Monday, April 13, 2009

A Tour of ESMA

Let me warn you guys right away. This particular blog is not going to be full of sunshine and roses, or kitesurfing and empanadas. It was actually pretty difficult to write. It's going to be full of some harsh realities about some very despicable violations of human rights that took place during the military dictatorship in Argentina from 1976 to 1983. This particular blog will specifically be about the dictatorship that was going on here, in Argentina, because I visited one of the detention centers just a few hours ago, and, well, I'm in Argentina.

However, this type of violent regime was common in all of Latin America around this time period, with variations from case to case. It is a sobering history that has not long since passed. I encourage all of you to do some reading on your own about the topic. Do some Google searches on the internet, I think that your findings will shock you. Pay special attention to US influence and involvement with these regimes, specifically in the case of Chile in 1973. This is a topic that doesn't get much attention in the history classes of the United States, at least not the ones that I went to. I will admit when I came here I knew nothing of what had happened here, of this history of violence. While studying here in Argentina, I have been introduced to the history and the political climate of that period. I am by no means an expert, but I am much more aware. I am of the very strong opinion that these horrific events that took place all over Latin America should be known, and they are something that we should never forget. Please rememeber that I am passing this information onto you as I understand it and as I have been told. I have a very, very, basic understanding. I will do my best, but I'm sure it may reflect opinion and bias. It's hard not to considering the topic, but I suggest you always check things out for yourselves. I added some links at the end of the blog to some websites that have some really good information on the topic if you are interested.

Still reading? Hope so.....

Today, as a part of our history class, we had a tour of a place called ESMA. ESMA stands for "Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada." From the outside, it was a naval mechanics school. On the inside, during the military dictatorship beginning with Jorge Rafael Videla, it functioned as a school, but also as a clandestine detention, torture, and execution center. There were many things going on in the world that played a role in the decision of the military to seize power over the government in 1976. The junta consisted of Army commander general Jorge Rafael Videla, who was also to serve as president, Navy commander admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, and the Air Force commander Orlando Ramón Agosti. This a complex issue with many links and influences both nationally and internationally, in business, in government, politics, etc., that need to be considered in the understanding of why and how this happened. But basically, very basically, it was a decision made by the military to fight the inner enemy, the inner terrorists who were a threat to their political agenda and ideology, a threat to their country. The idea that a revolution was possible was spreading throughout Argentina. The growing sentiment of the people against military governments was becoming a problem for those figures in government. In the words of Massera himself, he called the dictatorship "...the struggle against subversion and the management of the image of Argentina abroad." Montaneros, ERP, PRT, and other political extremists groups and individuals were targeted. Opponents of the regime were rounded up in the 'Dirty War', which saw thousands of people disappear. The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons researched and recorded 9000 people "disappeared." However, I have seen sources estimate as high as 30,000 people and this is the number that seems to be used the most by the Argentines I have encountered. This need for total control brought an onslaught of violence through kidnapping, torture, isolation, and usually ended in disappearance.

This detention center we visited was one of 600 centers in Argentina used to enforce the state terrorism policy. It functioned as a detention center until the end of the dictatorship. It continued to function as a school until the year 2004 when President Kirchner ordered the eviction of the military institutions and returned the property to the city of Buenos Aires. It is now used as a museum to preserve the memory, and for the promotion of human rights. It is located on on Libertador Avenue in the northern area of the city. Contrary to what you might think, the premises are in plain site, clearly seen from the street. A high school sits right next door and, as you'll see from the pictures, it is separated from civilian life with only an iron fence. To curb curiosity, the military implemented and enforced a no stopping policy. In fact people were forbidden to walk on the same side of the street. You could drive by, but it was forbidden to stop. If anyone violated these terms the guards had the right to open fire.

Almost everything that is known about how these detention centers functioned has come from the testimonies of the survivors. It is estimated that about 5000 to 7000 detainees passed through this ESMA, although the museum offers no official number. It is estimated that out of those 5000 to 7000, there were about 200 survivors. Still, to this day, the military forces involved maintain their strong pact of silence. It is rumored that this pact of silence is maintained because of two strong factors. First, there are so many people with dirty hands from doctors, students, nurses, families of the officers, friends of the officers, anyone that was employed to keep the center functioning. Second, our tour guide said that breaking this pact of silence has led to disappearance and death (as in the case of the second disappearance of Julio Lopez.) For whatever reason, even now, this silence is still maintained and no official records, files, or documents have been found.

So, essentially what would happen is these people, these inner enemies, is they would be kidnapped for some sort of suspicion or violation by officers of various divisions of armed forces. All divisions were collaborating in the effort to rid Argentina of the enemies of their political ideals. These people were students, professors of universities, journalists, writers, political activists, etc, etc. The process was to kidnap, torture, confine for an undetermined period of time, and lastly transport. There were cases of detainees being released, obviously since there are survivors, but there is no known reason as to why. There doesn't seem to be any common bond between those survivors linking an obvious reason as to why they were chosen.

During the time when Massera was head of the Navy, he implemented something called the "recovery process." As I understand it, this action was motivated by his desire to appear democratic and gain strength in his political agenda. Intelligence was the goal. The recovery process implemented the use of detainees as slave labor to gain the information and political insight that Massera needed at the time. Detainees that had any kind of usefulness in any area might have been put to work. The recovery process gave prisoners the idea that if they cooperated they could be saved. If they cleansed themselves of their tainted political ideals, if they recovered, they would have a better chance of survival. Apparently, it actually had no bearing on whether these detainees were executed or not.

