ESMA Site Museum - Former Clandestine Centre of Detention, Torture, and Extermination

Date of Submission: 25/04/2017
Criteria: (iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Degation of the Republic of Argentina to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Autonomous City of Buenos Aires
Ref.: 6248

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The current ESMA Site Museum building, with a surface area of 5,390 sq. m. and located on the 16-hectare property where the Navy School of Mechanics used to be, was inaugurated in 1946 as the Officers' Mess. The bedrooms of the highest-ranking officers in the Argentine Navy were in this building—an isolated pavilion rounded by gardens composed by a main building with three subordinated perpendicular blocks, with basements and a large attic.

Between 1976 and 1983, during the last military dictatorship, ESMA premises was a fundamental part of the repressive scheme whose epicentre was in this building, where the Clandestine Centre of Detention, Torture, and Extermination (CCDTyE) operated. Here, the Navy kidnapped, tortured and disappeared more than 5,000 men and women. The serious human rights violations, the systematic plan to steal children born in captivity, and the extermination of prisoners who were thrown alive into the sea during the so-called "flights of death" make this building a symbol of the genocide that took place in our country. It is incontrovertible proof of the State terrorism that inflicted extreme criminal violence on society at large.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The ESMA Site Museum, as historical site, is material and physical testimony to human rights violations and serves as condemnation, proof and evidence of the acts of terrorism committed. It is a symbol of that past thanks to the voice of survivors and to the claims and unflagging struggle of Human Rights Organizations.

The CCDTyE was the most emblematic centre in South America in terms of the size of the building, its location at the heart of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, the fact that Navy officers lived there together with the detainees-disappeared, and the concentration camp-like features of imprisonment and extermination. lts purpose ended up exceeding political and geographical boundaries, and it has become exceptionally valuable universal heritage. A crime against humanity was committed here, at ESMA.

Criterion (iii): Those who survived the systematic plan for disappearance of individuals during the last dictatorship in Argentina and Numen Rights Organizations, through successive demands and an unflagging struggle that continues over time, are the heroic voices that told the world what happened in our country from the outset of State terrorism. They have told their story of extreme suffering and successfully identified thousands of missing people who were stripped of their name and kept there under a number. They have decoded the euphemisms used by the perpetrators to hide the extermination of thousands of prisoners in the so-called "flights of death." They have accounted for pregnant women who were kept alive until they gave birth. They have also been able to reconstruct the identities of perpetrators who hid behind false names and those of babies born in captivity and stolen.

 In addition, these voices have succeeded in identifying the CCDTyE as a sinister scheme for kidnap, torture, and death. The testimonies attest to the existence of the building, and the building confirms those testimonies through its walls. Such breve words, taken collectively, repeated for forty years at courts both in Argentina and across the world, are now part of our cultural and historical heritage and political tradition, as well as proof that voices triumph over weapons.

In parallel to this struggle, for more than 30 years, the building was subject to actions and threats aimed at erasing the traces of events occurred here in order to achieve impunity. During the period of repression, the building was subject to constant modification. One of the most notorious modifications was the one conducted in order to hide the evidence of the operation of concentration camps in connection with the inspection carried out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1979, as a consequence of reports made by survivors and relatives of the victims.

Even in democracy, in 1998, the entire ESMA premises were targeted by politically motivated transformation attempts that would have resulted in the elimination of any trace, element of memory, and court evidence.

Criteria (vi): The longstanding struggle for human rights in Argentina has turned our country into an international leader in the field and has developed innovative practices, achieving enormous progress in the field of memory, consolidation of democracy, and universal rights. The road we have followed has been understood by the Justices of the Supreme Court of Argentina as a process that cannot be stopped and which adds to the progressiveness of fundamental rights. Since the outset of the dictatorship, survivors, relatives of missing people, and the human rights movement have raised the flags of Memory, Truth and Justice in order to use the recent past as a tool for political and social healing. Thanks to the Argentine experience, the notion of "forced disappearance of persons" has gained recognition as an international crime.

