If you visit Argentina, you will probably know about the darkest page of this country’s recent history, the military regime of the ‘70s. To discover what happened during those years, the ex-ESMA (Escuela Mecánica de la Armada), now called Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, is the perfect place to visit. It’s somewhere Argentinians tend not to go to – the scar is still fresh and thus, hurting -, and it’s a place that is also off the usual tourist beaten track.
The huge complex hosted until 1976 the Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy, and between 1976 and 1983 held a double function, it being also a clandestine centre of detention, torture and killing. The place now is a memorial of the illegal activities brought on by the military, who had set up a state terrorism system.
The school was one of the over 600 places scattered around the country where prisoners – the so called “Desaparecidos” – were held, tortured, interrogated, and often drugged, before being “trasladados”, i.e. thrown from planes into the ocean while still alive.
Throughout the years, in the ESMA were detained more than 5000 men and women. They were social and political militants of organizations, workers, students, professionals, and artists. Some of these belonged to the Teatro Abierto, a cultural movement set up to fight the military dictatorship.
One of the most shocking parts of the tour is the room in the attic where pregnant women gave birth to children. Moments after the delivery, these newborns were taken from their mothers and handed over to other families, usually linked to the military government, with a new identity. The mothers, instead, usually had to face death. Over 40 children were born in the ESMA, and based on their story an oscar-winning film by Luis Puenzo, “The Official Story”, was released in 1985.
In the attic was also the “pañol”, a deposit where the army stored the belongings of the prisoners, from their books to their clothes. In addition to this, there was also a photographic laboratory where documents and properties acts were falsified, in order to sell the prisoners’ houses through an ad hoc created real estate.
While prisoners are usually forced to hard labour, in this building some of desaparecidos became intellectual slaves. Editorial work, translations of international newspapers, and media manipulation were the main activities the prisoners had to undertake, working against its own principles and beliefs.
All of this happened while, downstairs, members of the military slept in their dorms and the Admiral Rubén Chamorro lived with his family. A few blocks away, in River Plate’s stadium, the Monumental, in 1978 Argentina won its first World Cup, in what appeared to be a highly politically influenced tournament, aimed to distract the country.
While these are just some of the things that struck us the most when visiting the ESMA, we highly recommend going because there is an awful low to be discovered. Take conscience of what happened so recently by visiting the ESMA, and you will contribute to keep the story of the desaparecidos alive. Many families are still fighting for justice, as the trail is ongoing, and many grandmothers are still looking for their grandchildren. Ultimately, the armed forces still deny any of this actually took place.
Free – Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 to 17 – Free guided tour in Spanish, Tuesday to Friday, at 11:30, 12:30, 14:30, 16:30; Saturday and Sunday at 14, 15, 16:30. Guided tour in English available. Avenida del Libertador, 8151