancy. (Diemar is protective of her mother’s identity, and so offered only the English translation of one of her Mapuche surnames: Sweetwater.) She worked as a live-in maid for a wealthy family, and aside from her employer, told no one of her pregnancy. She had been raised in the countryside with no formal education. She already had two children, who were being raised by her parents, and she expected they would do the same for her third. But her employer had other plans.
Sweetwater insisted, when she met the journalist Ana Maria Olivares’s uncle in 2003, that she had never agreed to an adoption. Yet the official record shows that on 10 July 1975, a week after giving birth to a baby girl, she placed her newborn in the care of a social worker. “I have decided to give up my girl for a Swedish adoption because then I know that she will grow up in an ideal home for her physical, intellectual and emotional development that I, in my circumstances, could never give her,” says a signed statement given to the family court in Temuco, 15 miles from Lautaro. Sweetwater later denied having any part in this transaction. She said that she had never attended the family court and would not have signed a declaration she could not read.
A week after her birth, Sweetwater’s baby was placed at an orphanage in Lautaro, and then with a foster mother in Santiago. At two weeks old, the baby’s adoptive parents, thousands of miles away in Sweden, named her Ingegerd Maria. She was given their surname, Olsson Karlsson (Diemar is her married name), and on 18 August 1975, a judge in Temuco granted temporary protective custody of the child to Anna Maria Elmgren, a Swedish woman who lived in Chile and worked for the Adoption Centre. On 29 August, the judge approved the Swedish couple’s adoption request.
In theory, Chile’s adoption law, dating from the 60s, required a two-year fostering period in Chile before an overseas adoption could be initiated. The judge gave Elmgren permission to take baby Maria out of the country at two months old. In these fast-track adoptions to Sweden, Anna Maria Elmgren’s name appears again and again on the official forms, listed as guardian. In the vast majority of such adoptions, the legal process was completed abroad.
In Diemar’s case, her papers in Temuco seem to indicate that the legal adoption process was never completed. To make things worse, her adoptive parents were told nothing of her Mapuche background and heritage. “I feel betrayed,” Diemar told me. “I have missed out on so much.”
Elmgren worked with the Adoption Centre throughout the 70s and 80s. After Vega’s documentary appeared, in May 2018 she filed an injunction in the Santiago court of appeals to force the Chilevision TV network to remove all references to her from the programme. Now in her mid-80s, Elmgren described herself as a woman compelled by circumstance and a sense of moral mission. She had settled in Chile in 1965 with her Swedish husband and two children. The marriage ended in divorce and, in 1971, she married a retired senior officer of a national mounted police unit in Santiago. The couple shared a passion for horses, and opened an equestrian school.
That same year, Elmgren’s sister in Sweden expressed a desire to adopt, and asked her to look into the process in Chile on her behalf. When Elmgren made inquiries at the National Children’s Service, the agency responsible for managing foster care and state-run orphanages, she was shocked to discover malnourished children languishing in state care. They had been abandoned by families that lacked the resources to provide for them, and a state that was unable to meet their needs. “Many of them lived in very poor health conditions, with severe feeding problems and with very discouraging life prospects,” said Elmgren in her written statement to the court.
On her sister’s behalf, Elmgren familiarised herself with the adoption law and regulations in Chile. Using only official channels, as she claims to have done throughout her career, she would eventually help her sister to adopt three children.
In the early 70s, Elmgren came to the attention of the Adoption Centre in Sweden. She began helping them find babies on a voluntary basis, but soon became a paid employee. In her written statement, Elmgren said she never had direct contact with birth parents. Instead, she relied on a network of Chilean social workers to identify children that might be sent abroad, as well as foster parents to care for them until they were ready to leave. The Adoption Centre paid a commission per adoption to social workers who wrote the background on each case.
