Memoria, verdad, justicia in Argentina: Attending the ESMA trials, May 27, 2011

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, the third stage of the ESMA mega-trial will begin in Buenos Aires.  I’ve never had an enormous interest in the machinations of the legal system in any nation, yet a good bit of me wishes I could be there to witness the opening of part three of this historic series of trials for crimes against humanity.

ESMA is the acronym for Es­cuela Mecáni­ca de la Ar­ma­da, or Navy Mechanics School, the naval base that functioned as the largest, and perhaps the most infamous, of the military government’s 360 clandestine detention centers during the 1976-83 dictatorship.  (For more details, see my post “Death flights: A tour of ESMA, Buenos Aires, May 18, 2011”:  It’s estimated that 5000 of the people the military kidnapped were imprisoned at the ESMA; about 200 survived.  After the junta collapsed and democracy was restored in 1983, a government-appointed body, CONADEP, Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, investigated crimes committed by the military regime and issued a report, Nunca Más, documenting more than 9000 cases of disappearances and murders.  The families of the disappeared and human rights groups pushed the new administration to prosecute those responsible, and five of the junta’s leaders were sentenced to prison at the end of 1985.

But a series of uprisings in the Argentine military between 1987 and 1990 threatened to destabilize the fragile democracy, and the administration of president Raúl Alfonsín passed the full stop (Punto Final) and due obedience (Obediencia Debida) laws, which put an effective end to the trials.  The right-wing president who followed him, Carlos Menem, pardoned almost 230 members of the military and 70 civilians who’d been involved in crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship, and Mario Firmenich, a leader of the armed left-wing guerilla organization Montoneros.  The Punto Final and Obediencia Debida laws and the pardons guaranteed further impunity and were another hurdle on the road to justice for Argentine human rights groups.

Finally in 2003 – two years after a decade of Menem’s neoliberal economic policies had failed, Argentina’s economy had collapsed, nearly half the population was unemployed, and the country had been through five presidents in one month – Menem withdrew his candidacy to avoid a runoff vote for another presidential term.  Néstor Kirchner became president with a little more than 22% of the popular vote.  Whether he became a champion of human rights organizations’ calls for prosecution of the military because he’d been a leftist activist as a youth and truly cared about justice or, as some academics and observers maintain, because he didn’t have an enormous mandate and desperately needed to build his Left base of supporters, I don’t know; I assume it’s a mix of the two.

In any case, Kirchner’s administration met with groups like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo many times in the Casa Rosada, the equivalent of the U.S. White House; reformed the supreme court; and worked with the court and the national congress to annul the Punto Final and Obediencia Debida laws.  New trials of the military men began in 2008, and in 2009 the first part of the ESMA mega-trial – so-called because multiple similar crimes were committed against many victims simultaneously in the same location.  I used to think they were called “mega-trials” because of their sheer size – the number of separate cases, charges, defendants, victims, and plaintiffs is overwhelming.  In the phase of the trial beginning in the last week of November, 68 people are accused of crimes; this phase is expected to take two years and include the testimony of 830 plaintiffs on behalf of 789 victims.  It will be the largest trial in Argentine judicial history.

I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to attend a tiny portion of the second phase of the trial, on Friday, May 27, 2011.  I was in Buenos Aires on a brief study-abroad tour offered by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Our group of two professors, their three children, and 12 (mostly) grad students and I had been going non-stop for nearly two weeks – meeting with workers in cooperatively run factories, touring historic sites, examining the city’s architectural heritage, improving our Spanish, visiting memorial sites created in response to the dictatorship’s murderous regime, and hitting a number of the usual tourist attractions.  One of our history tour guides exhorted us to attend the ESMA trials.  Most of my classmates, grad students in UMass’ labor studies program, didn’t seem interested; they went that morning with the Labor Center director, professor Eve Weinberg, to tour the Chilavert printing cooperative.  I felt a moment’s pang – I really did want to see as many worker co-ops as possible – but then thought, “A fourth factory tour versus a historic trial of the dictators?  Why do you even have to think about this?!”  I wolfed down some fruit salad from the breakfast buffet and grabbed my backpack.

