- Hundreds or thousands of babies were stolen or given away in Chile, authorities say
- The illegal adoptions occurred during the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s
- The missing became known as the "Children of Silence"
Nearly four decades have passed, but Cecilia Rojas cries for her son as if she had lost him yesterday.
Rojas, a 58-year-old resident of the Chilean capital of Santiago, said her baby was taken shortly after she gave birth.
He was born two months early, but doctors and nurses assured Rojas that he was healthy and would soon be sent home with her.
"The nurse put the baby on my chest while she finished the paperwork," Rojas recalled in an emotional interview with CNN. "Then she told me they were going to take him to an incubator because he was a little small."
She would never see him again. The next morning, a nurse told Rojas the infant had died. Her requests to view his body were denied, Rojas said. She was never given a death certificate.
The fate of Rojas' newborn, in fact, was not an isolated incident.
There could be hundreds, even thousands of cases of babies who were either stolen from their biological parents or given away during the dreaded dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 1980s, according to interviews with Chilean authorities, people with knowledge of the issue and parents still looking for their children.
The disappearances occurred in the upper classes of Chilean society, where children of unmarried women were given up or taken to protect a family's reputation and honor. And they occurred in the lower classes, where children were simply stolen and sold.
Through the years, the missing became known as the "Children of Silence."
'Truth about my past'
Cecilia Rojas eventually married the baby's father and had four more children. But she has always wondered about her firstborn.
"The truth is that we were living in a time in which we were afraid to speak up about anything," she said. "I grew up with that fear. I never asked any questions again. Once I was released from the hospital, my sisters went to ask questions, and they didn't get anywhere."
It was 1975 and Chile was under the iron fist of a ruthless military dictatorship. Pinochet had been in power since September 1973 when the military under his command bombed La Moneda, Chile's presidential palace. His regime thrived by brutally repressing its enemies, real and imagined.
Constanza del Río, a 41-year-old graphic designer from Santiago, has also spent a lifetime wondering. From the time she was a little girl, she noticed striking physical differences between herself and her sister. Most of her relatives knew she was adopted, she said, but never told her.
"They knew," she recalled. "All my cousins knew I was adopted. Even my little cousins (knew) I was adopted. The only one that didn't know that I was adopted was me."
Two years ago, when she turned 39, her parents asked del Río what she wanted for her birthday.
"The truth about my past," she demanded.
Her elderly parents took her to a church. With tears in their eyes, she said, they told her the truth.
"They were really afraid that I was going to be angry -- and I wasn't going to be," she said. "And when I told them that I was going to be their child forever, they cried and they relaxed."
The truth was only the beginning of del Río's journey through her past. Records had been altered to make it appear her adoptive mother had given birth to her, she said.
"Normally in Chile, in addition to the birth certificate, there's also a birth record," del Río recalled. "This document includes details like the baby's weight and other medical information. In my birth certificate, that part is crossed out and there's no birth record. I only have a birth certificate."
For two years, del Río has searched for her biological parents throughout Chile.
Ester Herrera, 33, an internal communications specialist with Chile's government, believes she is one of the "children of silence."
For starters, Herrera didn't look like her mother, even though Alicia Herrera, who raised her, always maintained that Ester was her biological daughter, she said.
"I always felt there was something strange in my story, that I was not her biological daughter, that she had raised me with the greatest love in the world, but that we didn't share a blood connection," Herrera said.
The truth was in plain sight. Her birth certificate is obviously fake, Herrera said. According to the document, her mother gave birth when she was 51. But fertility treatments were in their infancy in Chile at the time, and too expensive for a middle-class woman like Alicia Herrera.
A decade ago, her mother -- who has since died -- confessed that a midwife brought Ester to her home when she was 2 days old, Herrera recalled.
"I don't have any negative feelings toward my mother," she said. "On the contrary, my feelings toward her are pride, gratitude and lots of love."
Herrera said she was able to confirm that a doctor falsified her birth record. The clinic where she was born no longer exists and, for now, a DNA test is her only hope of finding out more.
How did these illegal adoptions happen?
The answer could lie with a Catholic priest named Gerardo Joannon, who is being investigated by Chilean authorities as a suspect in some of the illegal adoptions.
Marcela Labrana, director of Chile's child welfare agency, Sename, said Joannon apparently took babies from their biological mothers, either by deception or coercion, during the 1970s and 1980s to give them up in adoption to wealthy families.
"It appears Father Joannon would contact parents or grandparents of babies who were about to be born," Labrana said. "They would generally be of upper-class families in Chile. The mothers were unmarried and very young."
Gustavo Villarrubia, a journalist who broke the story of the "children of silence," said priests, doctors, nurses and clinics apparently conspired in a scheme that lasted at least two decades. His findings were published by Chile's Center for Journalistic Investigations.
