Chilean Chronicles, Part 84: Evil and Resistance at the former ESMA Detention Center

A security tower erected at the ESMA complex during the Dirty War of 1976 to 1983.

A security tower erected at the ESMA complex during the Dirty War of 1976 to 1983.

It’s a lesson we’ve learned before, and our visit today to the former ESMA Detention Center here in Buenos Aires taught us once again that pure evil takes many forms and knows no boundaries of race, color, history or creed.

The educational facility of the Argentine Navy was converted during the dictatorship into the largest of a network of hundreds of detention centers during the “Dirty War” that lasted from 1976 to 1983.

About 5,000 Argentines were taken, blindfolded and handcuffed, to the sprawling complex in the Nunez neighborhood.

Only 200 survived, according to our guide Emilio, a lean, bearded 35-year-old with blue jeans and rumpled dark hair.

Many of those who were killed and those who survived alike were subjected to all manner of torture in the upper floor of the main building, called the Casino, where high-ranking officers lived with their families.

The torture took place in the place called “La Capuchita,” a diminutive form for being blindfolded.
Emilio explained that as many as 200 prisoners at a time lay stacked in rows, separated only by a piece of wood.

Rampant sexual abuse of men and women occurred there, too.

Among the murdered victims were the mothers of the disappeared, whose crime was that they had protested against their sons and daughters being taken at all hours of the day and evening, never to return. Their group, which was established in April 1977, was infiltrated by members of the Argentine military.

Others were mothers of children who were taken there while pregnant, and murdered just days after their children were born. The children were then given to families, some of them military.

The violations were not only physical.

Emilio showed us the cold, antiseptic room where prisoners, as in Nazi Germany, were stripped of their names and given a number.

Some of the people were killed after being told that they were going to another center in the South of the country.

Deceptions like these were an integral part of ESMA, which had a division dedicated to putting out propaganda to counter Argentina’s poor image abroad.

They made a series of cosmetic changes after the 1979 visit by the Inter American Human Rights Commission, all designed to discredit the statements by prisoners of what was happening there.

So, too, was the terror they sought to inflict on the population.

They took people from their homes and on the streets at all times of the day.

One prisoner who had been held as ESMA tried to escape.

They killed him and brought his body back to show the inmates what would happen to them if they tried to do the same.

Yet at least as horrific as the abuses themselves were the names and uses that the torturers gave to the places where they inflicted so much damage.

They called a corridor in the torture area “the Avenue of Happiness.”

Emilio stands in the basement that torturers called "the Avenue of Happiness".

Emilio stands in the basement that torturers called “the Avenue of Happiness”.

They used the code words “Dark side of the Moon” while passing through the chain that provided a barrier between the green watch tower the officials established during the war and the casino building.

They raised their children in the building and on the complex, and used the same room that they planned Operation Condor, the campaign of political terror and assassination in the Southern Cone, for dancing and partying.

Indescribably shameful, too, was the position of the Catholic Church, which said that injecting torture victims with drugs and throwing them from planes into the ocean was not murder because dieing at sea is a Christian death.

This all took place during the war.

Afterward all involved participated in a code of silence, a wall of denial that has lasted until today and that has rarely, if ever, been cracked. This includes the many other officials they brought there and the men and women who cleaned the place.

The top generals were tried and convicted after democracy had returned, but soon after a law was passed granting amnesty to all those below them who carried out their deadly orders.

Layer and layer of evil upon evil.

Of course, each of these actions and techniques had happened in other countries before.

During the Pinochet government, thousands of Chileans were also ripped from their homes, bound, gagged, violated, tortured and thrown from planes hundreds of miles from their homes and their families.

In Nazi Germany and throughout Nazi-controlled Europe, men, women and children had their names removed, replaced by a number.

Victims were told they were going to take a shower shortly before being ushered into the gas chambers.

The Nazis, too, had a Potemkin village called Theresienstadt that the Red Cross visited during the Second World War.

In South Africa, security forces had a barbeque next to the burning flesh of a perceived opponent they had just killed.

Even with all of these layers of evil, ESMA was not only home to destruction.

It was also a site of fierce resistance.

It’s a place where Victor Basterra, a graphic designer and prisoner, shot pictures of many of the functionaries and smuggled documents he had stolen from their homes that were used in subsequent trials.

It’s a place from which three women who were ordered to leave the country after being released filed a complaint in Paris that told the world what had happened.

It’s a land where the amnesty law did not cover the expropriation of babies, so an enterprising group of lawyers filed suit on that basis.

It’s a country where local judges prosecuted cases in other jurisdictions to help bring the truth to light.

It’s a nation where journalist Ricardo Walsh penned an open letter to the dictatorship on the anniversary of their take over. The letter asserted that the junta’s economic policies caused even more damage in the country than their human rights abuses.

He was murdered the next day.

It’s a place from where the survivors told about the numerical system by which they were ordered and the names of those where there so that their loved ones would know what happened to them.

It’s a story of mothers who have marched ceaselessly for close to four decades, refusing to give up their quest for justice for their murdered loved ones.

It’s one of the few countries in the world where an amnesty law has been reversed, and hundred of suits have been filed against officials of many different levels decades after the crimes took place.
ESMA is also a site of healing, where poor people who have not had much work are hired to help renovate the large, ailing buildings on the campus.

It’s a place where the city of Buenos Aires, the federal government and non-profit groups are collaborating to transform what was into what it can be.

It’s a site where school group after school group comes six days per week to learn about what happened in their homeland.

It’s a location where women and men work to excavate the signs, the telephone numbers and names the prisoners left behind.

The work is slow and laborious.

Many of the complex’s large, high-ceilinged buildings look shabby and run-down. Broken windows are visible, and the pace of construction does not feel urgent.

The ultimate destination is uncertain.

There are still those Argentines who feel that life was better under the dictatorship, and others who continue to choose not to know.

But if this is true, so it also true that are many dedicated souls, among them survivors, who are committed to healing the country by naming the evil, telling about the resistance and educating the young people about what has come before them so that it need not happen again.

We learned that today, too.

Emilio stands in front of artwork of victims' faces done by Brian Carlson.

Emilio stands in front of artwork of victims’ faces done by Brian Carslon.


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