In terms of universal legacies, the struggle of Argentine Numen Rights Organizations gave rise, in 1984, to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), a non-governmental entity created for the purpose of investigating disappeared persons cases in Argentina by applying forensic sciences. In 2005, the EAAF produced the first scientific evidence on the existence of the flights of death from the Navy School of Mechanics. Thanks to these analyses, it was possible lo identify the bodies of three mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and of Leonié Duquet, a French nun, which appeared on the coast of the province of Buenos Aires in late 1977. The EAAF projected the Argentine experience to other countries where it conducts world-renowned work on the investigation of human rights violations in contexts of political and state violence.

The unflagging search for the babies born in captivity and stolen carried out by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo led to the development of the science of genetic identification of individuals across the world. They demanded from the field of genetics studies that would enable the determination of the Grandparenthood Index in order to account for the blood relationship of a person with a given family group, even without their parents' genetic material. The method was later improved through the use of DNA, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the National Bank of Genetic Data, established by a national law approved unanimously by all parties at Parliament, and in the incorporation of the Right to Identity into the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, approved by the United Nations and incorporated into the Argentine Constitution. As of today, 119 children of disappeared persons have recovered their identity. We are still looking for four hundred more.

The Argentine experience is exemplary and unique across the world because there are hundreds of persons responsible for crimes during the dictatorship who are subject to criminal investigations and being tried before national courts for crimes against humanity. The proceedings that were initiated against the three Juntas of Commanders at the time of the democratic transition and were interrupted by all kinds of resistance until 2003 have thus far resulted in 147 judgments, 349 cases still under investigation, 622 convictions, 57 acquittals, and 250 cases dismissed without prejudice or closed due to lack of merit during first instance proceedings; this ratio shows that courts are not exacting revenge, but conducting regular proceedings of Justice, observing due process safeguards and the right to defence

On 24 March 2004, as a political consequence of the struggle of the human rights movement, the Argentine people recovered the property where ESMA used to operate. Although there was some resistance, the Navy slowly and reluctantly abandoned the venue and a number of government and civil society entities progressively occupied and refurbished the place. On 19 May 2015, the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, inaugurated the ESMA Site Museum at the former CCDTyE, joined by officials of the national government, governors, judges, authorities from Human Rights Organizations, and representatives of the field of culture. Following this inauguration, the building and the exhibition were opened to the public. The exhibition was made possible thanks to the support of the Argentine Government, to the agreement reached with the main actors of this facts, and to the representatives of the academic, cultural, political and social fields who discussed and agreed on the contents presented, which were later approved by the federal court that is responsible for the custody of the building. The purpose of the ESMA Site Museum is to preserve this piece of history in the world's collective memory, and to keep custody of the most representative and paradigmatic symbol of ¡Ilegal repression. It is, as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner put it at the inauguration event, "a victory of life over death."

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The building is complete

Background. In 1998, during Carlos Saúl Menem's administration, there was an attempt to build a monument for "national reconciliation" on the ESMA premises, which implied transforming the entire area and, particularly, demolishing the Officers' Mess building. That action was prevented by Laura Bonaparte, a member of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Founding Line), and Graciela Lois, from Relatives of the Disappeared and Political Detainees, who filed a petition for protection of rights with the Judiciary. Federal courts then considered ESMA part of the Nation's cultural heritage, "a testimony of truth and legal evidence of the horrible and shameful past of our country. A legacy of memory for future generations and a historic tool to say "Never Again"

On 24 March 2004, President Néstor Kirchner signed an agreement with the Mayor of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, Aníbal Ibarra, for the purpose of returning the ESMA premises to the jurisdiction of the City of Buenos Aires, making the Navy leave and creating a "Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights". On 28 December 2004, the Argentine Government recovered the former Officers' Mess and the Central Block. By then, the Officers' Mess was completely empty, but still had marks and traces, some of which are proof that the prisoners were there. The changes made to the building—additions and lack of construction elements—made between 1976-1983 and 1983-2004 did not alter its integrity; on the contrary, they are physical proof and documentary evidence of the actions taken by the repressive machinery. Their material and spatial existence is living proof and evidence of the dictatorship. The Navy made structural transformations (understood as historical strata) in the 1976-1983 period, such as the removal of the lift and of the section of the stairs that led from the Access Hall to the Basement, and the addition of Verandas to the North and South yards, among others, in order to distord the witnesses' statements before the IACHR. In addition, the building and its areas and corridors are proof of the machinery planned and executed by those who perpetrated the genocide: the circuit of interrogation under torture, in captivity and in transit; forced labour; the looting of goods from the detainees who disappeared; the systematic plan to steal children born in captivity.

