A group of U. S. citizens stolen from their birth mothers in Chile converged on the U.S. capital Saturday to confront visiting Chilean President Gabriel Boric.
They left with a promise.
"How can I help?" Boric told Jimmy Lippert Thyden, an Ashburn, Virginia man who was taken from his mother in Chile as a baby and adopted out to unsuspecting parents in the U.S. about 40 years ago.
It was a major victory for Thyden and other stolen children, who have struggled for years to get the attention of Chile's government.
It took a 5,000-mile trip to Washington, D.C. for them to be heard.
'I love you so much': Watch the moment Virginia man reunites with mom 42 years after he was stolen from Chile
Leap of faith
Del Río has been trying to get a meeting with Boric since his election in March 2022. She had been fighting for years to get the attention of presidents who preceded him.
Frustrated with a lack of progress, she said she decided that her best bet would be to get Boric's attention when he spoke Saturday at a memorial event at the site of the car-bombing deaths of prominent Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and 25-year-old Ronni Moffitt on Sept. 21, 1976. The bombing was ordered by Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who took power following a military coup three years earlier in what's now known as "the other 9/11."
Del Río and the Chilean adoptees didn't know what to expect from Saturday's event, but it certainly wasn't an invitation to meet with the president. That's what they got.
Upon arrival at the event, they were handed an invite to meet with Boric afterward, thanks to their cultivation of a relationship with Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chilean ambassador to the U.S. A spokesman for Valdés said he is "close with the cause" and was happy to help.
Del Río and two adoptees, including Thyden, spoke with Boric for about 10 minutes and left elated, speaking about the interaction first with USA TODAY just outside the Chilean embassy.
What they want
Del Río handed Boric a letter calling on him to establish a government agency to help upwards of 20,000 people taken as babies from mostly low-income mothers and adopted by unsuspecting parents in foreign countries.
The practice amounted to an elaborate human-trafficking operation that involved a network of midwives, doctors, social workers, nuns, priests and judges, many of whom got rich off the scheme while fulfilling a key goal of Pinochet's regime to make Chile an economic success.
The scheme came to light in 2014, when an investigative news agency called CIPER wrote about some cases involving a priest and a doctor. That’s also when the stolen babies, now adults, started learning that they weren’t voluntarily given up as they had always believed.
"The time has come for the state of Chile to recognize the trafficking of children as a historical truth, just as they have with the crimes of the dictatorship," read the letter, which was signed by 50 of Chile's stolen children and calls on Boric to create an investigative agency dedicated to the issue under the country's Ministry of Justice.
“I told him he has the opportunity to change people's lives," del Río said. "People that are alive now who are victims of Pinochet and all the child trafficking that occurred in those years, and he was very interested and he was very emotional about that. And he said, 'Yes, let's talk in Santiago.' ... He said that he’s willing to do something."
Del Río is now set to meet with the Chilean Minister of Justice Luis Cordero Vega on Oct. 16. After that, she expects a longer meeting with Boric. And then action.
“This is a dream come true,” she said as tears welled. “It’s a promise. I’m going to be on them until they do it.”
USA TODAY has been writing about the stolen children of Chile since April, and that coverage has led at least 21 Americans who were adopted from the South American nation to find out the truth about their past, according to del Río.
"Your stories have changed so many lives," she said Saturday.
More about Gabriel Boric
Boric's trip to Washington came about two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-supported coup that put Pinochet in power in 1973.
Now more than 30 years after Pinochet stepped down, Boric is working to address some of the atrocities of the regime.
He recently announced that his government would launch a national search for more than 1,100 people who were disappeared during the regime and have never been found.
"The only way to build a future that’s free and respectful of life and human dignity is to know the whole truth," he said in a statement announcing the search on Aug. 30.
In Washington on Saturday, he honored Letelier and Moffitt at a ceremony in Sheridan Circle, the site of the 1976 bombing that took their lives and also sent a message from Pinochet to the rest of the world at the time: I am untouchable.
"Orlando's and Ronni's ideals won and we are very proud of that," said Boric, who was born 10 years after the attack.
The leftist former student protest leader and millennial ran on promises to tackle poverty and inequality and became Chile's youngest president at the age of 35.
'The other 9/11': As US marks attack anniversary, another infamous milestone looms
Car-bombed in Washington: How a Chilean diplomat's death woke up the US to dictator's evil
Thyden said his talk with Boric was everything he wanted it to be.
"It took him about five seconds to say, 'How can I help?'" Thyden said. "That's all we wanted to hear. And at this point, you know, it starts the conversation. Now we have the foothold."
He said he told Boric about his own illegal adoption and said, "You can't make this right, but you can make it better."
"We have taken a big step towards towards getting accountability for all the mamás that were robbed, all of the children that were robbed, and we're finally starting to build progress," said Thyden, who reunited with his own mother in August after he'd begun to question the truth about his past, prompted by one of USA TODAY's stories.
The victory came as a bit of a shock to Rachel Smolka, who grew up in a loving adoptive home in Staten Island, New York and only recently found out she had been stolen as a baby from her birth mother. (She had an emotional reunion with her mother in Chile in February.)
"We didn't even know that (del Río) was going to be able to get the letter to (Boric), let alone meet with him," said Smolka, who traveled from New York to join the group hoping to get Boric's attention. "It's amazing to me that she got Boric here and that she had to fly all the way from her own country to speak to her own president.
"The stars aligned for this to happen."
Amanda Lee Myers covers news and human-interest stories at USA TODAY. She can be reached at AmandaMyers@usatoday.com and found on X, formerly Twitter, at @AmandaLeeAP.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chile's stolen children get DC meeting with President Gabriel Boric