Our other professor, Max Page, the graduate program director of UMass’ Architecture and Design department, and I took a taxi to the federal courthouse, arriving after the trial had begun.  I was a little surprised at how easy it was to enter and leave the building – the security procedures were no stricter than those I’ve been through in my Massachusetts city of 30,000 people when I’ve gone to the county courthouse to fill out probate paperwork.  I’ve grown used to tight security in U.S. federal buildings after September 11, 2001.  We did, however, have to stop on the 6th floor at the window of a small office to have our IDs checked.  A cheerful young woman copied down our passport numbers, issued us small paper entry tickets, and gave us directions to the courtroom in the basement.  She said “¡Bárbaro!” at one point, the usual Argentine expression of delight, which took me by surprise – wasn’t this trial a grim business?  But our young tour guides in Buenos Aires often seemed happy to teach U.S. citizens about our government’s involvement in the dictatorial Latin American regimes of the ’60s and ’70s, so I assumed she was pleased to see a pair of estadounidenses attending the trial.

Comodoro Py

Tribunales de Comodoro Py, the Commodore Py federal courthouse building, Barrio Retiro, Buenos Aires. Photo by Springbyker.

Max and I sat down in the public section, actually a separate room behind the courtroom.  This audience room holds approximately 70 people and was uncrowded on this ordinary weekday of a trial that had been going on since the previous December.  At any given time there were about 30 of us, including a couple of members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo Línea Fundadora (Founding Line) wearing their white headscarves embroidered with the names of their disappeared children, observing from behind the bulletproof glass.  This was the second phase of the trial, during which testimony was heard in three cases:  the torture, disappearance, and murder of prisoners at the ESMA; the 1977 kidnapping and murder of three founding members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and two French nuns who’d been working with them; and the kidnapping, theft of belongings including unfinished manuscripts, and disappearance of journalist Rodolfo Walsh in March 1977.

But we’d arrived on a morning that was pretty routine, if that can be said for a trial of this nature.  Like so many other buildings put up in the last half century in Buenos Aires, the Tribunales de Comodoro Py is utilitarian and uninspiring.  Crimes against 86 individual prisoners were being read into the record.  We could observe the three judges on the bench, and, thanks to a large-screen television above the bench, we had a view of the front of the courtroom where the attorneys and defendants sat, although at times the glare from ugly fluorescent lights made the screen difficult to see.  At that point my Spanish was at what I’d call a low-intermediate level.  I could understand enough to get the gist of what was happening, with a decent level of detail, but the longer I listened, the more grateful I became that I couldn’t understand everything.  Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” leapt to mind.  The military’s crimes were horrific, but had to be read into the record for each prisoner who’d been kept in the ESMA.  I heard about the torture of teenagers and pregnant women; I heard the words “sequestrado” (kidnapped) and “capucha” over and over and over, until I felt first horrified and then numb.  In her book A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, Marguerite Feitlowitz says that “capucha,” which means “hood” in Spanish, was the regime’s name not only for the heavy canvas bags the military kidnappers made their victims wear over their heads and necks – often 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the ESMA – but also for the section of the ESMA building attic where the prisoners were kept in tiny, stifling cells.

At few other points in my life have I had the simultaneous feeling of, “OK, and, next?” and “I am witnessing history, and this is incredible.”  I’ve since watched so many reports on the ESMA trial verdict on YouTube and on Argentine TV on the web that that public audience area with the orange walls in the Comodoro Py federal court building has become very familiar – yet I’ll never lose the sense of awe I felt while sitting in its pedestrian chair.

In that courtroom on Oct. 26, 2011, sixteen former members of the armed forces were sentenced to life imprisonment, and another four to shorter sentences.  No more impunity, no more house arrest for those who were responsible for the killing of up to 30,000 people.  Among Latin American countries that went through periods of brutal dictatorship, Argentina is the only one that hasn’t simply ignored or pardoned officials of the state who are guilty of torture, rape, and murder on a massive scale.  Judgment and punishment was delayed for far too long, but the trials give me hope that justice, however imperfect, does exist.


Video about the sentencing in the ESMA trial’s second stage (in Spanish):

Coverage of the ESMA trial’s third stage (in Spanish):

Antonio Castillo’s article on Australian website Inside Story with background on the dictatorship:


About springbyker

See more at: Feminist QBLTG Left activist grammarian & general crank. Love grassroots political movements, literature, independent film, travel in Latin America, bicycling, & good vegetarian food. I plan to write about all of these, plus being a recovering clutterer, writing, and saving the planet from suburban sprawl.
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