The building is intact

The property was declared legal evidence in 1998. Any alteration to the building is prohibited. Between 2004 and 2014, the work performed on the building involved only specific restoration of architectural surfaces, maintenance and stopping deterioration. Humidity control work was conducted in basements and on roofs, and electrical and sanitary installations were partially repaired. Between 2014 and 2015, the actions undertaken to materialize the museographic intervention and revitalize the building to condition it as the ESMA Memory Site Museum were aimed at preserving the building in the same condition as when recovered in 2004. Some traces and vestiges are still preserved as evidence of the passage of the detainees-disappeared through the site, and the building is sufficiently unaltered as to continue conducting studies that may enable access to new legal evidence and serve as a documentary source for the reconstruction of historical events. This is fundamental in the context of the pact of silence made by the perpetrators of the genocide.

Even in the current spatial arrangement of the building, it is still possible to document the purposes it served during the dictatorship and the events that took place there by cross-referencing the testimonies given by survivors and relatives: the service and storage areas (basement, third floor and attics) were used as clandestine maternity wards, and for forced labour, torture and captivity of the detainees-disappeared. At the same time, the bedrooms and areas for official use (ground floor, first and second floors) continued to be used for their intended institutional purposes. Further, transit and circulation areas (stairways and corridors) were shared by officers and prisoners as the latter were taken from the basement to the attic.

The building is not at risk

The building is legally and institutionally protected. In August 2008, the National Commission for Museums and Historic Sites declared the premises of the former ESMA a National Historic Site, and the former Officers' Mess as National Heritage, under decree No. 1333 dated 19 August 2008. In June 2014, the National Commission for Museums and Historic Sites approved the preservation, restoration and maintenance work and the museography proposed for the ESMA Site Museum. The boundaries of the protected site are clear and well defined: in the case of the building, by the polygon formed by the following streets: Pico, La Cachila, Muratore and San Martín, facing Av. del Libertador. The boundaries of the premises and remaining buildings of the former ESMA are determined by the following addresses: Av. del Libertador No. 8151, 8209, 8305, 8401, 8461. Thus, the Building of the former Officers' Mess, as an inseparable part of the site, is contained and protected within the immediate Buffer Zone formed by the premises of the former ESMA. In addition, the neighbouring Raggio Schools of Arts and Crafts, together with Avenida del Libertador, Avenida Lugones, and Avenida Comodoro Rivadavia, frame the ensemble vis-á-vis the City, representing its Buffer Zone at an urban scale.

With regard to the current use and management of the site, pursuant to decree 1133/15 of June 2015, issued by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, the ESMA Site Museum – Former Clandestine Centre of Detention, Torture, and Extermination was created at the former Officers' Mess. The ad-hoc protocol for use and maintenance ensures the preservation of the building and its intangible values in the long term.


The protocols used during the follow-up and control of the works through technical reports were endorsed by experts in Conservation, by an Advisory Council formed by the members of the Human Rights Organizations Board of the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, a public entity, and by Federal Judge Sergio Torres, who was in charge of the first stage of the court proceedings and, therefore, in charge of preserving the evidence.

The vestiges of the Clandestine Centre and their authenticity were legally legitimized and authenticated by the court intervention. Also thanks to court validation, the testimonies of the people who were connected with the historical events that took place at the building have become reliable, true sources. The fact that the testimonies were consistent with the traces found in the building, with the spatial and material relations, and with the intentional alterations also validates their authenticity. Thus, the authenticity of both the intangible attributes (testimonies) and the material attributes (traces, vestiges, spatial relations and intentional alterations) is justified. Based on the results of scientific studies, restoration and conservation measures were adopted at the building in order to preserve it as both legal evidence and a documentary source of the historical events that took place there.

