Tracking los desaparecidos in Argentina’s Dirty War
By Briana Kerensky
The people of Buenos Aires, Argentina love to complain about their government. When Argentina’s current president, Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner, makes a decision people don’t agree with, they quickly take to the streets to voice their discontent. On any given day multiple groups of protesters walk toward the main government building, La Casa Rosada, waving banners, shouting into megaphones and banging drums to demand better schools and wages, among other things.
But in the ‘70s and ’80s, the people of Buenos Aires did not react with exasperation and anger toward the government like they do now—they reacted with fear. During Argentina’s Dirty War, from 1976 and 1982, about 30,000 (estimates vary depending on the source) “enemies” of the state—communists, socialists, students, union members, journalists, people that listened to American rock n’ roll, men with long hair and their friends and families—“disappeared” and were taken to secret detention centers.
Jonathan Ablard, an assistant professor of history at Ithaca College who lived in Argentina for a number of years, described the Dirty War and its selection of victims as a “well-documented randomness.”
“Some people disappeared purely for [the purpose of] taking their property,” Ablard said. “There’s a story of one man who disappeared because he was sleeping with another guy’s wife. It was chaotic. The violence had the sense of a criminal operation.”
In the detention centers, los desaparecidos were dehumanized, tortured and eventually killed. And while some human rights groups, such as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, were created to stop the junta’s practice of disappearing people, the majority of Argentines remained silent.
Buenos Aires had about 50 secret detention centers, but they were hardly as clandestine as history textbooks make them out to be. Some of the most infamous places the junta used included an athletic club, the basement of a shopping mall, a bus garage and the dormitory of the navy mechanics school, la Escuela de Suboficiales de Mecánica de la Armada (la ESMA). In addition, the junta’s death squads would patrol the streets in their “signature” car: the Ford Falcon.
When I studied in Buenos Aires last semester, I visited the most notorious detention center of the Dirty War, la ESMA, where an estimated 5,000 people were held prisoner.
La ESMA is located in the middle of a prosperous section of Buenos Aires and is a massive compound full of colonial-style red brick buildings. Only a low wall around the perimeter separates it from the public. “El Casino,” the dormitory, held torture chambers in the basement, isolation rooms for pregnant women across the hall from the dorm rooms, and space to chain the blindfolded disappeared to beds in the attic. Other buildings in the compound, including the infirmary, the print shop and the mechanical shop all held victims as well.
Senior political science major at Pitt University Pete Abraldes studied in Buenos Aires last year, where he took a human rights seminar and participated in an internship program. Abraldes was assigned to help translate guidebooks from Spanish to English at Garaje Olimpo, an old bus garage that used to be a secret detention center, in a small neighborhood on the outer edges of Buenos Aires.
Abraldes said Olimpo was a centerpiece for the community before it was turned into a detention center. “For a very instrumental part of the community to be shut off would make people suspect something was wrong, I think,” he said.
It had to have been almost impossible for people not to know the junta was taking people and torturing them, says Annette Levine, assistant professor of Spanish at IC and the author of Cry for Me, Argentina, a book about the stories of female writers and activists and their experiences with trauma during the Dirty War. Like those who lived near concentration camps during the Holocaust, people felt powerless to change anything. “There really was a culture of fear, and one preferred not to question rather than implicate themselves,” Levine said.
But the sudden closure of Garaje Olimpo to the public was not the only sign for people that something was going on in the building. While the cells for regular prisoners were hidden from view, the rooms where they kept pregnant women were much more conspicuous. The junta would often keep a disappeared pregnant woman alive until after she gave birth. Then she would be killed and her baby was given to a “deserving” military family.
“There is a building that remains from the original facility of Olimpo,” Abraldes said. “In the top room, generals would keep women who were pregnant…and kept the young children there until they determined what to do with them. They were also allowed outside for fresh air in one little section. [These places] could be seen by buildings over one story high from across the street.”
La ESMA, for example, is massive and in the public eye. It had to have been impossible to miss the Ford Falcons driving in and out of the compound all day and night. But why would the junta choose to utilize such public places and focal points of the community, like Olimpo, as detention centers?
“There’s very little official documentation of how predetermined these choices were,” said Levine. “It could be part of the adhoc
nature of the Argentines, but by keeping the victims in Buenos Aires it reaps terror among the public.”
Jonathan Ablard also believes that the fear the junta spread forced Argentines to remain silent during the Dirty War. “The system operated extra-legally, and you need to understand the depth of fear that created,” he said. “A number of Roman Catholic priests were killed. This was a regime that was not just Christian, but explicitly Catholic and was killing members of the clergy—this is a pretty big deal. It’s unprecedented in Latin America to kill priests.”
When a person “transgressed” against the government, they were challenging the entire fighting power of Argentina. The junta was a full military effort—the Army, the Navy and the Air Force all had a hand in running the country. Levine believes the junta chose places like La ESMA to further make their power known.
“La ESMA is so visible, but at the same time everyone carried on as if this was protocol and it seemed so permissible…it further legitimates the work of the military,” Levine said.
The hidden detention centers of Buenos Aires were hardly a secret to the men and women who passed them in their daily lives. But the randomness of the military junta, in their selection of both victims and locations to torture them, created a kind of unofficial censorship. Seeing average people get forced into Ford Falcons for no apparent reason by soldiers created a lack of personal safety and silenced the citizens of Argentina better than any law could have.
“[The detention centers] were hidden by the fact that even though people knew about it, people wouldn’t say anything,” Abraldes said. “They would hide it from their consciousness even though it was in their face. They couldn’t allow their consciousness to see it or they would be taken away, too.”
Briana Kerensky is a senior journalism major. She assures you that Argentina really is a beautiful country, but that’s mostly because the ‘70s and ‘80s are over. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Argentina’s Dirty War: The Fallout
In a well-planned coup, the Argentine military overthrew President Isabel Martinez de Peron on March 24, 1976. A three-man military junta, led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, took charge and began a ruthless campaign against anyone they considered enemies.
The Dirty War ended seven years later on Dec. 10, 1983 when Raul Alfonsin’s civilian government took control of the country.
After democracy was restored, a national commission was appointed to investigate the wherabouts of the disappeared. Its report revealed the systematic abductions of men, women and children, known as los desaparecidos or “the disappeared.” It also revealed the existence of about 340 well-organized “secret” detention centers. But other records had been destroyed near the end of the war.
In 1985, after an eight-month-long trial in Buenos Aires, Videla and his navy commander were found guilty of homicide, illegal detention and other human rights violations and were sentenced to life imprisonment. Three codefendants who succeeded Videla as president were found guilty of lesser charges and received sentences ranging from four and a half-17 years. The remaining four officers were acquitted.
In January 1991, Argentina’s president, Carlos Saul Menem, seeking to appease discontent in the military, issued pardons to imprisoned military personnel, including Videla, which resulted in much public protest and outrage.