"We found out that this was a common practice," he said. "Children were taken and children were given to other families. The biological mother would be deceived. She would be told, in some cases, that the child had died. There were gynecologists, priests, nurses, midwives and hospitals or clinics acting in conspiracy so that this would be possible and nobody would know."
'Support and guidance'
For weeks, CNN requested an interview with Joannon and representatives of his religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. The order, CNN has learned, forbade Joannon to speak publicly about the allegations.
Attempts to locate Joannon at the order's residence were unsuccessful. An employee said he wasn't available.
In an interview with Chile's Center for Journalistic Investigations, Joannon said that being a single, pregnant teenager in the 1970s was looked down on in Chilean society and that some parents wanted the girls to have abortions.
Joannon told the center that he merely put the pregnant girls in touch with doctors who, in turn, connected them with families unable to have babies. He said he did so to save the babies from abortions.
In his only on-camera interview, in April with Chile's Channel 13, Joannon denied telling women who refused to give up their children that their babies had died.
"I never told anybody the babies had died because I didn't even know if they had been born, or if they were male or female," he said, according to Channel 13. "I never knew anything."
Father Alex Vigueras, leader of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts order in Chile, said Joannon not only facilitated illegal adoptions but also held memorial Masses for babies who had been stolen and were actually alive. Joannon denied the allegations in his interview with the Center for Journalistic Investigations.
Vigueras ordered the embattled priest to acknowledge publicly his role in the illegal adoptions and ask for forgiveness. Joannon has not. Vigueras also ordered the priest to retire to Spain for a time of psychological and spiritual guidance. Chilean authorities originally ordered him to remain in the country, but that order was recently revoked.
But Vigueras said he does not agree with some Chilean critics who have called for Joannon to be thrown in jail.
"Crimes have to be proven by civil authorities or canon law, and many of those possible crimes can no longer be prosecuted (because of the statute of limitations)," he said.
Authorities said Joannon has been implicated in 15 cases, but the priest told the Center for Journalistic Investigations that he was only involved in four.
Joannon's attorney, Eduardo Novoa, said the crimes his client is accused of were not even on the books until 1988. Those crimes include misrepresentation of pregnancy and adoption through deception.
"My client, as priest, knew families and would approach them with the intention of giving them support and guidance when unexpected pregnancies occurred," he said. "In some cases, the grandparents or parents of a young, pregnant woman considered the pregnancy unacceptable and would seek to give the baby away so that another family would raise him as their child."
Search for truth
Joannon isn't the lone suspect. Chilean authorities are also investigating several hospitals and clinics where illegal adoptions or theft of babies might have taken place.
One is Barros Luco Trudeau Hospital in downtown Santiago. Labrana, the director of the child welfare agency, alleged that at least three "irregular" adoptions took place there.
Karen Lara, 39, said her baby was stolen at Barros Luco 24 years ago. At the time, she said, she was 15 years old, but already married. She and her husband, Sergio Farías, were expecting their first baby.
"It was a normal delivery," she recalled. "They put the baby on my chest. He was a fully normal baby, and he was warm when they put him on my chest. I know he didn't die."
But hours after she gave birth, a nurse told her the infant had died. Like other mothers, she said she was not shown the body or given a death certificate.
"It was not my fault," Lara said in tears. "Maybe this happened to me because I was so young. I didn't have the strength to defend myself. Everybody was ... closing doors on me. They didn't give answers to anybody, not even my mother or my husband."
Hospital officials declined multiple CNN requests for comment by phone or in person.
How many "children of silence" are there in Chile? How many parents and children search for the truth?
Authorities said they fear the number could be in the hundreds, maybe even the thousands. The truth may never be known. Some who took part in the illegal adoptions have died. Many clinics or hospitals where the babies were allegedly stolen no longer exist.
In April, Arturo Fellay, del Río's husband, launched a website to help connect the "Children of Silence" with their biological parents. In the first six weeks, the website, nosbuscamos.cl, had 20,000 views. More than 3,000 children and parents had registered as of Friday morning.
The couple has also started a nonprofit to raise funds for genetic confirmation for the "Children of Silence." The organization has already helped a handful of children find their biological parents.
CNN located some people who have been reunited with their long-lost biological children or parents. None of them felt comfortable speaking publicly. Their relationships with family were too new and fragile, they said.
Others -- such as Constanza del Río, Ester Herrera, Cecilia Rojas and Karen Lara -- said they hoped that speaking publicly brings them closer to the truth surrounding the "children of silence."
Of her biological parents, del Río said, "I don't want to live my life without knowing that I made every possible effort to find them."