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THE DIRTY WAR part 3: Tour of a Secret Detention, Torture and Extermination Center


After the death of President Juan Peron in 1974 Isabel Peron, his wife and vice president assumed power as president of Argentina.  However, she proved to be weak politically and on 24 March 1976 she was overthrown by a military coup d’état which resulted in a seven year campaign of state sponsored violence against suspected dissidents and subversive until 1983.  During this period many people, both opponents of the government as well as innocent people were taken to secret military detention centers where they were tortured, killed or simply disappeared.  Known as “los desaparecidos or “the disappeared”, casualty figures from this period range from 9,000 to over 30,000 people.  Victims of that bloody period of Argentine history included left-wing activists, intellectuals, students, journalists, trade unionists, Marxists and Peronist Guerrillas.


This week, after putting it off for a period of months, I finally dragged myself to the Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics (in Spanish, Escuela de Suboficiales de Mecánica de la Armada) the most infamous of those military detention centers.

The Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics

The Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics, usually referred to simply as the Navy Mechanics School, in Buenos Aires is located on Avenida del Libertador on its west side, Calles Comodoro Rivadavia and Leopoldo Lugones to the east and Calle Santiago Calzadilla to the south. On the north side it borders the Raggio Industrial College.

The Navy Mechanics School was not just a secret detention center where torture was used, but also the operational hub of a complex organization which may have tried to hide the crimes it committed by exterminating its victims. It was an important center where a wide range of secret criminal operations were planned and organized. Although its activities were undertaken by a special unit, Task Force 3.3.2, they were not independent of the hierarchy but depended on the Navy’s normal command structure.

Task Force 3.2.2 was in charge of the city of Buenos Aires proper and the northern part of the greater metropolitan area (Gran Buenos Aires) and was commanded by Rear-Admiral Rubén Jacinto Chamorro and Captain Carlos Acosta Ambone.

The group was ultimately (between 1976 and 1978) under the orders of Navy Commander-in-Chief Emilio Eduardo Massera. Massera had reportedly given a speech to the officers during the initial gathering of the task group and personally participated in many the first illegal detentions.

Torture and Extermination: The Officers’ Mess

The officers’ mess (casino de oficiales) was the building allocated to Task Force 3.3.2 and its torture and extermination activities. It was three stories high, with a cellar and huge attic. Prisoners were housed in there, as well as on the third floor.

Around 5,000 people were abducted and taken to the Navy Mechanics School (usually referred to by its Spanish acronym: ESMA) and ultimately more than 90% of them were murdered.  Those about to be executed were told they were being “transferred”, implying being switched to another detention center or prison.  The detainees were then taken to the basement, sedated, and then killed: some by firing squad (their bodies to be cremated in the nearby sports field), while others were taken on “death flights”, flown over the Río de la Plata (the River Plata) and dumped from the airplanes while still unconscious from the earlier sedation.

The Mechanics School worked as a detention center from the very start of the dictatorship with several people being kidnapped and taken there on the very first day of the coup d’état (24 March 1976).


The internal layout and conditions of the ESMA has been partially preserved as well as partly reconstructed from former prisoners’ testimonies. Task Force 3.3.2 occupied the officers’ mess, which had three floors plus a basement and a large attic.

Detainees were held in the basement, the attic and the third floor (or attic). The basement had a large central corridor supported by concrete pillars. Between these columns were partitions leading to a large green iron door, with an armed guard. The partitions were easy to dismantle. Before the entrance to the cellar itself one went through an armory where there was emergency electrical equipment and several lockers with weapons. There was an armed guard there who would receive orders to open the door over an intercom and stairs that led down to the cellar.

The basement was the entry to ESMA for new prisoners, who were taken there for questioning and tortured. At the back of the cellar were torture rooms Nos. 12, 13 and 14. To the right of the green door were the infirmary and the guards’ dormitory, and next to these, the bathroom.

The basement also included an infirmary and a photographic laboratory for assisting with the creation of fake documents for Argentine intelligence officers. Its layout was modified in October 1977 and again in December 1978, in preparation for the upcoming visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.

The ground floor was called Dorado, and hosted the intelligence and planning area, the officers’ dining room, a conference room, and a meeting room. The first and second floors were occupied by the officers’ dormitories.

The third floor, or attic had an area called the Capucha (literally “hood”) on its right side. The Capucha was an L-shaped enclosure, with interspaced grey-painted iron beams which formed the skeleton of the roof. It had no windows, only vents giving on to tiny cells called camarotes (“cabins”). It was built of concrete partitions closed with chipboard panels 2 meters high and a door with a peep-hole. Between the top of the wood and the ceiling there was a metal mesh. On the right-hand side 60 or 70 centimeters in front of the cells, there were hardboard partitions in each space where the prisoner would lie on a mattress.

There was no natural light; two very noisy air extractors were used. The floor, of smooth concrete, was continually being painted, Stairs led up to the Capucha, and on the last landing by the entrance door there was an armed guard at a table with a book in which he would write down all movements and control the opening of the door.

On the left-hand side of the attic was El Pañol (the storage room) for goods taken from the homes of detainees (clothing, furniture, etc.). Around the end of 1977 part of the Pañol was dedicated to La Pecera (the fishbowl).  La Pecera was a series of tiny offices, joined by a central corridor to which one gained access via a door controlled by a guard with a register of entrances and exits. Some of the prisoners would spend part of the day here. The newspaper file and library were transferred here from the cellar. Closed-circuit television allowed all movements to be monitored from the ground-floor offices.

The toilets were located between the Capucha and storeroom, which took up the northern half of the attic. There were also three bedrooms there, one of these allocated to pregnant women prisoners. It is speculated that over 500 children born in secret detention centers such as this one were given or sold to military related families.

Capuchita was a second higher attic for prisoners, similar to Capucha, but with even worse living conditions. It included two torture rooms and an area where prisoners were held in similar conditions to the Capucha. It consisted of fifteen to twenty partitions separating the prisoners from each other. It was lent to members of the Naval Intelligence Service for torturing and keeping their abducted prisoners separate from those of the Navy Mechanics School. Capuchita would be lent to the Air Force, the Army and the Naval Intelligence Service (SIN) for them to take their prisoners to. The floor was red and there were permanently closed vents.  In 1977 two rooms were made available for interrogation sessions. The Capuchita was also used by the task force as an annex when the Capucha was full.

See the other segments of this special report:

THE DIRTY WAR part 1: The USA, Operation Condor & Argentina’s Dirty War

THE DIRTY WAR part 2: Kissinger Memorandum

THE DIRTY WAR part 3: Tour of a Secret Detention, Torture and Extermination Center

THE DIRTY WAR part 4: The Torture of Dr Norberto Liwsky (file No. 7397) [Warning: This material is graphic and highly disturbing in nature.]


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Posted by on Oct 18 2011. Filed under Special Report: Operation Condor. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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