Elmgren managed the operation. She placed children in orphanages and foster homes while overseeing the legal process. Elmgren regularly travelled with the adopted children, or paid others to accompany them. Babies sent to Sweden were transported in special Scandinavian Airlines carrycots. By 1987, the adoption agency was paying Elmgren $2,325 a month for her services. She maintains that the salary was not her primary source of wealth, but compared to the Chilean national average of $118, it was a substantial sum.
In June 2017, police investigators searching the Santiago home of one of Elmgren’s former associates, Telma Uribe Ortega, a retired social worker, discovered a cache of records on 579 children sent abroad. The files provided background on the adoptees, the dire living conditions of their mothers, a list of 29 social workers who investigators describe as “captors”, and details on money changing hands. Uribe, who is now elderly and frail, did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2018, one of the Adoption Agency’s trusted social workers, Esmeralda Quezada, gave an interview to Chilean media, to defend her work. “I have always been proud [of the work],” said Quezada, whose name appears on dozens of adoptions scrutinised by authorities. “I could have left [the children] in a juvenile home, but where were they going in the end? To prostitution, to vagrancy, to delinquency … ? They grew up with love, they are honourable and educated people.”
In her injunction against the TV network, Elmgren said the news reports were “full of offensive and disrespectful information” that gave an entirely false impression of a “dark and despicable business, motivated by the desire for profit”. It was never about the money, she said. Her injunction was not successful.
Now 87, Elmgren declined a request for an interview, but her attorney said the adoptions his client facilitated met the requirements of Chilean law at the time.
Although it is only recently that the political spotlight has fallen on these cases, there were media exposés at the time, followed by official investigations. From 1974 to 1975, Elmgren was at the centre of a scandal about the alleged sale of Chilean babies overseas, after Chilean media questioned whether these were really orphans, and whether they had been given up willingly. In 1974, Chile’s supreme court dispatched a family court judge to Sweden to investigate. But the judge issued a favourable report about the Adoption Centre and its operations in Chile. A newspaper article published in August 1975 said the judge had found no evidence that the Adoption Centre, or Elmgren, had broken the law. On the contrary, they found that the agency was providing children with an ideal environment in which to grow.
That same month, Catharina Stackelberg, an employee of the Adoption Centre, discussed the fallout from the story with Carl-Johan Groth, a Swedish diplomat based at the embassy in Santiago. “I sincerely hope that the writing in the Chilean media does not further complicate [Elmgren’s] work,” Stackelberg wrote. In October, Groth wrote to Stackleberg, informing her that Elmgren’s lawyer had met Chile’s justice minister, who offered assurances that the investigation was not a serious concern. Instead, preventing the story from becoming a scandal in Sweden seemed to be a more pressing matter. Groth suggested the Adoption Centre sever ties with Elmgren, but Stackelberg did not do so. It remains unclear how much the Adoption Centre knew of Elmgren’s work in Chile, beyond the fact that she was good at finding children for adoption. In one letter, Stackelberg described Elmgren as a “lone wolf” whose methods would remain a mystery.
In 2017 a criminal investigation into historical international adoptions was launched in Chile by Mario Carroza, a judge in the Santiago court of appeals who has overseen numerous investigations of human rights abuses under the military dictatorship. The Adoption Centre then began its own internal inquiry, and in 2019 sent representatives to Chile to meet investigators. In a newsletter published in April 2020, it referred to the investigations by Chile’s judges in 1974-5, which had examined the adoptions and found no wrongdoing attributable to the agency. Adoptions were completed in a Swedish district court and the paperwork sent back to Chile, the agency wrote. If Chilean officials neglected to complete the adoption process, it added, perhaps the situation is best characterised as clerical error.
According to Kerstin Gedung, current director of the Adoption Centre, views on the primacy of biological parenting have “evolved”, in the decades since the agency was active in Chile. (It ceased operations there in 1992.) Laws and regulations have improved, and the organisation has helped to develop guidelines and ethical rules for international adoption, she said. “We worked in accordance with the legal framework that existed in Chile in the 70s and 80s, and the adoptions were legally correct and confirmed in courts in Chile and in Sweden,” Gedung told me.