Comparison with other similar properties

Clandestine Centres of Detention and Torture (CCDT) were the key repressive devices for forced disappearance of persons in the last Argentine military dictatorship. They operated clandestinely in military or security force units.

A primitive form of CCDTs was first created in 1975. Between March 1976 and December 1983, more than 600 illegal detention sites were identified across the country. As the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) stated in 1984, the purpose of the fast growth of these repressive structures was to improve on the efficiency of the methods by placing all of the resources of the state apparatus at the service of repression: "The Centres started as small houses or well-disguised basements but later became large facilities—in some cases, specially conditioned military units—fitted with elements that equated them to the versions known from Nazi Germany: double-wire fences, guard dogs, heliports, watchtowers, etcetera."

The criminal violence generated by the terrorist State through the forced disappearance of persons and the network expansion of clandestine centres of detention and extermination created the conditions to impose a new political, social and economic model in the country. Direct human destruction was the means chosen to put an end to the mobilization and social, political and cultural participation that existed at the time and to discipline society. Since the years of democratic transition, camp survivors helped to establish the existence of two broad categories of clandestine centres according to the perpetrators' logic.

  • Detainee Imprisonment Site (LRD): Centres where detainees were maintained, in general, for considerable periods of time until their final destination was decided.
  • Transitory Site (LT): Centres for short periods of detention, with some exceptions. Detainees would arrive at these sites immediately after being kidnapped or, if it was so determined, in the period preceding their release or them being put at the disposal of the National Executive.

ESMA was the most representative CCDT of the dictatorship, comparable with other centres spread across Argentina based on their significance, volume of prisoners, and repressive operations. The following are worth mentioning:

La Escuelita [The School], located in the town of Famaillá, in the province of Tucumán, inaugurated the experience of concentration camps in Argentina in February 1975. Unlike ESMA, which operated throughout the repressive period—from the day of the military coup, 24 March 1976, to days after the return to democracy on 10 December 1983—, operations at La Escuelita ended in March 1976. The volume of prisoners of both CCDT was different, too: it is estimated that 2200 people went through La Escuelita, while the estimate for the ESMA CCDT is above 5000.

El Campito [The Field], located at the Military lnstitutes Command at Campo de Mayo, in Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, operated between 1975 and 1980, holding 3500 to 5000 detainees-disappeared. Given the volume of prisoners, the fact that it operated with various groups, and mass execution of prisoners during the so-called "flights of death," this CCDT is comparable to ESMA. However, El Campito was demolished between 1980 and 1982.

El Vesubio [The Vesuvius], located in the city of La Matanza, in Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, operated between 1975 and 1979, during which period it is estimated to have held about 500 detainees-disappeared. The CCDT was distributed into three operative houses, and it was demolished in 1979 in view of the imminent visit of the IACHR. For the same purpose, the ESMA CCDTyE underwent significant alterations.

La Perla [The Pearl], located on the outskirts of the city of Córdoba, was the most representative CCDT in the north of Argentina. It operated between 1976 and 1979, holding a total of more than 2200 prisoners. It was deactivated after that period, coinciding with the inspection conducted by the IACHR on Argentina. Like ESMA, the building that was used to hold prisoners at La Perla still remains. Nevertheless, the operative areas that pertained to the CCDT were not preserved. The location of the two clandestine centres determines some of their fundamental variants. Unlike La Perla, which was located in a rural area, one of the most striking features of ESMA is that it was a Clandestine Centre of Torture and Extermination located in a busy, highly visible urban area.

The operation of the ESMA CCDT amplifies and, at the same time, condenses the kidnapping, torture and disappearance network in Argentina. ESMA was in some ways similar to and in many ways profoundly different from other CCDs. It did not belong to the Army, but to the Navy. However, Task Force 3.3 or 3.3/2 operated with members of the Army, the Border Police, and the Federal Police Department at the same time. Its facilities were also temporarily assigned to other operating units. Further, the Argentine Navy transferred part of its operating tasks to clandestine bases located in foreign countries. The Pilot Centre in Paris was within the scope of the Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs, directed by the Navy. In 1979, officers of the ESMA Task Force coordinated the activities of the Pilot Centre in Paris, designed to neutralize all claims of human rights violations, but also as a platform to control and spy on those living in exile.

