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Discovering Buenos Aires and The Dirty War

I don’t recall ever learning about Argentina’s Dirty War. Certainly the last thing I expected to visit in Buenos Aires was a concentration camp. But we did. And it’s this heavy history I choose to write about now. 

As we crossed into Argentina, I read its history as briefly summarized in our Lonely Planet book, and was intrigued. All I knew at that point was many were killed during a military dictatorship. But walking around Buenos Aires on a Thursday afternoon, we found ourselves audience to a protest by the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association). Carrying blue banners and photographs of children, they peacefully walked around the Plaza de Mayo, situated directly in front of the presidential offices. 

It was here that we again saw white symbols. We first saw these symbols in a square in Bariloche. Painted on a statue in the main plaza. Its presence felt like a protest or a message. We would soon understand just how true that was.

While watching the protestors in the Plaza, we asked some young people what was going on. They explained the Mothers have been protesting here every Thursday for 30 years, seeking answers about their children who were disappeared during the Dirty War. The Mothers, and another group called Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) want answers from the government. The symbol, a head scarf, has become ubiquitous with their movement and their quest for the truth. 

The puzzle was slowly coming together and now I was obsessed. The next day, I spent several hours researching the history of the Dirty War. Unbelievably, this state-sponsored terror happened in my lifetime, from 1976-1983. During that time, approximately 30,000 people were killed or disappeared.

During my research, I discovered that one of the concentration camps – yes, concentration camps – used to torture and kill the disappeared was located in the middle Buenos Aires. One of 300 concentration campos in Argentina, it was just down the street from our airbnb. The location, the Naval School of Mechanics (ESMA, as abbreviated in Spanish), a broad campus consisting of over 30 buildings. Its officer’s quarters were transformed for the torture and killing. 

In 2004, the Federal government and City of Buenos Aires evicted the navy and created the Remembrance and Human Rights Center (Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos). The campus was converted into a human rights museum, place of remembrance and location of human rights offices. The entire campus has been kept in tact despite desires by the military to bulldoze the entire campus.   

Located on Del Libertador Ave. the museum sits amidst high rise apartments, a health club, golf course, school and a police station. We arrived at around 1pm and were offered to join a Spanish-speaking tour, but decided to head off with our English language map to explore on our own. We headed directly for the museum, the former officer’s house and location where the disappeared were held, tortured and killed. I struggled to grasp that this was a real life concentration camp smack dab in the middle of Buenos Aires. As we approached the museum, we first viewed Rodolfo Walsh’s “Carta Abierta de un Escritor a la Junta Militar” (“A Writer’s Open Letter to the Military Board”) displayed in its entirety on glass panels.  The day after Walsh published this letter he became one of the “missing.”  

Approaching the entrance to the museum, I was struck by the eery quiet belying its location on a main artery through the city. Opposite the museum entrance sits an old rusted green gate, now shackled, that I imagine once welcomed pomp and circumstance to its campus streets and circle driveways. 

The entrance to the officer’s house has been modified with glass panels, featuring the faces of the detainees and disappeared who suffered here. Now called the Core of the Clandestine Detention, Torture and Extermination Centre, the former Officer’s House has been left in tact to memorialize and honor their memory.

Despite the fact the majority of the exhibitions and video presentations were in Spanish, from the first room we entered, the story of terror was palpable. Each room and exhibit built on the story. Dating back to 1930, we learned of Juan Peron, the subsequent military coups, Peron’s exile and triumphant return. We were faced with the role of the “US Army School of the Americas” in helping to create and train Latin American dictators. The terror tactics of the Dirty War directly traced back to the United States. The school, now called “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” is still very much operational.

Upstairs, the officer’s rooms, left untouched, were blocked from view. This museum was about the victims. In the attic we witnessed the space where the disappeared were confined to small spaces, shackled to the floor withheld basic needs, tortured by sensory deprivation, all the while being able to hear children play in the nearby school playground and watch their fellow citizens partake in normal day to day activities – these spaces were known as the Capucha and Capuchita.  

During the day, some of the disappeared were forced to work as part of the military’s disinformation campaign writing false media stories about the disappeared and propping up the military.  These campaigns functioned as late as 1980, when the remaining disappeared, once deemed “reformed” by the military, were killed.

Later, we descended into the basement, the location of more torture. It was here that many were killed or drugged before taken on death flights and disposed of over the ocean. Although most were forever lost, some bodies washed up on the shore to later be identified and also serve as evidence of the military’s terror, named Process of National Reorganization (or El Proceso). The military’s actions were slowly coming into the light.

Remember the children? Those children lost to the Mothers and Grandmothers who continue to march every week seeking answers? Those children were taken from “political dissidents” at birth and illegally adopted to military families. The goal – to wipe out the left-wing insurgency. Some of these lost have been found and reunited with their families but hundreds remain disappeared. Hundreds, maybe thousands, with lost histories.  Sadly we learned even today some adults of 30+ years are just finding out the truth of their illegal adoptions and coming to the reality their real parents are some of the thousands of disappeared.  

We completed our tour in the former intelligence center, a large window-filled room where the officers plotted and stored files documenting their state-sponsored terror. The room, again sparse but for a beautiful minimalist exhibit set the stage for a dramatic video display featuring the photographs, then and now, of the military personnel at whose hands so many were tortured and killed.

The truth and reconciliation history of the Dirty War itself is storied. A series of laws between 1986 and 1989 granted amnesty, ended investigations, halted prosecutions, and even pardoned the previously prosecuted. However, in 2001, a human rights organization pressured the courts to act. Then in 2003, President Nestor Kirchner began repealing those laws and reopened prosecutions, overturned pardons and unblocked extraditions. Trials and hearings have been ongoing since 2008. Although many of the guilty have been prosecuted, others are mired in long trials or have since died.

Walking away from the museum, I was haunted by the history contained within those gates and the dichotomy from the lively beautiful city just outside. Seemingly unaware, but maybe purposefully ignorant of the terror that occurred in the middle of their city, porteños (people of Buenos Aires) carry on with their busy lives, just steps away from this site of so much terror. 

As we were checking out of our airbnb, I told our host we had visited the museum. She looked to be at least in her 70s and therefore would have witnessed the Dirty War first-hand. As soon as I mentioned it, I immediately felt that I had said something inappropriate. She just shook her head and soon we were out the door. It seems that this history is better left unsaid, which explains why the truth has been so difficult to uncover and justice so uncertain. Peronist sympathizers remain in the government today. Those who speak their truth as victims of the Dirty War are often threatened or mysteriously killed. (reference).

Buenos Aires is incredible. From its vast parks, to its tree-lined boulevards, colorful neighborhoods and awe-inspiring architecture, it is a city meant to be enjoyed. But what stuck with me the most was the uncomfortable truth hidden in plain view. How did a city sit by and watch as people were tortured and disappeared in the middle of their city? Whether Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina come to grips with its history remains to be seen. As suggested by the exhibit, we must discuss what people witnessed and ignored. Justice must be served to the disappeared and their families. 

Political dissension is important for a healthy society. But I’m not sure Argentina has learned from its past. I read reports of protestors paid to march in the square as a sign of support for the former Kirchner government. The current president, MarciXXX, former governor of Buenos Aires is on the opposite side and believes the past should be forgotten. How frightening if Argentina’s Dirty War history is wiped away or lose yet couched as a left-wing conspiracy.

I suspect not many tourists make their way to the ESMA museum, but I’m so glad we did. If we don’t learn our history, we face the looming possibility of repeating it.


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