Buenos Aires, Argentina – It is hard to describe the dimension of the horror at Argentina’s Naval Mechanic’s School, known by its Spanish acronym as the ESMA. Some compare it to Dante’s inferno for the dizzying psychological treatment that prisoners suffered while on the inside of this torture center and the eternal scars that it has left. Others invoke a historical comparison, calling it Argentina’s Auschwitz, because of the thousands of people who were murdered there. Others simply call it a symbol – the largest and longest lasting secret detention center maintained during Argentina’s “dirty war,” the brutal repressive campaign which left 9,000-30,000 people missing, known as “the disappeared.”
In total, as many as 5000 people are estimated to have disappeared from the ESMA, which functioned as a secret prison from 1976-1983.
In 2003, Argentina opened the book on this dark past, when the Congress annulled a series of amnesty laws passed in 1986 and 1987, paving the way for prosecution of the officials at the ESMA, along with hundreds of other former military officials around the country who helped maintain 340 secret prisons.
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On December 11, 16 officials from the ESMA’s notorious Work Unit 3.3.2 were escorted into federal court in handcuffs. Ostensibly charged with pursuing the Montonero guerrilla organization, the victims in the case include leftist sympathizers, poverty activists, human rights workers, journalists, members of the church and even family members who were seeking information on their missing relatives. Prosecutors allege that the Work Group turned the ESMA into center of “kidnapping, torture and extermination.”
In total, 19 officials were charged on an array of counts of kidnapping, torture and murder of 86 victims. (Three were excused from attending for health reasons)
In a prepared statement, Julio Alak, Argentina’s attorney general, called the ESMA case “transcendent,” because of the number of officials accused, and the symbolism of the repression which took place there. The case is a disturbing glimpse at Argentina’s violent past.
The Blond Angel and the Grupo Santa Cruz
In the most well-known crimes of the trial, prosecutors allege that 11 of the defendants infiltrated, kidnapped and executed 12 human rights activists, known as the “Grupo Santa Cruz,” named after the church where the activists had sometimes met.
The protagonist in the incident is Alfredo Astiz, known by his nom de guerre “blond angel,” apparently given to him for his boyish looks and neat tuft of hair.
Prosecutors, relying on the extensive investigation by journalist Uki Goñi in his book “Judas,” about Astiz infiltration, said that Astiz adopted the pseudonym Gustavo Niño and began attending meetings of family members while claiming to have a missing brother.
Members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women who began to march in protest of the dictatorship in 1977 at the height of the regime’s power to demand information on their missing children, remember “Gustavo” marching with them and confronting the police on their behalf, which they later believed was an elaborate scheme by Astiz and federal police forces to help infiltrate the organization.
Between December 8-10, 1977, 12 people were kidnapped in a series of raids across Buenos Aires, including three of the Mothers and two French nuns who had been meeting with the families.
At the raid at the Santa Cruz church, which had served as a safe haven for opponents of the regime and leftist dissidents from all over Latin America, Astiz allegedly marked his victims with a kiss on the cheek, the traditional Argentine salutation, at which point intelligence agents waiting on the street stormed the meeting and kidnapped Astiz’s targets.
The incident caused immediate international outrage. Survivors of the ESMA recall that the Navy forced the nuns to stand in front of a banner with the inscription “Montoneros” and take a picture, to try and make it look like the guerrilla organization had in fact kidnapped the nuns. La Nacion, Argentina’s conservative daily, published the photo, and several international media outlets, such as the Christian Science Monitor, relayed the reports from the Argentine press.
Two weeks after the raids, five bodies washed up on Argentina’s Atlantic shore. In 2005, the five bodies were identified as the three mothers – Azucena Villaflor, Maria Ponce de Bianco and Esther Ballestrino de Careaga – one of the nuns and another activist amongst the 12 disappeared.
Bone damage indicated that the victims suffered heavy impact, probably caused by the ESMA’s notorious “death flights,” where prisoners were drugged, loaded onto cargo planes and thrown out alive over the South Atlantic.
In 1990, France convicted Astiz in absentia for the disappearance of the nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet.
Bernanrd Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, released a prepared statement “to salute the new political will which has sparked Argentine authorities to continue ahead with [prosecutions] against the dictatorship,” continuing that Argentina has “assumed with courage its responsibility for memory.” France has sought Astiz’s extradition since 1990, but the statement said “crimes committed in Argentine territory against an Argentine citizen should be judged, in the first instance, in Argentina, which will finally happen.”
Ana Maria Careaga, whose mother Esther was one of the three disappeared mothers, had conflicting emotions over the start of the trial. “On one side, it’s very painful…. it once again puts on the table the whole route of [the Grupo Santa Cruz] and everything that happened at the ESMA … their horrible, cruel and inhumane destination. But … as a family member, one needs and always asks: what was their final destination? Even though it’s hard, it’s important to be able to say goodbye and that there is justice.”
