Argentine courts have launched an investigation into crimes committed at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School during the nation’s military dictatorship. The landmark human rights trial is one of the most far-reaching attempts to bring crimes of Latin America’s bloody past to justice.

For more than three decades, survivors and their families awaited the trial that finally began on Dec. 11, 2009. During Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, the ESMA Navy Mechanics School served as a clandestine detention center, used to torture and disappear thousands of people. Now 17 former ESMA officers face charges of human rights abuses, torture, and murder.

The ESMA trial was scheduled to begin in November but was postponed at the request of the defense. Those on trial include Alfredo Astiz, Jorge Acosta, Ricardo Cavallo, and Adolfo Donda—cited by human rights groups as among the most brutal and sinister repressors in the Argentine security forces. In total, 13 marines, two police, one coast guard, and one army official are on trial.

More than 200 witnesses will testify in the historic trial. Groups have stressed the need for witness protection following a wave of threats and the disappearance of a key witness, Jorge Julio Lopez, three years ago. Even President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who has supported the human rights trial, has received threats. While traveling in her presidential helicopter, the helicopter’s transit radio signal was intercepted at almost exactly the same moment as the ESMA trial opened. Anonymous voices were broadcast saying the words "kill her," followed by the military hymn that was played when Jorge Rafael Videla took power in the March 24, 1976 military coup. Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez says the threats could be "closely linked" to the ESMA trial.

ESMA, Symbol of State Terrorism

During Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, more than 30,000 people were forcefully disappeared. Kidnapped by commando groups in the middle of the night, they were taken to clandestine detention centers. The largest and most notorious torture center, the ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, still stands today, but as a museum to remind the nation of the terror of the coup regimes.

Victor Basterra inside the ESMA, in the officers’ barracks
basement used to torture detainees.

Victor Basterra is among the "lucky" ones who survived the torture at ESMA, where he was held from 1979-1983. As he walks through the basement of the ESMA Officers’ Quarters, Basterra recalls the place where he and detainees underwent unimaginable terror. He points out a small room. "This area was called the ‘huevera‘ or ‘egg cup’ because the walls were lined with egg cartons to drown out screams."

Naval officers, along with other police and military groups, devised a complex system for the forced disappearance of individuals using the ESMA facilities. Most of the prisoners were held at the Officers’ Quarters, where high-ranking officials lived while women and men were tortured in the basement and attic.

"There were different teams of torturers. The police, coast guard, naval guard, secret service, and the penitentiary service all had torture teams. They rotated," said Basterra. "They were always active, especially when they had a prisoner who had information. They would torture the person for days. On one occasion they tortured me for two days without stopping. They would constantly change posts, because the torturers would get tired."

Torture survivors from the ESMA provided much of the information on what is known about how the ESMA operated. Basterra, who will testify in the trial, took photos of officers and prisoners during his detention at the ESMA, risking his life to smuggle them out to later provide evidence for the trials. The photos were used in the first Junta Trial in 1985.

This trial includes only a handful of the military involved in the complex lexicon of torture inside the ESMA. More than 5,000 people were detained and disappeared at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School. Hundreds of officers, cadets, and high-ranking officials worked at what was comparable to a concentration camp.

Juan De Wandelaer, from the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ), says the ESMA trial is a landmark case for Argentina. "The Argentine Navy has never faced trial. The ESMA is a symbolic building and carries a lot of weight for Argentines. Thousands of people were disappeared from the ESMA, most of whom were thrown from planes into the sea after being drugged," says De Wandelaer.

"This trial will bring to light the evidence showing how the ESMA functioned, because not only navy and military officers are facing trial, but also police and civilians. In this aspect, the trial is important because it will further dismantle the wall of impunity."

Landmark Trial

The ESMA was also used as a maternity ward, where
pregnant detainees were forced to give birth blind-folded.

Many of the crimes that the trial will examine were previously held up in court in the mid 80s. The perpetrators enjoyed freedom for the past 20 years thanks to the Due Obedience and Full Stop laws passed in the early 90s, which prevented any successful prosecution of ex-military leaders for human rights crimes by the courts.

Appropriately named "the blonde angel of death," Astiz was 22 when he infiltrated the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo posing as the brother of one of the disappeared. He marked his victims with a kiss outside the Santa Cruz Church. On Dec. 8, 1977 the founders of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Esther Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce, were kidnapped from the Santa Cruz Church along with 8 others. Azucena Villaflor, another founding mother, was kidnapped outside her home just days later. The three women were taken to the ESMA, and later dropped into the sea from death flights. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team identified their bodies in 2005. Astiz was tried in Argentina in 1985 but the amnesty laws halted the proceedings. He has since been sentenced to life in prison by a French court in connection with the disappearance of French nuns, Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon.

