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the remaining Erica Canepa


Erica Canepa


the remaining


30,000 desaparecidos, presentes!


the remaining “The military dictatorship began with the idea of culturally changing Argentinian people. It has been a progressive change towards a more individualist, selfish and insensitive society that reached its apogee during the Nineties, but where the basis was brutally planted during the dictatorship era. What you see outside the window is what’s remaining, what we are left with. It is today’s Argentina, that shows the indelible marks of genocide, but in which I can still see the ideals that we fought for.” (Victor Basterra, ex detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, 2011)1 The number of people that went missing in Argentina is 30,000. 30,000 ‘disappeared’ due to authorities. Many of them were students, university professors, intellectuals, but also artists, sports men, workers. They protested against the military regime, they fought for social equality, for freedom of speech, for better public healthcare. 30,000 inconvenient, annoying people who – labelled and condemned as subversives – were made to vanish. The military junta thought that with a strategy of terror, violence and arbitrary disappearances, Argentina would fold, would kneel down and surrender. Surrender to order and anti-collectivism. The darkest hour for Latin America came during the Seventies and the Eighties. When Jorge Rafael Videla seized power in Argentina in March 1976, every one of the other countries of the ‘Southern Cone’ were already living under military regimes. Stroessner in Paraguay and

Pinochet in Chile were carrying out a ferocious repression under the guise of a war on communism, a war desired, sustained and supervised by the United States; the now infamous Operation Condor. The coup d’état of the 24th March was predictable, expected and, for a large part of the population, actually hoped for. Many believed that, with the military in power, the chaos and violence reigning in the country and the armed terrorism stemming from the two poles of political extremism would have stopped. For this reason, and in order to defend their economic interests, part of the population subsequently participated in the repression and actively collaborated with the regime. In the years between 1976 and 1983 the streets were patrolled by green Ford Falcons driven by armed men. Often these cars would stop abruptly, and soldiers in plain clothes would jump out and bundle pedestrians into the vehicle. At other times they would simply park in front of a workplace and walk in, the employer would then hand over some of his employees. Or sometimes these armed men would lay in wait outside a house before bursting in and terrorising its occupants; they would kidnap someone, beat the witnesses, and steal everything they felt like taking. Sometimes the plunder would even include children. The kidnapping of subversives and their families became a daily ritual. The word desaparecido (missing) became part of the everyday vocabulary. It was the term for those people who were kidnapped and of whom every trace was then lost. The Buenos Aires governor, General Ibérico Saint Jean stated in 1977: “We will kill all the subversives first, then it will be their collaborators and then their sympathisers. In the end we will kill those who are indifferent and we will conclude with the shy ones.”2 Every day dozens of people would disappear, taken away by the three groups that comprised the armed forces: army, navy and air force. The Argentineans feared to discuss the situation openly, as if silence might somehow protect them, as if whispering that if someone disappears “there must be a reason” would make them feel safe. The kidnappings carried out by the armed forces were illegal. The soldiers denied the abductions and the existence of camps for


imprisonment and torture, and the authorities officially rejected any responsibility and dismissed the requests for Habeas Corpus presented by the desaparecidos’ families. The kidnapped were taken to Centros Clandestinos de Detencion, Tortura y Exterminio(CCDTyE), ‘Clandestine Centres of Detention, Torture and Extermination’, which were scattered all over the country. Between 1974 and 1984 it has been estimated that over 500 CCDTyE were operatiional in Argentina. Some were only used for a few months, while others, like ESMA (Escuela Mecanica de la Armada) in Buenos Aires, were operational for the entire duration of the dictatorship. In some cases the centres had opened before the 24th of March 1976, during the instability of the government of Isabel Martínez de Perón. The Detention Centres, although clandestine, were often situated right in the centre of cities: police stations, military buildings, schools, hospitals, factories and private houses were among the locations chosen. “The Clandestine Centres were secret, as the anonymous graves in the cemeteries were. Nevertheless, it was important for the people to know about their existence, so to spread terror. The silence mist hid names and motives, but everyone knew that those who ‘got into something weird’ were the ones taken, that people disappeared, that the cars going around were part of the security forces, that those who were abducted did not reappear, that concentration camps existed.”3 The CCDTyE were meant to exterminate subversives and to free the country from ‘rotten seeds’4 as representatives of the Catholic Church kept on repeating. To achieve these ends the military made systematic use of torture. There was physical torture, involving the use of cattle prods (picana eléctrica), rape, beating, and the near-drowning of victims in excrement (submarino); but also, and perhaps predominantly, psychological torture, consisting of constant humiliation and complete dehumanisation. The convicts were assigned numbers to replace their names, and lived chained or handcuffed, and in terribly insanitary conditions. Throughout the duration of time spent in the CCDTyE these prisoners wore the capucha, a black hood to prevent them from seeing, and to further the isolation. “ The capucha… I called it the portable cell. A cell is a place where prisoners are left for a long time with bad nutrition, bad protection, bad

