The site of a former Navy School which during the "Dirty War" of the military dictatorship in Argentina
between 1976 and 1983 served as the principal clandestine detention, torture and execution centre in Buenos Aires
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The acronym ESMA stands for Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, 'Navy School of Mechanics'. It's a sprawling complex of 40 acres comprising of almost three dozen buildings.
The large central pavilion, also nicknamed Cuatro Columnas ('the four columns' – after its imposing portal), now houses a memorial museum, while much of the rest of the complex is undergoing further development.
For instance, there's an associated National Archive, and various human rights organizations are, or will be, given their own quarters, including the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (of "Mothers of the Disappeared" fame – see under Buenos Aires
) as well as the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (the "Grandmothers" – concerned mainly with those illegal adoptions of babies born in the detention centres to mothers who were murdered by the regime; see under Parque de la Memoria
A large proportion of the estimated 30,000 "disappeared" victims of the junta are presumed to have passed through ESMA (5000 is a frequently quoted figure) – and of these only about 150-200 survived! Most were "disposed of" either by execution at the site or, more frequently, by "death flights" – i.e. under the pretext of being "vaccinated" and then "transferred" (to another prison or so) they were injected with a sedative and then dropped from planes into the Rio de la Plata, still unconscious, where they were left to drown and be washed out to sea.
The main detention and torture centre used to be inside the Casino de Oficales (officers' house) at the north-western end of the complex, which is being preserved as a historical site. Parts of it had been altered by the military in the late 1970s (to cover up its function), of which some elements have meanwhile been restored again – according to eyewitness reports. This building was not, however, accessible at the time of my visit (but I have found reports by people who had apparently been given guided tours of this building in the past – so presumably it will be accessible at least by special appointment in the future too).
The whole memorial complex is still very much a work in progress – and it will be interesting to see what will eventually become of it. But, this being Argentina (to quote my guide!), it will probably take many years to get anywhere near completion.
Still, it was a major step forward in Argentina
's coming to terms with its grim past when in 2004 the ESMA complex was, by a National Congress law, taken from the Navy and declared a Memorial Space (under the umbrella of Espacio Memoria, like other sites related to the military dictatorship and the Dirty War – see under Buenos Aires
). The last buildings still used by the Navy were vacated in 2010 (the new, current Navy Mechanics School has moved to a different site outside the city). So the whole complex will one day be one truly massive memorial complex by area size – and accordingly with exceptional potential. I will certainly have to monitor this one – and go back on a return visit in a few years time to see what progress has been made. Meanwhile I'd be grateful if anyone visiting the site could fill me in on any significant developments at ESMA (contact me
What there is to see:
When I visited the site (in January 2012), as part of a larger 'historical traces' tour (see Buenos Aires
), the only part accessible was the main building with the iconic four column portal and the actual legend "Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada" in the frieze above the entrance.
The inside of the main hall – a huge cavernous space three stories high – is home to an exhibition about the topics of the military dictatorship, the "disappeared", the protection of human rights, and so forth.
Instead of following any discernible thematic or chronological order, the exhibition is rather kaleidoscopic in nature. Various individual aspects or individual personal cases are picked out and designated a single or double sided panel with texts and photos and in some cases also a number of artefacts and/or documents. All texts are in Spanish only – so if you're not exactly fluent in the language, you'll have to guess a lot … or ask your guide, if you have one.
Amongst the issues covered are not only predictable ones, such as the detention and torture centres, the struggle of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the original military functions of the ESMA complex, and so forth.
One panel shows portrait photos of several of the perpetrators, including Alfredo Astiz, aka the "Blonde Angel of Death". Not only had he been one of the key actors in the running of ESMA, he's also known for the particularly despicable betrayal of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. He sneaked into their regular meetings in the Iglesia de la Santa Cruz, in the San Christobal district in Buenos Aires, pretending to be the father of a "disappeared daughter". In reality he was there to spy on the Madres and tip off his military superiors. He's even said to have himself actively kidnapped the founder of the Madres, Azucena Villaflor de Vicenti (whose bodily remains were only identified in 2005 by a forensic team, proving that she, too, had been killed by the regime). He was deemed particularly suitable for this "undercover job" because of his innocent features. Hence the "angel" epithet – which was later augmented by the "of death" tag … Astiz was captured by British troops during the Falklands
War (more precisely in Grytviken on South Georgia
) in 1983, but not much later repatriated. It was only in 2001 that he was arrested again and subsequently put on trial in Argentina. His conviction and sentencing to life imprisonment in October 2011 constitutes a major breakthrough in the legal proceedings against the former regime.