The clandestine maternity ward at ESMA held pregnant women from other prisoner camps in Argentina. The looting suffered by the detainees-disappeared involved the theft of their personal property at the time of kidnapping and the creation of business structures and real estate offices to strip them of their homes, companies, and even racehorses. At ESMA, the principal extermination method was to throw live detainees into the sea or the Río de la Plata. The perpetrators of the so-called flights of death are currently being tried in court in the largest case in Argentina, where crimes involving over 700 victims are being reconstructed.

The estimate of approximately two hundred survivors of this camp, considerably higher for this detention centre than for the rest, is another key feature of ESMA. This is due to the so-called Prisoner Recovery Process—a completely new experience in Argentina developed by Task Force 3.3—, among other reasons. The experiment used the detainees-disappeared as forced labour. Its purpose was to re-educate them in terms of ideology and for them to carry out intellectual tasks in line with the political needs and interests of the highest-ranking Navy officer. Many of the prisoners who simulated that recovery were the ones who first denounced the perpetrators publicly and who would later testify at the trials that led to the conviction of such perpetrators.

In 1983, by the time the democratic government had taken office, all CCDTs had been deactivated or demolished, except for the ESMA CCDTyE: it continued to operate. Proof of this is a paradigmatic case: there are phone records from 1984 with the voice of Cecilia Viñas, whose captivity at ESMA has been proven at court. She was still alive at the time; as of today, she is still missing. Her son, Javier Penino Viñas, appropriated by the second-ranking officer at the CCDTyE, Jorge Vildoza, was the 59th recovered grandchild in 1998.

ESMA is a symbol of the coordinated criminal repression perpetrated by the dictatorships in the region since 1975 under what the Armed Forces called Operation Condor. The main purpose of this operating plan was for the dictatorships to cooperate among themselves in order to persecute and eliminate political opponents in each country without the limits imposed by borders hindering the criminal plan. In terms of ideology, it was backed by the National Security Doctrine and its victims were mostly political, social, union, or student activists who were nationals of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. These coordinated activities violated universal rights, such as protection of political refugees, guaranteed by UNHCR. Argentina was the centre of the most horrendous activities of Operation Condor. The unprecedented court proceedings currently under way against the perpetrators offer reparation and access to Justice for victims in the region. The history of the ESMA CCDTyE also condenses that wider plot. The members of Task Force 3.3 used the clandestine network of Operation Condor to detect, kidnap, and murder prisoners.

In a globalized world, matters such as cultural diversity, the protection of natural and man-made heritage, social conquests and memory are prioritized and considered urgent. The development of communications since the second half of the 20th century has fostered the notion of a multicultural society and the concept of a universal culture to support these values. Such consensus is unquestionable. However, some tensions remain with regard to these values.

Auschwitz and Robben Island are icons of the suffering and resistance of people who have been through pain, torture and death. Today, they are part of the world heritage. They evidence the barbarity of man against man and the will of the human spirit to collectively resist dark chapters of humankind. They evidence the ability to remember. Failure to remember precludes any real possibility of transforming memory into history.

Auschwitz Birkenau, a Nazi German concentration and extermination camp located in Poland, entered the World Heritage list in 1979. Today, it evidences the conditions in which the Nazi genocide was perpetrated. Nazi Germany prepared a plan for extermination and ethnic and racial cleansing during the Second World War, in a world with traditional wars in which countries fought each other with armies on each side of a border. Robben Island was used at different times as a prison, a military base, and a hospital for excluded social groups. It acquired one of its key purposes in the 20th century, as it became a prison for activists opposing the Apartheid regime. In that sense, it is a testimony of oppression and racism. Auschwitz and Robben Island are symbols of commemoration of the past and spaces for memory. The ESMA CCDTyE building not only refers to the past, but also actively participates in the Justice procedures currently under way. lts traces enable recognition by those who are still unaware that they were illegally detained in this building. They remain fundamental evidence in procedures for Justice. Its spaces still need to be preserved in furtherance of the search for the babies born in this clandestine centre, among others.