assistance… everything bad. In order to see if they react, if they become passive beings. Our heads were surrounded by all of this. If you prevent a person from seeing, their other senses sharpen, and so do the thoughts. It is a lonely man even though other people are around. The moaning of the cellmate become more vivid, the crying of a fellow, the rapes that are happening over there, the beating that your friend close by is receiving, and you don’t know when it’ll be your turn. A constant uncertainty. Bum bum bum.”5 (Victor Basterra). Often the buildings which housed these places of horror would also contain quarters for the officers, who would live in complete contrast to the prisoners in comfortable apartments upstairs. The ESMA was a clandestine centre for detention and yet was also Admiral Rubén Jacinto Chamorro’s holiday house. The director of the navy school next door spent his weekends there with his family. His officers would torture inmates while his daughter played with dolls upstairs. These soldiers were masters of life and death, and they decided when and where a detainee was to be ‘transferred’, a euphemism used to indicate a death sentence. Most of the time the prisoners were pushed out of a plane flying over the sea whilst still alive, or were shot. The detainee-desaparecidos’ were accorded no civil status whatsoever, which allowed the junta to dispense with any semblance of legal procedure or ramifications: “The military secret of the procedures, invoked as an investigative necessity, changes the majority of the detentions into false imprisonments that allow torture and fusillade without a trial. [...] Since the detainee does not exist, there is no need to bring him in front of a judge within ten days time, as the law would indicate.”6 ‘Disappearance’ was the condition of the regime’s final refusal to take responsibility for its actions, illogical thinking which led to the conclusion that, without bodies, there was no corpus delecti. General Jorge Rafaél Videla said: “They could not be shot. Let’s suppose a number, let’s say 5,000. Argentinean society, traditionalist, wouldn’t have accepted fusillades: yesterday two in Buenos Aires, today six in Cordoba, tomorrow four in Rosario, and keep going till


5,000, 10,000, 30,000. There was no other way. You had to make them disappear. This is what they used to teach in Algerian and Vietnamese manuals on repression. We all agreed. Let the population know where the bodies are? What could we indicate? The sea, the Plata river, the Riachuelo? It had been thought to show the lists at the right moment. Then we thought: if we admit the deaths, then we will be asked questions we cannot answer: who, where and how.”7 The desaparecidos’ families continued to look for their loved ones for years: from 1977 to 2005 the mothers of many have marched every Thursday afternoon in front of the Casa Rosada (seat of the Argentinean Government), to ask for justice. Successive governments for their part have answered such protests with laws guaranteeing complete impunity to the members of the armed forces involved in the crimes. Eventually in 2005 President Néstor Kirchner abrogated the impunity laws implemented by his predecessor Raúl Alfonsin and the pardons given by Carlos Menem, by judging them to be anti-constitutional. By doing so he allowed for the process of investigation, tentatively begun in 1984 to no avail, to be reopened. The years of the military dictatorship years have left the country with a permanent scar; the junta made 30,000 people simply disappear without trace and this is a gap in the country’s history that cannot be filled. They managed to change the entire economic basis of the country, away from an egalitarian and highly unionised system, to one based on the unrestricted free market and privatisation, including the privatizing of formerly state-owned companies and the privileging of foreign investors over its own. The junta instilled such a climate of fear that it survived for many years after the collapse of the regime, which, when it ended, left a public debt eight times greater than that of 1976. Nevertheless the junta did not achieve its goal, the deletion of a generation’s ideals. The lives of the ex-desaparecidos are living proof of this. Munú’s intense gaze, Víctor’s jokes, all embody the strength of a country that, without forgetting the horrors of its past, wants to take control of its destiny and fight for its ideals. After staying for days, months and even years in the Centres for Detention, they will never forget. Sometimes, a smell takes them back

