Arts & Entertainment

The ESMA, a symbol of Argentina’s dark dictatorship, gives the world a lesson in memory

Natalia Kidd

Buenos Aires, Sept 9 (EFE).- The museum and memory site of the former School of Mechanics of the Navy (ESMA for its Spanish acronym) in Buenos Aires, where the largest clandestine detention center operated during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1976-1983), is a symbol of horror, but also a beacon of “memory” that seeks to be recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

“This site has a great deal to teach humanity. It can teach about ‘Never again,’ which is our country’s motto for memory, truth and justice,” Mayki Gorosito, executive director of the ESMA Memory Site Museum, told EFE.

In 2015, Argentina initiated steps to have this site recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, something Gorosito is “hopeful” will happen soon because this place and what it represents “needs to be known by the citizens of the world, because crimes against humanity were committed here.”


The exESMA was transformed into a space of memory in May 2015, during the government of Cristina Fernández (2007-2015), and houses, among other things, exhibition spaces and archives related to human rights.

Photos and voice recordings of the abductees —political and social activists, members of revolutionary organizations, workers, trade unionists, students, artists and members of religious orders— who were brought here hooded and handcuffed, are reminders of the humiliations they suffered until they were murdered or thrown alive into the ocean.

The plane used for the sinister ” flights of death ” was recently recovered and is now on display at the site.

The ESMA compound was also the birthplace of the children of kidnapped prisoners, who were illegally adopted and in many cases are still being sought by their relatives.

Argentina’s Secretary of Human Rights, Horacio Pietragalla —who was one of these stolen babies and was able to find his true origins in 2003, becoming the 75th grandchild recovered by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo— called the ESMA a true “machine of death”.

Nearly 5,000 people were illegally detained there, and only two hundred of them survived.

“You do not come out of this museum the same person,” Pietragalla told EFE.

“But in the end you can also see the conquest of society, which is the condemnation of each and every one of those responsible for what happened here. This is encouraging, because that was our only revenge: trials, convictions, and that these crimes will not go unpunished.”


On March 24, 2004, the late President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) laid the foundation for one of the most important policies of his government, when he tearfully apologized on behalf of the State for the crimes of the dictatorship, including the disappearance of 30,000 people from what was then still a Navy school.

From then on, he pushed for the repeal of the laws that had kept those responsible for the dictatorship out of prison and paved the way for the military to be tried in civilian courts.

The testimonies of ESMA survivors in these trials, along with those given in the historic trial of the military juntas in 1985, were the basis for the script of the museum, which is visited by some 45,000 people every year.

The site is the most emblematic of the 800 clandestine detention centers that operated during the dictatorship. And not only does it have patrimonial and historical value, but it is also a piece of judicial evidence in itself, preserving, among other things, the marks engraved in the walls by the abductees.

“Here people were raped, here they were tortured, here babies were born,” said Gorosito.

In June, the museum of the former ESMA became the first memorial site to be included in the list of protected buildings by Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), an endorsement of its candidacy as a UNESCO site, which will be evaluated at the 45th Committee in Riyadh.

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