Some 30,000 people were disappeared during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Kidnapped by commando groups in the middle of the night, they were taken to clandestine detention centers. The largest and most notorious torture center, The ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires still stands today, but as a museum for Memory.
At the ESMA the Navy along with other police and military groups devised a complex system for the forced disappearance of individuals. Most of the prisoners were held at the Officer’s Quarters, where high ranking officials slept and lived while women and men were tortured in the basement and attic.
Torture survivor Victor Basterra was held at the ESMA from 1979 until the end of the dictatorship. In the basement of the ESMA’s Officer’s Quarters, Basterra traversed through the same space where he and detainees underwent unimaginable terror. “This area was called the ‘huevera’ or ‘egg cup’ because the walls were lined with egg cartons to drown out noises.”
More than 5,000 people were detained and disappeared at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School. Hundreds of officers, cadets and higher ranking officials worked at concentration camp. Prisoners were also held and tortured in the attic also known as the “Capucha” or “Hood.” The military gave this sinister name because detainees were held handcuffed and hooded.
Many of the victims from the ESMA were drugged and dropped into the sea in the death flights. Few bodies have been recovered.
The ESMA housed a clandestine maternity ward where pregnant women held at the ESMA were forced to give birth in captivity. Doctors and nurses assisted in the delivery. Shortly after birth, newborns were separated from their mothers and appropriated by marines or other members of the military forces. It is estimated that 35 children were born while their mothers were held in illegal captivity at the ESMA.
The few torture victims which survived the ESMA provided much of the information as to what is known about how the ESMA operated. Basterra, who will testify in the trial, took photos of officers and prisoners during his detention at the ESMA, risking his life to smuggle them out later providing evidence to try the officers. The photos were used in the first Junta Trial in 1985.
For more than three decades, survivors and their families anticipated the trial of officers who worked at the ESMA and now face charges of human rights abuses, torture and murder.
For 29 years the human rights group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo has held their annual March of the Resistance on International Human Rights day to demand justice and information as to the whereabouts of their children. Marta Ocampo de Vazquez is the president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line. “Today we are holding the 29th March of the Resistance, remembering our past. And remembering that we still don’t have truth and justice. We still don’t know the whole truth and what happened to our children.”
Since 1977, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have protested in the historic Plaza de Mayo. Because many of the mothers are now in their 80s, some worry that they will not live to see the military held responsible for its crimes. This year’s march of the resistance came a day before a major human rights trial began.
At the opening day of the ESMA trial, survivors, relatives and rights activists wore T-shirts displaying the message trial and punishment. Victoria Donda, who was born at the ESMA while her mother was in captivity attended the trial (second from left). Donda recuperated her identity in 2003.
The ESMA trial is one of the biggest human rights trials in Latin America’s history. Among those on trial include Alfredo Astiz, Jorge Acosta, Ricardo Cavallo and Adolfo Donda, referred to by Human Rights groups some of the most sinister repressors among the ranks of the military. In total, thirteen marines, two police, one coast guard, and one Army official are on trial.
The ESMA trial is a welcomed step toward justice, however much remains to be known about the whereabouts of 30,000 people who were forcefully disappeared. The trials were made possible by the work of human rights activists who have endlessly demanded justice for the crimes committed against their loved ones.
Marie Trigona is a writer based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached through her blog: www.mujereslibres.blogspot.com