to the horror, sometimes a tear rolls down their cheek. They cannot explain the reason why they survived and they ask themselves this question every day. They are alive, and they feel the responsibility to help the justice to make its course. With time those supposedly ‘rotten seeds’ that were not eradicated have grown. The country is rebuilding the truth and owning it, learning how not to commit the same mistakes, learning how to live without fear. The scar left by the military dictatorship is painful, but not crippling. The survivors, through strength and goodwill, are no longer victims. They resisted: they went back to school, they now have families and they have careers. What you can see outside the window, what you can read in people’s eyes is the strength and the courage to believe in a fresh start. What you can see outside the window is ‘the remaining’: it’s today’s Argentina.

1 Victor Basterra, in conversation with the author, 28th of June 2011. 2 International Herald Tribune, Paris, 22th of May 1977. 3 Pilar Calveiro, Poder y Desaparición. Los campos de concentración en Argentina. Buenos Aires: Colihue, 2001. 4 Gospel according to St. Matthew 13, 24-30. 5 Victor Basterra, in conversation with the author, 28th of June 2011. 6 Rodolfo Walsh, open letter to the military junta, 24th of March 1977. 7 General Jorge Rafaél Videla, interviewed by Maria Seoane, 1998.


the remaining


MunĂş Actis Goretta


Carlos Mu単os


Osvaldo L贸pez


Isabel Fernรกndez Blanco


VĂ­ctor Basterra


Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Mark left by the chain at the entrance of the Centre for Detention.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Cell.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination La Perla, Cordoba. Prisoners’ dormitory.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Brigada de Investigaciones, Chaco. Dormitory.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Torture chamber.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Infirmary.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Vestiges of handprints.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Door.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Brigada de Investigaciones, Chaco. Broken light-fitting in the former dormitory.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Door from the torture chamber.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination D2, Cordoba. Marks left by the buckets used for the submarino (a torture simulating drowning in excrement). 

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Torture chamber.


Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Brigada de Investigaciones, Chaco. Window.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Bullet-mark.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Doors to the cells.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination D2, Cordoba. Cell.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Door.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Dormitory.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Floor.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Cell.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Part of the old Centre for Detention, later a private living room.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Bullet-mark on a door.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Window.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Torture chamber.


Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Intelligence room.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Torture chamber.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Window.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Door.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Toilets.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Officers’ canteen.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires. Cell.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination El Chalet, Buenos Aires. Radiator.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Plug used for the picana eléctrica (cattle prods) in the torture chamber.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Entrance to the toilet.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Automotores Orletti, Buenos Aires. Torture chamber.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Marks left by prisoners’ chains.


Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires. Vestige of handprint.

Munú Actis Goretta, ex-detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Brigada de Investigaciones, Chaco. Tiles.

Carlos Muños, ex-detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires. Officers’ recreation room.

Osvaldo López, ex-detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Virrey Cevallos, Buenos Aires.

Ex-Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination La Perla, Cordoba. Mark left by the trough used for the submarino (a torture simulating drowning in excrement).

Isabel Fernández Blanco, ex-detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination Olimpo, Buenos Aires.

Víctor Basterra, ex-detainee of the Clandestine Centre for Detention, Torture and Extermination ESMA, Buenos Aires.


Copyright Š Erica Canepa 2011/ All right reserved.



The Remaining