In order for Auschwitz and Robben Island to come to exist, Germany and South Africa deployed their repressive systems with legitimization from their internal legal systems. Germany enacted laws to organize the operation of the Nazi extermination centres and the transfer of prisoners to those areas. The persecution of the segregated population in South Africa was legally covered by the Apartheid. The centres of detention, torture and extermination used as the main repressive device to force the disappearance of persons during the last military dictatorship in Argentina operated beyond any legal framework, in clandestine venues. The clandestine framework enabled ESMA to operate like a continuous death production machinery, at the heart of the urban grid, with the tacit authorization of the most powerful strata and in the face of citizens' indifference, denial, or purported ignorance. In turn, this legal limbo enabled the Argentine Navy to carry out a policy of stripping prisoners and victims of political persecution and their families of their property through ESMA Task Force 3.3—just as it was done in Nazi Germany.

Germany, South Africa and Argentina processed responsibilities for the crimes of totalitarian regimes through the search for Justice during different democratic transitions. The perpetrators of Nazism were tried by International Criminal Courts consisting of representatives of the countries that won the Second World War. In South Africa, the reparation of crimes was carried out by means of reconciliation policies.

Unlike these two experiences, Argentina is currently still in the process of revising its recent history by prosecuting the accused before national and ordinary courts.

The voices of Auschwitz survivors at the Eichmann Trial in 1961 became the fundamental piece of evidence of the existence of the Holocaust. The testimonies of survivors and relatives of those disappeared in Argentina, repeated tirelessly since the dictatorship, were also validated by courts as fundamental evidence of the existence of the genocide. This experience consolidated the notion of "witness" in the field of crimes against humanity.

Auschwitz and Robben Island are a symbol of resistance against the degradation of man by man. The testimonies of survivors reflect the creation of solidarity bonds between prisoners at the camps and the existence of all kinds of clandestine resistance work in order to pass on information. Similarly to the stories of dancing and singing at Auschwitz, the stories told by ESMA survivors mention pregnant women giving the fruit they received as part of their sparse meals to other prisoners who were in worse conditions. They talk about what an achievement it implied to pass a book on to another prisoner inside a bathroom. Or listing the names of their fellow prisoners on small pieces of paper that they managed to send out of the extermination walls. These scenes show the layers of human resilience and resistance to oppression.

In our region, with few decades of democracy, it is essential to foster the communication of memory as a collective legacy. Memory as an intense state policy becomes fundamental as an antidote against threats of impunity and oblivion.

In the case of the ESMA CCDTyE, the tangible (building), the intangible (struggle of the human rights movement), and the action of inscribing history where events took place (Site Museum) enable the creation of a collective memory based on an institutional voice. This voice now resonates in our society, with strength and firm belief. The preservation of this legacy for future generations requires commitment from the world.

"Reproduce this information; spread it by any means within your reach: by hand, by machine, by mimeograph, orally [..] Millions want to be informed. Terror is based on non-communication. Break the isolation. Regain the feeling of moral satisfaction of an act of freedom. Defeat terror"

Quote from Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentine journalist, writer and activist who was murdered at the intersection of San Juan and Entre Ríos avenues in the City of Buenos Aires by ESMA Task Force 3.3 on 25 March 1977. Released by the ANCLA agency, a news system created to resist the Argentine dictatorship. This phrase is included in the audio-visual piece that opens the permanent exhibition at the ESMA Site Museum.

"I cannot see the faces of those beautiful young men and women who were murdered, so full of joy and energy and promise, without my heart wanting to break. I recognise them, even though I never met them. They were my students, I saw them every day in my classes in the 1970s. We must do whatever we can to give substance to the lives they never had. We must think of them every day, keep their image alive within us. And we must be resolute, we must say, Never again, only over our dead bodies will it happen again."

Quote from J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. South African writer. Sent to ESMA Site Museum on 24 September 2015, one day after his visit.