Even before the military dictatorship established control over Argentina in 1976, the state sought more efficient methods for interrogating and punishing dissidents (or "subversives" or "terrorists," depending on which label you prefer). This resulted in the rise of Clandestine Centers of Detention, Torture, and Extermination (CCDTyE) all over Argentina, growing from just two in 1975 ("La Escuelita" in Tucuman and "El Campito" in Buenos Aires) to over 610 a year later. While many were temporary and few exceeded a capacity of more than 200 people, these centers hosted the brutalization of many Argentine citizens - some active guerrillas but many others just students, labor activists, or leftist thinkers.
While the phenomenon was relatively short-lived (all but two CCDTyEs were gone by 1980), the centers delivered the desired efficiency, ultimately disappearing and likely killing as many as 30,000 people, mostly Argentines but also many other Latin Americans living in exile from their own countries. In addition, as many as 500 newborn children were taken from their mothers and "adopted" by Argentine military families.
The same general pattern was followed for those disappeared. Military "grupos de tarea" kidnapped the victims, primarily at night, blindfolding and beating them. They were taken to a nearby CCDTyE where they were tortured intermittently over the span of 1-2 months. Throughout their imprisonment they were systematically dehumanized Š their names were replaced with numbers, they were treated like animals, and experienced forced nudity, rape, and terrible living conditions. All the while, they dreaded the infamous "transfer" - military speak for execution.
The detention centers all generally had at least one (and often more) torture rooms, living space for the victims and the guards, a medical room, and toilet/bathing facilities, and many had permanent religious service for the guards.
On our scouting trip in May 2009, we visited the major Clandestine Centers of Detention, Torture, and Extermination in Buenos Aires. Many of these were difficult to find specific information for, especially with regards to visiting them. So, what follows is a short guide:
ESMA (Naval Petty-Officers School of Mechanics)
Location: Avenida del Libertador 8200
Guided visits: M/W/F 11am and 1pm, Saturday 11am (2.5 hours long)
Contact: espacioparalamemoria(at)buenosaires.gov.ar / 4704-5525
Often called the Auschwitz of Argentina, ESMA is the most notorious and well known of the country's detention centers. Estimates suggest that 5000 people were imprisoned in ESMA over the course of its history and that 90% of them were killed.
Detainees were held in the basement, attic, and 3rd floor. New prisoners entered via the basement where they were interrogated and tortured. The basement also contained an infirmary and photo lab. On the ground floor were military offices for intelligence and planning efforts, meeting rooms, and an officers' dining area. As on the 1st and 2nd floors, which contained the officers' rooms, prisoners had no access here. The attic contained prisoner cells on one side and, on the other, storage rooms that held the detainees' possessions, stolen from their homes.
Wikipedia - The info here is primarily an English translation of the Espacio Memoria sight (thus, making it useful and reliable)
Photos by Linda Panetta - An excellent collection of images from one of the guided tours
House of Horror - An article detailing the presidential decision to transform ESMA into a Museum of Memory
Argentina's Dirty War - An article from the Telegraph examining the first trial of an ESMA officer and the larger pursuit of justice in Argentina
Location: Calle Ramon Falcon, between Lezama and Olivera
Guided visits: Schedule via email
Open August 1978 to January 1979, this center received many prisoners formerly held at Club Atletico and El Banco, after the former was torn down. It contained two blocks of cells, one with four rows of ten cells each and two latrines, the other (Sector de Incomunicados) with six isolation cells and a torture room. It had space for 150 prisoners; over the course of its history it held around 500.
From Clarin.com - An article (in Spanish) announcing the opening of El Olimpo as a space of memory, with some pictures of the opening ceremony
El Olimpo del Horror - Another Spanish article, providing an excellent overview of the detention centerÕs history
Location: Colon 1200 (under the freeway)
Guided visits: Wednesday, Noon-1pm (unreliable)
Named because of its proximity to the Boca Juniors soccer team's headquarters, the Club operated from February to December 1977 when it was demolished to make way for the 25 de Mayo freeway. Because of its demolition, and the fact that victim testimony is limited by their perpetual blindfolding, accounts of the detention center are less precise and reliable than those of other places. That said, most testimony confirms that the center included two rows of cells, three torture rooms, a larger group room (the "lion's den"), a medical room, and three isolation cells. Estimates suggest that it could hold 200 prisoners at any one time and that 1500 were held there over the course of its history.
Most prisoners relate a common story - being taken blindfolded down a narrow stairway to a small underground place lacking ventilation and light. Interrogation and torture soon followed.
In April 2002, excavations began on the site of the former detention center. Since then, archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of the three isolation cells, the elevator, and the meeting room. Excavations are ongoing.
Memoria del Centro - An overview, in Spanish, of the history of the club
Sites of Hurtful Memory - A lengthy article on preserving places of historical trauma, including a section on the process of recovering Club Atletico
Location: Virrey Cevallos 628
Guided visits: Possible; email below
Its exact dates of operation are uncertain, but it was likely open in 1976 and all of 1977. The interior is nine by twenty meters; two floors were used. The first floor was filled primarily by a garage, with a torture room to the left, a small staircase leading to the cells, and a small bathroom. It was established as a historical site in 2004.
Vecinos de San Cristobal Contra la Impunidad - The neighborhood organization devoted to the preservation of Virrey Cevallos
Location: Venancio Flores 3519/21
Guided visits: Unknown
This was one of the first detention centers established, operating from May to November 1976. It was the base of joint Argentine-Uruguayan operations working under the aegis of Operation Condor, targeting Uruguayans in exile in Argentina. It held roughly 200 prisoners over its history, mostly Uruguayan.
Originally a mechanics shop, the main room, measuring 8x30 meters, was still full of car parts during this time. But, a small staircase in the back led to the torture cells.
In the 1990s, it returned to operating as a mechanics shop. Finally, in 2006 a law called for its preservation. In addition, the legal case related to Automotores Orletti was reopened and amnesty revoked.
Uruguay: Good News and Bad News - A quick overview of recent news on the Orletti case
Transnational Terror - An examination of the pursuit of justice in the Condor cases, including Automotores Orletti
Location: Azopardo 650
Guided visits: Unknown / unlikely
A short-lived detention center about which little specific information is available. It was likely open the final months of 1976. Today, it is used by the federal police. As one Argentine blogger noted, the irony is painful here - what once was a location in which Argentines had their identities stripped away is now the place they must visit to obtain their passport, the documentation of their national identity.
More on the Legacy Project's 2010 program in Chile and Argentina:
Application: Click here to apply for the Legacy Project's 2010 program in Chile and Argentina!
Itinerary: A rough overview of the trip as planned (regularly updated).
FAQ: Answers to the most common questions we hear about our student trips.
Trip Cost: A breakdown of the 2010 program costs in Chile and Argentina
Scouting Trip Report: Detailed reports from the many meetings we had on our scouting trip to Chile and Argentina in May 2009
Annotated Bibliography: The most useful books we have read in preparation for the program
Other Resources: Assorted links to helpful sites