“It is a mystery, he is missing. He has no entity, he is not there.” The Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla responded in this way to a journalist who in 1979 asked him about “the problem of the missing”. The dictatorship was implementing a systematic plan to disappear people and complaints came from inside and outside the country. “Neither dead nor alive, he is missing,” the soldier concluded. At least 5,000 of those victims of the regime were kidnapped in the Navy Mechanics School (Esma), a central clandestine center in the system. With the return to democracy, in 1983, the repressors were tried and spaces like this, resignified. The exEsma is today a symbol of consensus against the dictatorship, which has just been declared a World Cultural and Natural Heritage by UNESCO.
UNESCO has determined that the Esma Memorial Site Museum, created in 2019 on the property where the clandestine detention center of the Navy Mechanics School operated, is representative of the illegal repression carried out and coordinated by the dictatorships of America. Latina in the decades of the seventies and eighties on the basis of the forced disappearance of people. This Tuesday, the space entered the list of places with “exceptional universal value” during the World Heritage session, which has been taking place since Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “It is the most prominent symbol of state terrorism,” determined the conclusion of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which mentioned that some areas “could be improved,” such as “the presentation of the political context that led to the dictatorship.”
Following the announcement, the Argentine delegation transmitted a message from President Alberto Fernández, who is in New York to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. “Memory must be kept alive so that bad experiences are not repeated. In Esma the worst of State terrorism was expressed. Argentina in those years suffered the persecution of all those who opposed the military dictatorship. Some were persecuted, some were detained, almost all were subjected to torture; others ended up in exile, many were murdered and many disappeared from the face of the earth,” said the president.
The Argentine dictatorship put into operation around 700 clandestine detention and torture centers throughout the country. The space integrated into the World Heritage list this Tuesday was “the most emblematic clandestine center in South America,” according to the Secretariat of Human Rights, which began the process to present the candidacy to the UN in 2015: “Due to the building dimension, the geographical location in the city, the coexistence of the perpetrators with the victims and the concentration peculiarities of confinement and extermination.” The writing marked as antecedents spaces such as the Auschwitz extermination camp, in Poland, or the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
The buildings of the old Esma are located on a 17-hectare property that was transferred to the Army at the beginning of the last century. From Del Libertador Avenue, an artery that runs parallel to the Río de la Plata, the central construction rises imposingly. It still has the black letters that write Navy Mechanics School. The space remained a school for non-commissioned officers after the return to democracy while society debated what to do with it. There were initiatives to demolish it, but finally, the Navy was evicted and the creation of the Space for the Memory and Defense of the Human rights.
The project was launched after an agreement between the national government, headed by Néstor Kirchner, and the municipal government, headed by Aníbal Ibarra. In 2005, the first signs were placed and the first routes were enabled. He Esma Memorial Site Museum It was inaugurated more than a decade later, in 2019, in the building of the old Officers’ Casino, the nucleus of repressive activity. As the building is considered judicial evidence in the proceedings against the repressors and the investigations remain open, the museographic proposal did not alter the structure or the state of conservation at the time of its recovery.
Throughout the tour you can hear the testimonies that the victims gave in the trials for crimes against humanity against the repressors. Images of these statements are projected on the walls, such as that of Marta Álvarez, kidnapped in 1976: “The torture begins one day and I believe it never ends.” The Navy left the place completely empty, but the site preserves marks and inscriptions made by the detainees, who were more than 5,000 in this space. Names, telephone numbers, initials, inscriptions of political parties, dates and drawings have been found. The museum also exhibits personal collections that relatives of victims and survivors brought to the space in recent years.
The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep), a body created to investigate the forced disappearance of people, determined in 1984, based on official complaints, that almost 9,000 people had been disappeared. Human rights organizations raised the figure to 30,000. Today, the Human Rights Secretariat is working on a report to specify that number, which is difficult to determine because the dictatorship never provided the information. Many of those responsible are being tried in federal courts. So far, more than 1,100 repressors have been convicted.
The declaration occurs when Argentina celebrates 40 years since the return to democracy and faces the challenge of the far right. The far-right party La Libertad Avanza, the most voted party in the August primary elections, considers that the Museo Sitio de Memoria Esma is a “museum of forgetfulness or a museum where memory lost its memory.” The Argentine delegation was moved to tears by the announcement. “This international recognition of the crimes of the last civic-military dictatorship,” highlighted the Secretary of Human Rights, Horacio Pietragalla.
Today, the property is managed by a public entity made up of representatives of the national State, the city of Buenos Aires and human rights organizations. In addition to the museum, there are the national Human Rights Secretariat and the headquarters of the Grandmothers and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, among other organizations. More than 44,440 people visited the space in 2022. “The Museo Sitio represents all the Memory spaces in the country, but also in the region,” said Pietragalla. The secretary celebrated from Riyadh that the inclusion of the Esma Memorial Site Museum on the UNESCO World Heritage list is “a tribute to those thousands of missing people” that Latin America has.
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