What I found a particularly poignant display ensemble was about the football World Cup '78, which took place in Argentina (and which Argentina won) – literally right next to the clandestine torture centres: ESMA is only a stone's throw away from the famous River Plate Stadium (officially Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti), which is the "national" stadium and hosted the final of the tournament. Inmates reported that they could even hear the cheering from the stands in their cells. Still, the international (football) community played along to the military generals' orchestration of the tournament (whereas the West boycotted the Moscow
Olympics only two years later – does that remind anyone of the expression double standards?).
Granted, the general public in the rest of the world was largely oblivious to what was actually going on in the country in 1978. In fact it was only during the World Cup that the protesting Madres de Plaza de Mayo first encountered foreign journalists – and when asked what they were doing they grabbed the opportunity (and, quite literally, physically, the reporters' microphones) to tell the world about their plight. That was the start of their international legacy.
The principal historical site at the ESMA complex, the Casino de Oficales, which was the main detention and torture centre, was not accessible at the time of my visit. But I've read about guided tours of that site, including the former cells on the third floor/attic rooms (called "capucha", 'hood', or "capuchita", 'little hood' – which is where the torture mostly took place). I presume it must be an especially grim place to visit, but as I didn't see it myself, I can't report any first-hand impressions.
Even without having seen that particular part of ESMA, it was still a moving experience going there. In a way one could say the place is to Argentina
is to Poland
, or Robben Island
to South Africa
: the No. One memorial site representing the nation's darkest chapter in its history. As such it is an indispensable destination for any dark tourist in the southern cone of Latin America! It will certainly consolidate such a status once the ambitious plans for the site's further development have progressed more than they have until now. Surely a place to keep monitoring!
on Av del Libertador 8151 (main building), in the far north of the Buenos Aires
capital city territory proper, in the Nuñez district, over seven miles / 12 km from the central Plaza de Mayo.
Access and costs: restricted, but free.
: getting there independently can be tricky, unless you have your own car and dare to drive in Buenos Aires
or brave working out how to get there by bus or regional train. The metro line D terminates at Congreso de Tucumán, which is still almost a two mile (2.6 km) walk away (and it won't be the most pleasant walk). A taxi would be a better alternative. My visit to ESMA was incorporated into a longer 'historical traces' tour of the city (see under Buenos Aires
), which was most convenient transport-wise (since we had our own car and driver), but not the best time of year to visit, as it was January (which in Buenos Aires is the main summer holiday period, when lots of places are closed and half the population flee the steamy hot metropolis).
Time required: depends very much on how much you are allowed to see. My visit, when I was admitted only to the main building and its exhibition (but not, for instance, to the historical site of the former Casino de Oficales), lasted ca. 30 minutes. But if you can read Spanish well enough, and want to take in all the material available in the exhibition, then you might need longer than that. If you're lucky enough to be taken on a guided tour including other buildings of the ESMA complex, then that could presumably take quite significantly longer still, possibly a whole day.
Combinations with dark destinations:
in general see under Buenos Aires
– the ESMA site is located another mile and a half west of the Parque de la Memoria
, which thus makes an obvious combination, both thematically and geographically, though not necessarily an easy one unless you're on a guided tour or have your own vehicle.
Right opposite the ESMA complex on the western side of Av. del Libertador, you can spot the inscription "Comision Nacional de Energia Atomica" on yet another imposing palatial edifice. Indeed, this is the seat of Argentina
's National Atomic Energy Commission, established under Juan Peron in 1950 (see Recoleta cemetery
), which allegedly at one point claimed to have achieved controlled nuclear fusion (it didn't of course, this still remains an unattainable goal of nuclear science worldwide).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
none in the immediate vicinity – see under Buenos Aires
- ESMA 01 - main portal with the iconic four columns
- ESMA 02 - old inscription
- ESMA 03 - exhibition inside
- ESMA 04 - display cabinet
- ESMA 05 - burned books are never a good sign
- ESMA 06 - how the military instrumentalized the 1978 World Cup
- ESMA 07 - rear of the main hall
- ESMA 08 - expansive exercise yard outside
- ESMA 09 - chart of the whole complex
- ESMA 10 - National Memorial Archive
- ESMA 11 - new sign outside
- ESMA 12 - artwork on the fence
- ESMA 13 - CNEA building opposite