This is a huge complex and the tour consisted of a walk through the grounds past the school, the infirmary, and an inside tour of a building called the Officers Casino. From the outside, it is actually kind of a beautiful place. There are gardens, and the streets are lined with trees, the sun is shining, the wind is blowing. It's hard to believe that this was once such a dark place.

Although the complex is quite large, only a few buildings are in use and functioning as part of the museum. The Officers Casino is the only building that we were allowed to go inside and we were not allowed to take any pictures. The function of this building was to house officers and it was also where the prisoners were detained. There was a disturbing cohabitation going on that suggests it would have been impossible for any officer in the building not to know what was going on. This is where most of the interaction with the detainees took place. This is where they were confined and tortured. It is interesting to see that the building has undergone many structural changes over the years. Our tour guide said this was done to take credibility away from the survivors testimonies. If you know where to look, you can see where the changes were made.

Once inside the building we were taken to the basement. The museum decided not to attempt to recreate the environment inside. The only thing that makes you realize you are in a museum are some maps along the way showing how the rooms were arranged over the years. As well as some explanations and testimonies of survivors. So the basement is empty, it has the smell of cold cement. In addition to being used as a torture chamber, or for certain types of slave labor, this was where the detainees were taken when it was decided that they were to be transferred. To be transferred meant that the detainee was taken to the basement, given a tranquilizer by a doctor on staff, and then loaded into an airplane and dropped into the river while handcuffed and alive. These were called the "death flights" and they were conducted on a weekly, or bi-weekly basis.

From the basement we were taken upstairs to the second floor to see the officers quarters. This is where resident or visiting officers were housed. The place was desolate. It had an institutional feel with tan walls and fluorescent lighting. The same stairway that was used to take the detainees to the basement, was used by resident officers. Since every detainee was shackled with a ball and chain, it would have been impossible for anyone in that building not to hear what was going on. Since every detainee was handcuffed with a sack over their head, it would be impossible for anyone in that building not to see what was going on. Seeing how close some bedrooms were to the stairwell, I wondered what kind of person could sleep soundly next to those sounds.

We were taken up another flight of stairs to the attic, called "capucha," which means "hood." As you might have guessed, the attic is hot. It was uninsulated and I imagine it also got very cold during the winter months. There were just a few windows, the lighting was bad. I felt like I was in the attic of some decrepit old house. All dismal and gloomy and sad. I'm not sure if it was because I knew what happened there, but it was a depressing place to be. I could picture what it must have looked like when it was in use, I could almost see it. This was where the detainees were kept. They laid in coffin-like boxes with hoods, shackles, and handcuffs for hours upon hours. They were allowed to be taken to the bathroom and they were fed. Some detainees would stay here for years, it was an undetermined period of confinement that varied from person to person.

Something unique about ESMA is that it was also home to a clandestine maternity center where the pregnant detainees were taken to give birth after they reached 7 months. On the same attic floor were the maternity wards, just a small room with a window, but a lot better than a wooden box. Many detainees from other centers were also brought here to give birth. It is estimated that around 500 babies were born to detainees during the dictatorship. The museum estimates that about 35 of those babies were born there at ESMA. The protocol was that shortly after the women gave birth, the babies were taken from their mothers and, in most cases, kept by naval officers or members from other repressive forces. This is an example of how many non-military people were involved in this operation. This is an example of how many people dirtied their hands. Doctors and nurses were employed to aid in the delivery of the babies. Families all over the country were given orphaned newborns. If your husband came home with a newborn baby, would you question it? Or would you accept it when he told you that the baby was a gift from god? It is estimated by the museum that approximately 97 of these children have recovered their identities. Unfortunately, their mothers usually suffered the same fate of the rest of the detainees.

In the aftermath of this tradgedy, the government of Argentina has been inconsistent in the prosecution of those responsible. Raul Alfonsín, who was the first president elected after the return to democracy, began the process of holding accountable those responsible. He was the face of justice and democracy for the Argentine people. President Carlos Menem went so far as to pardon everyone, claiming to forgive and move on is what was best for Argentina. When Néstor Kirchner became president the amnesty was lifted and the process of prosecuting those responsible was again under way. Today, many military officers involved are in prison. However, several of these men are old and in poor health so they have been confined to their homes.

So, this is a little snippet of something I've learned while studying in Argentina. It is so incredible to be able to learn about a countries history and be able to live amongst its consequences. Every day I see something relating to this tragedy that passed. I've seen the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared that still gather every Thursday in Plaza de Mayo, still looking for their family members. I witnessed first hand the funeral procession of former president Alfonsin after he died on March 31st. I walked with fifteen thousand Argentines as they paid their respects to the man who first brought justice after this tragic period. I saw their tears and I heard them sing their anthem and shout "Alfonsin." That experience is indescribable and it is something that will forever be a part of my personal history.

Here are some links to some pages with good information on the topic, if you are interested: the military

And here are some links to web albums:

These are pictures of the ESMA tour and facility:
These are pictures of the funeral procession of Raul Alfonsin:
New Folder (2)


  1. hi! i'm in buenos aires for the whole year and i am interested in this part of argentina's history.
    do i have to go to the ESMA to get a guided tour or should i get a reservation on the internet (and where)?
    thanks for introducing me to the subject...

  2. Hola Alice,
    I am a Spanish teacher in NJ and I just came across your posts. Thanks for the great photos and insight into the ESMA. I have written a book about the Dirty War in Argentina and I would love the chance to get to find out more about your experience at the ESMA. Also, I would love to be able to explore the possibility of including some of your photos in a slideshow that I am putting together to educate students on what went on there. I would greatly appreciate if you could contact me at: Thanks so much