Buenos Aires, Argentina – In July 1977, when Ana Maria Careaga was just sixteen years old, she was kidnapped off a major intersection in Buenos Aires by forces from Argentina’s last dictatorship. She was taken to what she later found out was “Club Atletico,” a torture center and secret prison in a federal police station just blocks from the bustling downtown. According to court documents, for three and a half months, she was savagely tortured – beaten, hung by her wrists and ankles, and electrocuted. According to Careaga’s testimony in court documents, her guards continued to beat her even after she told them she was pregnant.
On Tuesday, November 24, more than 33 years after the dictatorship took power and forcibly disappeared between 9,000 and 30,000 citizens like Careaga in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” 15 defendants accused of operating the Atletico and two other secret prisons appeared in court.
The defendants, mostly retired police officials, have been charged on an array of counts against 181 victims, including kidnapping, torture and murder. All of the crimes took place between 1976 and 1979, the most repressive period during the dictatorship’s rule, which lasted until 1983.
The Atletico case is the latest in a wave of actions against the last dictatorship since Argentina’s Congress repealed a series of amnesty laws in 2003. The laws had shielded officials of the dictatorship from prosecution. Since the amnesty laws were repealed, however, it has taken prosecutors and judges years to move forward with cases, as they stall in the pretrial phase.
Though her day in court has finally come, Careaga has mixed emotions. Twenty six years after the return of democracy, she says “now we can have justice.” But, she is frustrated that the defendants have not been charged for the crimes committed against all their suspected victims. “There are a lot of people who were kidnapped, but they aren’t judging … these repressors [for these crimes].”
Judge Daniel Rafecas, the magistrate judge investigating the case (a separate tribunal is trying the case), is currently pursuing the cases of 300 other victims. He says the investigation will finish in one to two more years. In a discussion at the break during trial, he said that if he did not send the case to trial “we would never have finished.”
According to the indictment, the defendants maintained three secret prisons – the Atletico, El Banco and Olimpo – which were really “one clandestine detention center which [changed] name and place, but not prisoners, guards and methods of torture.”
Between 1976 and December 1977, the indictment says that prisoners were kept at “Atletico,” the basement of a federal police building just blocks from Argentina’s government house. Right before Atletico was demolished to build a highway, prisoners were temporarily transferred to El Banco on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Later, they were moved to Olimpo, a police garage within the city limits.
Former military officials here defend the repressive campaign as a “war against subversion,” though they do not publicly admit to the specifics of this campaign. Before the 1976 coup, several guerilla groups actively bombed cities and assassinated police guards. Several hundred people were killed in these confrontations.
But the portrait of the Atletico circuit recounted by victims is far from a confrontation between the extreme left and the extreme right. Guards hung Nazi banners on the walls and read Hitler speeches to their helpless captives. Jewish prisoners, according to Careaga, were singled out for especially harsh treatment. During breaks in torture at the Atletico, survivors recall guards playing ping-pong while they remained hooded in the basement.
Remnants of ping-pong balls and other objects from the 1970’s found at an excavation of the demolished Atletico site have helped corroborate survivors’ testimony.
Survivors of these three centers, like Careaga, are the prosecution’s key witnesses. But more than half of the victims in the case disappeared. Their whereabouts and method of execution remain unknown.
Some may have been thrown drugged and alive into the Rio de la Plata, as happened to victims held at the Naval Mechanic’s School, or the “ESMA,” its Spanish acronym. Others may have been buried in mass graves.
Dissidents of all stripes were caught up in the dictatorship’s campaign – journalists, students and labor activists. Anyone with the most tangential connection to extreme leftists groups could be kidnapped by Argentina’s security forces.
Though cases have now been opened against nearly 700 people, it took three years for the first of these cases to reach a verdict after the repeal of the amnesty laws, when Miguel Etchecolatz, a former federal police officer, was sentenced to life in prison in 2006. In 2007, four years after the amnesty laws were repealed, only one other case had reached a verdict, against the Catholic priest Christian Federico Von Wernich, who worked with Etchecolatz and counseled tortured prisoners to confess their sins to their captors. He, too, was sentenced to life in prison.
Since last year, however, the lumbering pace of the trials has gained momentum. Fifty-three officials have now been convicted since the amnesty laws were repealed. Another 43 officials, including Argentina’s last dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, are currently on trial in six cases across the country. Fifty-four more have trial dates set in five other cases, according to numbers compiled by the Public Ministry.
Still, the 150 officials who have been convicted, are in trial or are awaiting trial make up less than one-quarter of all the suspects in Argentina’s human rights cases. Four hundred forty-five people are being detained in the pretrial phase in prison or are under house arrest. Some have been held for as long as six years awaiting trial.
According to Juan Mercau, an employee of the public ministry who works in a special unit overseeing the advancement of the human rights cases, “you have to evaluate the advance from last year to this.” He said the trials are speeding up.
The Atletico case is the largest so far to reach a courthouse in terms of the number of defendants on trial. It is also the second-largest case in terms of the number of victims in the case – a number that Carolina Varsky, a lawyer for the Center for Social and Legal Studies, says is important.
Nevertheless, activists gathered outside the courtroom were still upset that the case excludes several hundred victims. As Varsky was telling Truthout that Judge Rafecas had done a good job investigating the case, she was interrupted by Sira Franconetti, a mother of three children who were disappeared during the dictatorship. She suspects that two of her children, Ana Maria and Eduardo, were held at Atletico.
Still, Franconetti admitted, “We have achieved a lot.”
Inside the courtroom, frustration was also palpable. During breaks in the proceedings, activists pressed signs against the bulletproof glass wall that separates spectators from the trial floor, taunting the defendants. When the court adjourned for the day, several activists screamed “hijo de puta” at the defendants as they filed out of the courtroom in handcuffs, surrounded by six guards with bulletproof vests. Several supporters for the defendants gathered upstairs screamed back.
Careaga is still also frustrated by the investigation into Argentina’s Naval Mechanic’s School, or the ESMA, Argentina’s largest clandestine center, where it is estimated that as many as 5,000 people were killed.
During Ana Maria’s detention, her mother Esther began to work with a group of women, known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, to help find Ana Maria and other disappeared children. Though Ana Maria was released in September 1977, Esther continued to work with the mothers. In December, Esther was herself kidnapped with two other mothers and taken to Argentina’s ESMA. She has not been seen since.
Ana Maria Careaga and other activists have harshly criticized the ESMA investigation. The case, which involves 895 victims, has been broken up into several trials, requiring witnesses to appear several times and stalling the completion of the case. The first trial for crimes committed at the ESMA was against only one defendant. Another trial is scheduled to begin December 11 against 19 defendants for crimes committed against 86 victims, including the disappearance of Esther Careaga.
Hearings for the Atletico case are estimated to take between eight and nine months. When the rest of this process will conclude is anybody’s guess. As the defendants and witnesses age, time may bring the final conclusion.
Careaga, echoing the sentiments of Judge Carlos Rosanski, who has prosecuted many human rights cases, offered this perspective: “When I’m in Argentina, I’m a pessimist, because I see everything that’s wrong … but when I leave, I’m an optimist, because I see what we’ve done.”