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ESMA: a site to remember
Paolo Moiola
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Former clandestine detention center is a monument for human rights.

On the sprawling Avenida del Libertador in Buenos Aires, luxury highrises look down on the stout white buildings of the Navy Mechanics School, the largest detention and torture camp of the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

Known as ESMA for its initials in Spanish, some 5,000 of the 30,000 disappeared during the dictatorship were killed there or passed through before they were murdered by state agents.

In 2004, Congress voted to convert the site into the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a chilling reminder of the thousands who suffered human rights violations during the military regime.

Dictatorship-era human rights violations remain an open wound in Argentina, though the country has made major strides in bringing rights oppressors to justice.

On May 6, Spain extradited Julio Alberto Poch, a former naval pilot, to face charges that he operated so-called “death flights,” in which political prisoners were bound and tossed alive from planes into the Atlantic Ocean. He is alleged to have flown the planes that killed a high-profile journalist and two French nuns. Many of the political prisoners had been held and tortured prior at the ESMA.

In April 19 military officers who worked at ESMA went on trial for human rights violations.

Immortal notoriety
In the lobby of the former torture center, a map indicates the clandestine detention centers that operated around Buenos Aires: Automotores Orletti, Olimpo, F. Franklin, Virrey Cevallos, Club Atlético, and of course, the ESMA. There were at least 340 permanent camps in Argentina during the dictatorship, but the number of operating centers was as high as 600 by some estimates.

Admission is free and guided tours are offered by volunteers.

“The center ... was reconstructed based on survivors´ testimony because the repressors had a very strong pact of silence among them,” said Mariana Croccia, a guide. “So much so that today they haven´t found the list of the disappeared or know the names of the children who were stolen during those years.”

The ESMA site was obtained by the Argentine navy in 1924 from the Buenos Aires government for training of its petty officers.

After the 1976 coup, then-Navy Commander, Adm. Emilio Eduardo Massera, turned it into a clandestine detention center. On October 2007, the site was opened to the public as a museum, so they could witness first-hand the atrocities that took places there.

Subversives: Godless and without homeland
Normally, the visitors see just one building, the Officers´ Club, where high-ranking officers from other navy units would lodge and also where the “subversives” and the “Godless and without homeland” – students, union members, teachers, journalists, priests and nuns – according to the coup leaders were detained.

The top of the three floors was where most of the prisoners were held, after their torture and interrogation in the basement.

Prisoners had black hoods covering their heads, had their hands and feet tied, and wore a number to identify them, instead of their names. The third floor is also where the prisoners´ possessions were held by the military: furniture, appliances, anything of value.

The maternity ward
The third floor was also the site where the pregnant “subversives” gave birth. The small, narrow room has been hallowed out, except for the sign that reads: “Maternity Room,” barely hiding the horror of what happened here. Newborns were torn from their mothers for adoption by military families or coup supports. Some 500 children are estimated to have been stolen from several clandestine centers, the most nefarious “war booty” of the dictatorship.

Thanks to the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a rights group whose children were victims of the regime, who ran a campaign with the slogan “Don´t live in doubt,” urging those suspected of having been abducted as infants to get DNA testing, more than 100 children have discovered their true identity and been reunited with their families. In February, 32-year-old Francisco Madariaga Quintela, the 101st child to find his real family, was reunited with Abel Madariaga, his biological father.

The basement
The basement is ten steps below the first floor and is divided into several departments: torture chamber, document falsifying office, darkroom and a guard´s chambers.

Prisoners were first taken here when they arrived at the ESMA, where they were interrogated and tortured. If they survived, they were taken to the third floor and hooded.

The beginning of the end was if prisoners were taken back down to the basement. They were told they were being transferred, but from here, they were taken on one of the “death flights,” and tossed alive into the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean.

When former Navy Cap. Adolfo Scilingo was sentenced in Spain to 1,000 years in prison for human rights crimes, he broke the officers´ vow of silence when he confessed to Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón that the prisoners were injected with drugs, put on planes and thrown into the sea, a method used to dispose of the kidnapping victims.

The result of the “war” was clear. Five thousand prisoners passed through the ESMA and only 200 survived. —Latinamerica Press.


ESMA is one of hundreds of clandestine detention centers is now a museum so the horror of state terrorism will not be forgotten. (Photo: Paolo Moiola)
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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