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Meredith: ESMA and “disappearances”

May 29, 2010

How to begin this post? I have no idea. How do you start to describe a visit to what has been called the Auschwitz of Argentina? A place where 5,000 people were tortured and out of that 5,000, only 200 survived. Do the math.

ESMA, La Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, is the Navy Mechanics School. During the military dictatorship, it was one of the largest clandestine torture centers. When you read about ESMA on the internet, the main picture you see is this but it’s important to know that this was not where prisoners, the so-called subversives, were kept. Rather, they were kept in a more sinister location—the officers house. If you leave the main building, and continue on, you will reach a former control tower that restricted access to the Officers’ House. A chain was connected to the control tower, a tangible barrier representing the cruelty behind what felt like a point of no return. Many of the survivor testimonies attest to going over a bump shortly before being dragged out of a car and into ESMA.

This does not mean that what was happening in the officers’ house was secret. As the guide explained, 40-60% of all naval cadets dealt with and/or oversaw the prisoners there. By restricting access and creating the need for “special clearance” to reach the officers’ house, a pact of silence centered around connivance and complicity was created. Everyone was involved, everyone dirtied their hands. To speak out would be to implicate everyone and this alone has created the incentive to never divulge what happened at ESMA. You can see this pact is strong and still in place today: all of the information known about ESMA comes from survivor testimonies.

This is about ESMA, and it is about so much more, as all productions are. In some ways, the dirty war was a performance, a mixture of visibility and invisibility, appearance and disappearance. The system of “disapperances” devised by the military junta was used to spread terror, to paralyze, to silence, to cause the atomization of society. The Argentine military was innovative in their methods. Some disappearances happened in the dead of night. Some happened on a desolate street. Below is an excerpt from the testimony of Alicia Partnoy, a desaparecida and author of La Escuelita (The Little School),

“On January 12, 1977, I was in my house with my daughter Ruth (who was about a year and a half at the time) when I heard the insistent ring of the door bell. It was the middle of the day. I walked the thirty metrs down the hallway that separated my room from the front door. When I arrived, someone was banging forcefully on the door. I asked, who is it? And they responded: The Military; meanwhile, they continued to knock. In that moment, I remembered the thousands of murders, disappearances, and tortures that the military had been doing for at least over a year. Only then I tried to run and escape from the hallway, jumping over the back wall. Then they stopped me near one of the neighbors walls. My daughter, who had followed me through the hallway to the door, began to cry. I could not see her nor did I know what they had down with her until five months after. I didn’t even know if a bullet had killed her. Five soldiers forcefully put me in the truck. Besides my daughter’s claims, I only remember the hateful look from the operation leader. There were at least three military vehicles in the block, forcing the neighbors to remain inside. The delegation continued to the place where my husband worked, about fifteen blocks from our home. There, they detained him, taking us both…”

What you can take from this is that other disappearances happened in the middle of the day, where people could see what was happening. It caught people off guard, just as Alicia was taken by surprise, but it was not unexpected. The military hid what was happening, but at the same time they needed to reveal what they were doing, in small but impactfully indicative bits. In this way, people knew just enough of what was going on to not trust anyone. Atomization occurred, breaking and interrupting networks, fragmenting the fabric underlying societal communication.

The duality of invisibility and visibility vis-à-vis disappearances was just one way the military maintained state terrorism. Another was the location of torture centers. In a similar manner, these torture centers were both clandestine and quasi-exposed. To say that these centers were out in the open and that everyone knew about them is a fallacy. However, some people knew and chose to look the other way. From the testimony of Andrea Krichmar,

…I was invited on one occasion to visit the Navy Mechanics School to have lunch with her father. I was in a games room where there was a billiards table, when through a window I saw a woman, hooded and wearing shackles on her hands and feet, being taken from a Ford Falcon. She was accompanied by two men; I can’t remember how they were dressed, as civilians I think. I remember they were armed. Faced with this strange incident, I asked my friend Berenice what they were doing and she answered vaguely that ‘patrols were hunting for people.’

Moreover, there was, and still is, a high school right next to ESMA. Looking at the image on the right, just the sheer quantity of “clandestine torture centers” around the city shows how pervasive both the idea and physical presence of these centers were.

Again, people knew, but they didn’t. If they did know, maybe they didn’t want to know. I was shocked to find out today that even the place where my class is held, in the centro cultural de Borges, existed as a clandestine torture center. When it was being cleared, remains were found in the basement. They were everywhere, and yet they were nowhere because they could not be seen. Just like the disappearances, a shroud of mystery and confusion surrounded the torture centers. This is not unique only to ESMA. Take the case of the Orletti Auto-garage, another clandestine torture center that was rented out to the military under the guise of an Auto-garage. Prisoners would be taken to the center in the middle of the night, but during the day time, the front-gate would be left half way open, as if to invite the public to know just enough of what was going on inside.

Even Jorge Videla, the first leader of the military after the Coup, spoke to journalists, recognizing the phenomenon of forced disappearances. Nevertheless, he justified the disappearances as a way to bring order to the country.

“In our country people have been disappeared, this is a sad reality. But objectively we should recognize why and through whom they were disappeared. These people went disappeared because they went clandestine… As many people will die in Argentina as is necessary to restore order.”

It was all a performance to spread fear and terror. Inevitably, the ESMA became an integral part of the topography of terror under the dictatorship. Today, it is a crucial component in the fight over what is today the topography of memory in Argentina. More about this in my next post.

Sources:
Jack Donnelly, International Human Rights 3rd Edition.
Alicia Partnoy Testimony
CONADEP (The National Argentine Commission on the Disappeared) Nunca más (Never Again). Farrar Staus GirouxL New York. 1986. (Information about the ESMA)
Marie Trigona, Plan Condor: Crimes Without Borders.

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