“Whether the way society looked upon single mothers and poor families back then, and the reasons the authorities in Chile had for taking children into care, were ethical, is another question,” Gedung said. Even so, in September 2020, Jon Thorbjörnson, a member of the Left party, introduced a motion in parliament calling for an investigation into their country’s role in the adoption scandal. “I think there is a fear of opening this Pandora’s box,” said Lorena Delgado Varas, a Left party member and child of political exiles from southern Chile. An investigation would force Sweden to recognise that crimes occurred, Delgado told me, but there is little political will to confront the country’s past.
Meanwhile, in Chile, in the wake of its devastating 2019 report, congress ordered the creation of a Truth and Reparation Commission, and a DNA database to help families and adoptees find one another. Yet efforts to investigate the deeper connection between these historical crimes and the role played by Pinochet’s dictatorship have stalled. When I spoke to Jaime Balmaceda, the judge appointed by the supreme court to look into historic adoption cases, he told me these cases had no legal connection to the dictatorship. After all, he said, some of the adoptions under review dated from before Pinochet took power and continued years after the return to democracy. If responsibility must be assigned, he said, then surely it would fall on the permissive adoption law of the era. Despite what seems like a clear pattern involving the same social workers, healthcare professionals and public officials, the cases are being investigated individually, rather than as something more systemic, at least for now. After more than a year, Balmaceda has yet to make an arrest.
Maria Diemar’s story of her reunion with her mother is still unresolved, but she also had an adoptive brother, whose experience of reconnecting with his Chilean family has been life-altering. When Diemar was two years old, her parents adopted a baby boy from Chile through the same agency, the Adoption Centre. He was just five weeks old when he arrived in Sweden. Growing up in the Stockholm suburbs, he always felt like an outsider, and as he grew older he rebelled against authority. “Me and my sister were curiosities,” said Daniel Olsson, now 43. “In kindergarten they referred to me as Brown Daniel.”
When Olsson and his sister were in their early 20s, Diemar formed a group of Swedish adoptees from Chile. “From the time we met, there was this feeling like hanging out with family,” Diemar said. The group of friends are still close today, but Olsson always kept his distance. Where they found kinship, he saw desperation. He felt the adoptees were kidding themselves if they thought connecting with their Chilean heritage would somehow give their lives meaning.
Over the years, Diemar watched her brother struggle with depression. After a particularly low period in his early 30s, Olsson spent several months living with his sister, who was pregnant with her third son. Olsson’s moods were volatile. Sometimes, weeks passed when he couldn’t muster the strength to leave his apartment.
Though he had never expressed an interest in his birth mother, Diemar took a gamble that finding her just might save his life. Without telling him, she looked over her brother’s adoption papers, and found a letter written by Elmgren about Olsson’s background. The letter included the name of his mother: Patricia Sanchez. In 2018, Diemar once again enlisted Ana Maria Olivares, the journalist, to find this woman. Olivares found a Facebook profile of a woman in her 60s who had the same name and lived in Temuco. She sent her a message, telling her that someone was looking for her, and waited to hear back. Later that night, Sanchez responded: “Who is looking for me?”
Olivares told her that her son, born in 1977 and given up for adoption, wanted to make contact. This made little sense to Sanchez. “My son was born on that date,” Sanchez told Olivares. “He died the day after he was born, the head nurse informed me.”
Sanchez had suffered from depression most of her life. Every year on her son’s birthday, she wore black, but never spoke of her loss. She had no idea that she had been lied to and that her son had been taken to an orphanage founded by a Swedish missionar y in 1965, in Lautaro.
After Olivares reported back, Diemar called her brother. She told him that his mother hadn’t given him away – she had been told he was dead. Somehow, he said, he’d always known.