In 1998, Astiz gave a wide-ranging interview to Argentine journalist Gabriella Cerruti. About the mothers, Astiz said “I didn’t betray them, because I was never one of them … What I did was infiltrate, and this is what they won’t forgive me for. Because I infiltrated them two times. When they accuse me of other things I get mad, but, for this I laugh.”
In the interview, Astiz defended his work at the ESMA, saying that he helped defeat terrorism and followed orders. (Astiz later said that Cerruti violated an off-the-record agreement, and denied most of the content of the article).
In defense, Astiz has said that he cannot be prosecuted for following superior orders. He has also said that he did not participate in torturing anybody, that his job, rather, was to detain suspects and bring them to the ESMA.
Jorge “Tigre” Acosta
The other notorious defendant in the case is Jorge Acosta, known as Tigre (“tiger”). Prosecutors allege that Acosta, chief of the intelligence section of the Work Unit 3.3.2, oversaw the ESMA’s torture activities until 1979. They also allege that Acosta coordinated an “a process of recuperation,” choosing a select bunch of prisoners to collaborate and eventually be released. Some were put to work on mundane tasks. Others were used to analyze press documents and provide context to the intelligence unit on the division amongst Argentina’s left-wing movements. Others, known as the “mini-staff,” were used by the Work Unit 3.3.2 to identify targets and participated in kidnapping raids.
Victor Basterra, a prisoner for over four years at the ESMA, was put to work making false identification documents, smuggled some photos out as he gradually began to gain his freedom. (Acosta had left the ESMA by the time Basterra was allegedly kidnapped). Prosecutors have relied heavily on these photos to corroborate victims’ testimony and to identify who worked at the ESMA. Survivors never knew their captors’ names, because they used “combat names.”
Seventeen defendants in the case have personally identified Acosta as their torturer. But like Astiz, Acosta has publicly defended his tactics.
In the 1980s, during Argentina’s fragile transition to democracy, the government of Raul Alfonsin ordered the prosecution of the military’s top commanders. In 1985, five of the nine members of the ruling juntas were convicted. Soon thereafter, prosecutors moved down the chain of command.
Many middle-ranking officers publicly defended the tactics of the “war against subversion,” angry that their superiors did not stand up for them in the trial of the junta, and were allowing prosecutions to proceed. When called to court, these middle-ranking officers used the opportunity to defend the tactics of the dirty war, simultaneously naming all their superiors who knew about their activities, and denying to state any of their subordinates.
When called before a military court in 1986, Acosta, told the military court, “I have been a repressor because my conscience asked it of me and my hierarchical post ordered it of me. Nobody can wash our good name and honor.”
Speaking of the survivors who accuse Acosta of personally torturing them, Acosta has repeatedly said that they were “intelligence agents” for the Navy who had volunteered to help infiltrate the Montonero guerrilla organization, after realizing the error of their political fight.
In another case in 1986, responding to his treatment of Graciela Daleo, one of the 86 victims in the current trial and a survivor of the ESMA, Acosta remembered “after a few moments of rabid hate, in which I remember that she insulted me, I responded with a slap, because she was having a hysterical attack. She volunteered to remain with us forever and the truth is we had a desire to achieve peace through occidental and Christian principles.”
In more recent declarations before the justice system, Acosta has mostly refused to testify.
Prosecution, Amnesty and Prosecution
Charged statements like those that Acosta made were part of a military gamble during the transition to democracy that the military could win over public approval for their tactics during the dictatorship through a combination of threat and propaganda. When rhetoric failed, the army rebelled in opposition to prosecution and the government was forced to pass an amnesty law shielding middle- and lower-ranking officers from prosecution in 1987. Higher-ranking officers were later pardoned in 1989 and 1990.
Human rights activists were unsatisfied with this outcome, and continued to fight for prosecution throughout the ’90s. Through an exception to the amnesty law, activists continued to file civil suits, and sporadic prosecutions for the kidnapping of babies continued. (Several hundred children were kidnapped and illegally adopted by military families. The Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group which searched for the missing children, has identified 99).
In 1998, prosecutors formed a case for the “systematic appropriation of babies,” and again indicted some of the military’s top officials, including Acosta, who was charged with operating a maternity ward inside of the ESMA. (The case is ongoing). These high-profile cases kept the issue of human rights in the media, and sustained a decades-long fight to break the impunity.
In 2003, shortly after taking office, former President Nestor Kirchner made human rights a centerpiece of his new administration. He pushed through a law which annulled the amnesty laws, opening up cases which had been shut for nearly two decades, including the ESMA case. (Mr. Kirchner’s wife, Cristina, became president in 2007 and has sustained the politics of human rights.)
