Woman Finds Brother Lost in ‘Dirty War’

Times Staff Writer

Aleida Gallangos was 2 years old when a gunfight ripped her family apart, and 28 when she pieced together what had happened: Her parents and an uncle had been arrested and disappeared while in police custody, like hundreds of other leftists targeted in Mexico’s underground conflict of the 1970s.

But the fate of 3-year-old Lucio Antonio Gallangos, who was wounded in the shooting and taken away by police, remained a mystery for three more years -- until an emotional reunion of the orphaned siblings last week.

In a rare story of closure to the conflict, Gallangos traced her brother to Washington, D.C., found him living under the name Juan Carlos Hernandez, and convinced him of his identity, making the immigrant construction worker the first of Mexico’s more than 500 desaparecidos, the disappeared ones, to be found alive since the “dirty war.”


“I wanted to know what happened to my brother. I wanted to see him,” said Gallangos, recalling her “immense joy” at finally meeting him Dec. 29. “I had gone through so much anguish, not knowing whether he was alive or dead.”

With DNA tests still pending, the Mexican attorney general’s office said this week that it was convinced that Hernandez, 33, is the Lucio who vanished as a boy. Officials called the sibling reunion a result of President Vicente Fox’s policies, which has led to the opening of secret archives on the dirty war and criminal investigations into the atrocities of that era.

But as Gallangos tells it, her search is an exception that proves a rule of government ineptitude or indifference to the fate of the missing. She describes a tenacious battle to pry information from bureaucrats and to use what little they offered to advance her own detective work.

A mid-level factory manager in Ciudad Juarez, Gallangos, 31, is one of hundreds of Mexicans trying to reconstruct family histories buried by government cover-ups and seeking justice for the killings more than a generation ago.

The results so far have been disappointing. Of 11 warrants issued, just three former officials have been arrested and charged. The government appealed to the Supreme Court last year after a lower court rejected its charges against former President Luis Echeverria in the slayings of dozens of student demonstrators in 1971.

And even though Fox appointed a special prosecutor in 2002 to investigate dirty-war disappearances, Gallangos said it took her two years of hounding that office before it cooperated.

“The truth is they are not interested,” she said. “They had all the power to locate my brother, but I had to keep after them, after them, after them. Apart from my case, what others have they resolved? None.”

Gallangos began looking for her brother in 2001, after their paternal grandmother located her and revealed the story of the siblings’ star-crossed early childhood as offspring of Communist urban guerrillas.

In June 1975, police raided a guerrilla safe house outside Mexico City and battled its occupants. Lucio was wounded in the leg and taken by police to a hospital and then to an orphanage, which accepted him as an abandoned child called “Antonio N.”

It remains unclear whether Carmen and Roberto Gallangos, the children’s parents, were involved in the shootout, but they were arrested shortly afterward. Before being taken to a Mexico City jail, the last place they were seen alive, the couple handed Aleida to a friend from the Gorostiola family, which adopted and raised her as Luz Elba Gorostiola.

After the reunion with her grandmother, Aleida Gallangos reverted to her original name and plunged into Mexico’s newly opened archives. She found her name and her brother’s listed in the yellowing police file on her parents’ guerrilla activities but had no clue about Lucio’s fate.

Eventually, one of her father’s old comrades helped her identify the orphanage where Lucio had been taken. She said it took her two years of lobbying and an audience with the attorney general to get the special prosecutor’s office to help obtain her brother’s file from the orphanage last February.

That led Gallangos to her brother’s adoptive parents, a couple named Hernandez in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, and more roadblocks. The Hernandezes told her they did not want Juan Carlos, who had migrated illegally to Washington nearly a decade earlier, to learn of his adopted status or tragic past.

“They tried to confuse me by telling me he was somewhere in California,” she said.

Undaunted, Gallangos demanded that the special prosecutor’s office obtain the Hernandezes’ phone records, and this time the office was quicker to cooperate. Matching those numbers with phone directories on the Internet, she located two of the couple’s daughters in Washington and traveled there in mid-December at the Mexican government’s expense.

The Hernandez sisters refused to cooperate. But Gallangos remained in Washington, scoured Latino neighborhoods for leads and publicized her search through the city’s Spanish-language media, including one newspaper that paid for a private investigator. After the sisters saw her interviewed on television, the family decided to tell Juan Carlos about her.

On Christmas Eve, Gallangos answered the phone in the Washington apartment where she was staying. “Whom are you looking for?” a man asked.

“I am looking for my brother. We were separated as children,” she said. “Who are you?”

“I am Juan Carlos,” he replied.

They met five days later, talked for hours and compared birthmarks, Gallangos said.

“I found the person I was seeking, someone hard-working, sensitive and open,” she recalled after returning to Mexico. “I saw pain in his face.”

In a telephone interview, Hernandez said he was shocked by the revelation and had no memory of any family other than his adoptive one.

“I spent a lifetime with one family,” he said. “I am part of her story, but my life is different.”

The prosecutor’s office announced this week that, as a result of new information in the case, it was investigating four former police officials on possible charges of abducting the Gallangos boy.

But the siblings hold out no hope of finding their birth parents.

“What we want is nothing more than to search for the facts about what was done to them,” Aleida Gallangos said. “We both understand that they are definitely gone, but we want the truth.”