In January 2019, the siblings boarded a plane for Chile. Months had passed since Olsson had learned the truth about his adoption, and it took another intervention from his sister to give him the courage to go to meet his mother in person. Olsson recalled Diemar telling him: “Daniel, let’s do this now, no more talking, let’s rip off the Band-Aid.”
It was Olsson’s first time in Chile. Diemar made all of the travel arrangements. They flew together from Australia, where Diemar was living at the time, going first to Santiago then on to Temuco. “I wasn’t prepared, but I realised there was no way to be prepared,” Olsson told me.
In Temuco, Olsson lingered on the plane, weighed down by the immensity of what he was about to do. Diemar pried him from his seat, urging him through the airport. He tried to block out his emotions, yet once he caught sight of his mother, Olsson found himself pushing other travellers aside as he ran to her. “We must have hugged for two minutes straight,” he said. Holding his birth mother, Olsson was overcome with emotion. “It was like being awake during open heart surgery,” he said. His body shook to the point of exhaustion. “Forty years of distress left my body.”
Olsson had spoken with Sanchez once before via videocall, but he had only seen her face. If there is anything that took him by surprise when he first laid eyes on her that day in the airport, it was how small she seemed. He thought she was beautiful.
He hadn’t expected much from Temuco. Everything was foreign, and he didn’t speak the language, but to his surprise he felt at home, and he felt at peace. “It was like waking up and discovering a new colour,” Olsson said of the experience, “even though it’s hard to imagine what a new colour would look like.”
In August 2019, eight months after meeting his mother, Olsson decided to move to Temuco, renting a small apartment above a bar and restaurant. Today, he is sleeping without the assistance of pills for the first time in years. “I’ve been happy for the last year, that’s my whole life,” Olsson told me. His mother, though young and alone when she had him, had stayed in school and gone on to graduate from university. She teaches history and geography at a high school, and she and her husband have three sons. Olsson’s Spanish is rapidly improving as he gets to know his brothers, and what it means to be part of his extended family – joy and tragedy. Last year, one of his brothers passed away.
After relocating to Temuco, Olsson began working with the campaigning organisation Mothers and Children of Silence, helping Swedish adoptees returning to Chile to adapt to their new life. In late December 2019, I stood with him outside the baggage claim area in Temuco’s Araucanía International airport, waiting for a Swedish adoptee to arrive. The adoptee, a woman in her mid-30s, was about to meet her biological family for the first time, just as Olsson had done a year earlier. About 12 members of her extended family stood anxiously outside the baggage claim area holding up handmade signs. One of them read “Here begins a new story”.
Olsson recalled the mix of nerves and excitement he had felt, and the emotional exhaustion yet to come. The woman was accompanied by her husband, a Chilean national. As she approached her mother, everyone began to cheer, until finally they embraced, and the others closed in around them. “Her roots may be in Chile, but her body language was unmistakably Swedish,” Olsson whispered to me. “It will take some time before she lets down her guard,” he said. While still hugging her mother, she pulled Olsson towards her. “The first thing she said to me was how small her mum was,” Daniel told me later. “I said: ‘Welcome to Chile.’”
For her part, Diemar has become deeply involved in the criminal investigation into the adoptions. In her spare time, away from her day job as a Swedish language teacher, Diemar has collected piles of documents, most of them from other adoptees who request that she take charge of their correspondence with Chilean investigators. She has spent countless hours translating for families and their children separated by language and culture. Listening to the anguish of others has been emotionally draining, even as it has forced her to deal with her feelings about her own adoption.
Lately she has been studying Mapuche culture, and its language, Mapuzugun, which has brought her a measure of peace. Chile’s native populations are eligible to receive official accreditation of their indigenous status and Diemar hopes to one day secure hers.
Diemar has met her brothers and sisters, but only spoken with her mother over the phone. She thinks Sweetwater is coming around to the idea of meeting her daughter in person. “I really would like to see my mum in person, see what she looks like and sit down with her and learn more about my background,” Diemar said. “She is my mum.”
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