But since then, the case has languished in the pre-trial stages. Participants and observers cite a number of reasons – Argentina’s formalistic justice system, ideological resistance on the part of some judges, poor investigation, legal and procedural wrangling – all of which have contributed to delay.
The day before the trial started, Astiz and Oscar Montes, the former chief of Naval Operations during the dictatorship, both fired their lawyers in an apparent attempt to delay the opening of the case. The court rejected a request to postpone the start date, which had already been pushed back twice.
Defense attorneys say that the trial is unconstitutional, violating the prohibition on retroactive criminal laws. They say that the amnesty law passed in 1987 cannot be revoked.
The Supreme Court, however, rejected that argument in the 2005 Simon decision, saying the crimes against humanity such as state-sponsored torture cannot be amnestied, pardoned or subject to statutes of limitation. (The court had previously upheld the amnesty law in the 1980s).
Defense attorneys also plan to attack the sufficiency of the evidence. Victims at the ESMA were generally hooded, and defense attorneys say that the prosecution cannot sufficiently pinpoint who participated in the crimes.
“They can prove that a crime happened, but they cannot prove who did it,” says one of the defense attorneys involved in the case.
Victims’ lawyers, however, plan to argue that the defendants are co-authors of all the crimes committed by the Work Unit 3.3.2 for taking part in a systematic criminal structure. They say that direct eyewitness evidence is not needed to convict.
Private defense attorneys have also launched a charged ideological defense. Alfredo Solari, an attorney for six of the defendants in the case, said in an email to Truthout that the prosecution forms part of a region-wide “political plan with the ultimate objective … of pursuing [the American military], not with arms, but through the creation and application of a ‘juridical’ system that will allow for neutralization of it as a defense force.” In May, Solari sent a 25-page complaint to the United States embassy and several other governments saying that the trials violated international human rights law, calling the defendants “political prisoners” of the successive Kirchner administrations.
Juan Maria Aberg Cobo, who until December 10 served as Astiz’s lawyer, said in an interview four weeks before the trial, “These are trials like Nuremburg, but in reverse. The winners of the war are being tried.” He also accused human rights groups of “revenge, vengeance and hate.”
Privately, one of the defense attorneys involved in the case expressed his frustration at working on the case, saying that it was the “law of exception.” He said that the political and social pressures on judges in these cases made it hard to work.
Pablo Eduardo Garcia Velasco, one of the defendants in the case, claims that he has been misidentified. His twin brother also worked for the Navy.
“Volver a Matar”
The defendants entered the courtroom at 11 AM. Oscar Montes, the former head of Naval Operations and the oldest amongst the defendants, sat in a wheelchair for the duration of the proceedings. As the highest-ranking official amongst the defendants, Montes is facing the most charges, along with Manuel Jacinto Garcia Tallada, who succeeded him in his post.
Some entered the courtroom seemingly indifferent, such as Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, who was arrested in Mexico in 2000 on orders of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, under the principle of universal jurisdiction and later sent to Spain. Cavallo formed part of the operations squad of the 3.3.2, charged with finding and kidnapping suspects who were later brought to the ESMA.
Others, like Juan Carlos Rolon, entered cocky and triumphant, standing tall and blowing kisses to the 30 or so military supporters seated in the upper gallery. Prosecutors allege that Rolon was one of eight defendants in the intelligence section of the 3.3.2, charged with torturing prisoners and sorting through stolen goods. He is also one of nine defendants charged with the kidnapping and murder of guerrilla journalist Rodolfo Walsh, who ran the Latin American Clandestine News agency and was one of the first to report on the abuses of the dictatorship.
The supporters seated in the upper gallery were boisterous and proud of the defendants throughout the proceedings.
“It was a war,” said Cecilia Pando, of the Association of Friends and Family of Political Prisoners. (The name refers to the group’s belief that the defendants are currently being held as political prisoners. It does not refer to the thousands who were summarily detained and executed by the military regime). “It was terrible on both sides,” she said, calling the trial a “political circus” and “judicial terrorism.”
Throughout the proceedings, Astiz, who dressed in jeans and a ratty, blue sweater, held a book in his lap, but never opened it. As the judges retired at approximately 5:30, a group of human rights activists began to chant and sing. “Terrorists!” yelled a woman from the upper gallery as the sounds from below filled the courtroom. As Astiz was lead out of the courtroom, he looked toward the protesters on the other side of a wall of bulletproof glass. Seemingly unrepentant, he provocatively waved the book he had been guarding all afternoon. The title: “Volver a Matar” (“Return to Kill”).