In the courtroom, Astiz wore jeans, a navy blue sweater, and a sinister smile. During the opening allegations, which included over 80 accusations of forced disappearances, torture, and rape, the accused sat under the scrutiny of dozens of media outlets who were filming and taking photos. After seven hours of accusations, as the former officers were being handcuffed to be transported to their jail cells, rights activists in the courtroom chanted: "Like the Nazis, you’ll get it too." Astiz looked at the activists and with a smile displayed the book he opted to read during the trial—Return to Kill (Volver a Matar) by Juan Bautista Yofre, ex-chief of the nation’s State Intelligence Agency. Rights advocates responded, "30,000 disappeared—present! Now and Forever!"

Outside the courtroom, survivors and relatives reiterated the need to keep the historic memory alive and seek the truth. "They tried to deny us justice for so many years," said Enrique Fukman, a torture survivor detained at the ESMA. Fukman spoke to hundreds of supporters at the trial opening, expressing his relief that the trial has begun. Another survivor of the ESMA, Graciela Daleo, said that the military officials who decided who would live and who would die are now vulnerable in the justice system. "Those of us who survived detention, when returning to the ESMA for the first time collectively understood the power of those buildings, because those buildings sheltered the people who owned life and death. Now they are the ones being photographed and handcuffed."

Slow but Overdue Justice

Since the Supreme Court overturned amnesty laws barring courts from trying officers involved in rights abuses during the dictatorship, 26 trials have begun and 58 former military and police officers have been sentenced. Carolina Varsky, human rights lawyer and director of the Center for Legal Studies (CELS), says that while justice has been slow, lawyers must follow strict procedures to ensure that the sentences served will be lengthy. "Argentina has progressed in the trials, using its own judicial system and not an international court. While we are proud that we can carry out justice in our own country, I wish the trials were faster. Because relatives of victims are dying; the ones who repressed us are dying. The number of accused who have not testified because they are declared incompetent or who have died before going to trial is quite high."

Groups rally outside the courthouse.

CELS is a human rights organization formed in 1979. The push by CELS for the Trials for Truth in the 90s, when justice was not possible under the amnesty laws, led to the Supreme Court’s decision in 2003 to overturn the laws. "We must play by the rules of the courts. The difficulty is presenting evidence to the courts 33 years after the actual events took place, and after the State destroyed much of the evidence, burning papers that could incriminate the military," says Varsky.

The persistent work of survivors, relatives, and human rights advocates over the past three decades has resulted in the collection of overwhelming evidence, and more military personnel will face trial in the coming year. The proceedings in the ESMA trial are expected to conclude in six to eight months. "These are not the trials that we want, but they are the trials that we have," said Daleo, hoping that human rights groups can continue to make strides against impunity for crimes against humanity.

Human rights continue to be an open wound for much of Latin America, especially the countries that survived brutal military dictatorships in the 70s and 80s, such as Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Patrick Rice, a former Irish priest detained by a commando group in a Buenos Aires shanty town in 1976, said that while many countries have made progress in seeking justice for crimes committed by military juntas, some countries still have impunity laws protecting the military. "We have an ambiguous situation in Latin America regarding human rights, with a coup in Honduras and U.S. military bases in Colombia. There have been a number of progressive governments in Chile, Brazil, and Bolivia that have made strides in the broad sense of human rights. Argentina is taking a clear lead on human rights, with its trials on crimes committed during the past. This is very hopeful for Latin America."

The ESMA trial is a welcome step toward justice, however much remains to be known about the whereabouts of 30,000 people who were forcefully disappeared. Argentina’s military continues to deny human right lawyers’ requests for the release of archives and top-secret information about the crimes the military coup committed. The disappearance of the witness Julio Lopez in 2006 has reignited painful memories of selective repression with impunity and fears about the possibility of violent repercussions against survivors and witnesses participating in human rights trials.

Despite hard evidence concluding that thousands of officers were involved in the crimes against humanity and disappearances, only 280 former officers are facing trial, and many of those charged with crimes are under house arrest rather than awaiting trial in jail. Without the decades of dedication from survivors, relatives of victims, and human rights advocates, convicted assassins like Alfredo Astiz might never have been tried in the country where they committed the crimes. While there is hope for Latin America, even in Argentina the human rights trials have limited scope in the fight against impunity.