In protests, they wear white scarves to symbolize the white dove of peace. The name of the organization comes from the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires, where the bereaved mothers and grandmothers first gathered. They gather every Thursday afternoon for a half hour walk around the plaza.
The Mothers' association was formed by women who had met each other in the course of trying to find their missing sons and daughters, who were abducted by agents of the Argentine government during the years known as the Dirty War (1976–1983), many of whom were then tortured and killed. The 14 founders of the association, Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti, Berta Braverman, Haydée García Buelas, María Adela Gard de Antokoletz, Julia Gard, María Mercedes Gard and Cándida Gard (4 sisters), Delicia González, Pepa Noia, Mirta Baravalle, Kety Neuhaus, Raquel Arcushin, Sra. De Caimi, started the demonstrations on the Plaza de Mayo, in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, on 30 April 1977. Villaflor had been searching for one of her sons and her daughter-in-law for six months. She was taken to the ESMA concentration camp on 10 December 1978.
The military have admitted that over 9,000 of those kidnapped are still unaccounted for, but the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo say that the number is closer to 30,000. The numbers are hard to determine due to the secrecy surrounding the abductions. Three of the founders of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have also "disappeared". After the fall of the military regime, a civilian government commission put the number of disappeared at close to 11,000.
In January 2005 the body of French nun Leonie Duquet, a supporter of the organization, was exhumed, without an established identity. Duquet's disappearance had caused international outrage towards the Argentine military government. DNA tests concluded, on August 30 of that year, that the body exhumed in January was that of Duquet.
Azucena Villaflor's remains, together with those of two other pioneer Mothers, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, were also identified by a forensics team in mid-2005. Villaflor's ashes were buried at the foot of the May Pyramid in the Plaza on 8 December 2005.
The Mothers' association sought to keep the memory and spirit of their disappeared children alive, through the creation of an independent university, bookstore, library and cultural centre. Through these projects, subsidised and free education, health and other facilities are offered to the public and students, promoting the revolutionary ideals of many of their children. This has made their headquarters an important focal point for progressive leaders visiting Buenos Aires, including Hugo Chavez, Tabare Vazquez, and Brazil's Lula.
In later years, the association grew and became more persistent, demanding answers from the government as to where their missing children were. After the military gave up its authority to a civilian government in 1983, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have pressed the new government to help find answers to the kidnappings that took place in the Dirty War years.
In 1986, the Mothers association split into two factions. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line focuses on legislation to help in recovering remains and bringing ex-officials to justice.
In the course of their struggle, most part of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo began to see themselves as inheritors of their children's dreams and responsible for carrying forward their children's work, even to the adopting the radical agenda embraced by some of their disappeared sons and daughters. As a result, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association faction led by Hebe de Bonafini takes a more political approach. This group does not doubt the fact that their children disappeared, and they are aware that the majority of them faced torture and most of them were ultimately murdered. Nevertheless, they are refusing any help offered by the government as compensation for their children's absence. Many still maintain that they will not recognize the deaths until the government admits its fault and its connection to the dirty war and its systematically forced disappearances.
A scholar of the movement, Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, wrote that the association faction wants "a complete transformation of Argentine political culture" and "envisions a socialist system free of the domination of special interests." The Mothers association is backed by younger militants who openly support a Cuban-style revolution in Argentina. On the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bonafini defended the actions of the airline hijackers calling them "courageous", stating that many people "had been avenged", and connecting their ideals with the cause of the guerrilla groups in 1970s' Argentina. Speaking for the Mothers, she also rejected the investigations of the alleged Iranian involvement in the AMIA Bombing (the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center), denouncing the Argentine government was manipulating them to serve U.S. interests. The Mothers have published a book with a compilation of Saddam Hussein's writings, among others forms of support to the Baathist regime in Iraq
On a speech on December 3, 2007, Hebe de Bonafini said "We are brothers of the FARC". FARC is a leftist guerrilla group that, for the last 40 years, has fought a civil war against the Government of Colombia. FARC tactics have included sharing in the profits of drug trafficking and kidnapping. Bonafini's antipathy toward the Colombian government (and sympathy with the FARC) is partly due to the historic similarities between the human rights abuses of the Colombian state (both in recent times and over the past three decades and the crimes committed by Argentina's former dictatorship (1976-1983). During the same speech, she blamed the government of Colombia and its president, Alvaro Uribe, for the difficulties in the Humanitarian exchange affair.
Although the FARC has been branded as a terrorist group by the US state department and the European Union, many remember that it began as a peasant army inspired by Che Guevara, and their strategy of guerrilla warfare is seen by their supporters to have been legitimated in the first place by the historic repression of union leaders, activists and leftist politicians. Attempts at transitions to peace have seen mass-butcherings of former guerrillas, leading few in the FARC to trust the Colombian government and rightist death-squads. On the other hand, few condone the FARC's often brutal tactics, such as their use of kidnapping, for example, making Bonafini's comments more surprising.
However, the attempted coup by the oligarchy, media barons and parts of the armed forces against Venezuela's democratically-elected President in April 2001, for example, is seen by the mothers as demonstrating the continuing anti-democratic intent of national elites desperate to maintain their dominant position over Latin American societies at any cost. It seemed evidence that little therefore had changed since General Pinochet's military coup against Salvador Allende's democratic socialism in Chile in 1973, or the Argentinian military coup in 1976. The Mothers' fury at the USA's historic role in the region, supporting continent-wide military dictatorships under the 'Operation Condor' plan in the seventies and eighties (leading to hundreds of thousands of opponents being tortured, abused and killed in countless countries from Argentina and Chile in the south to Nicaragua and Guatemala in the north) leads Bonafini to be deeply suspicious of Colombia, as the main American ally of the in the region.
The FARC has additionally been accused by Amnesty International of underage recruiting. Others allege that underage teenage girls are forcibly used for combat against Colombian security forces and to give sexual favors to the on-ground commanders, although the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo would likely dismiss such suggestions as propaganda/misinformation. Bonafini, as a staunch feminist, would be very unlikely to support the FARC in this manner if she believed the allegations to be true. Such soldiers, when pregnant, most of them are forced to abort by chemical or mechanical ways. If they keep the pregnancy, the child is taken away months after birth. Many of them end up in Colombian child-welfare system.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo) is an organization who has the aim of finding the stolen babies during the "Dirty War". Its president is Estela B. de Carlotto.