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A Dark Day of Justice: Former ESMA Officers Finally Sentenced

“When that dark day of justice arrived, the whole town awoke without being called”
-Rodolfo Walsh, journalist assassinated by the military junta and taken to the ESMA.

Port dock workers stand united at ESMA awaiting the news (Photo: Patricio Guillamon)

As a brisk Spring afternoon turned into night last week, hundreds waited patiently outside of the national court of appeals in Retiro. They gathered to hear the sentencing of 18 former military officers of the Naval Mechanics Training School (ESMA) charged with crimes against humanity—illegal detention, torture, and murder— during the 1976-83 dictatorship.

“I am happy that they are being judged and I hope that they pay for all that they did,” says Silvia Labayru, wearing a photo of her sister-in-law Maria Cristina Lennie, who was already dead when she arrived at the ESMA in 1977 at the age of 18.

The sentencing was delayed by almost two hours, but this did not faze a crowd—ESMA survivors, family members of the disappeared, and human rights groups—accustomed to waiting. It has been 35 years since the first crimes of the military dictatorship, 28 years since the restoration of democracy, 22 since a presidential pardon temporarily absolved all officers of their crimes, six since the re-opening of the cases by former President Néstor Kirchner, and nearly two years since the beginning of the biggest trial to date against officers of the military junta.

The ESMA ‘Megacase’

One of the biggest clandestine detention centres in Buenos Aires, the ESMA was an emblem of the dictatorship, and held between 4,000 and 5,000 detainees. Some arrived already murdered, some were tortured for months and released; the majority were either killed by execution or drugged and thrown from planes into the Rio de la Plata in one of the infamous “death flights”. An estimated 100 babies were born to detained mothers in the ESMA, and given away to military families and sympathisers, joining a demographic of about 500 people known as “the living disappeared”.

Two women hold up posters portraying Rodolfo Walsh (Photo: Patricio Guillamon)

Among those detained the centre were some of the most well-known leftists and human rights activists of their time. Rodolfo Walsh, one of the first journalists to report on the atrocities of the dictatorship from the underground and author of the defiant ‘Open Letter to the Military Junta’ (1977), was transferred to the ESMA after being shot in the street by one of its death squads and died shortly after. Founding members of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Azcuena Villaflor, Esther Ballestrino, and Maria Ponce were taken to the centre from a church, along with two French nuns Léonie Duquet and Alice Domon, who had come to Argentina to work in shantytowns and with indigenous communities.

Among their repressors were Alfredo Astiz and Jorge “El Tigre” Acosta, both part of the group sentenced last week. Astiz, nicknamed the “Blonde Angel of Death”, infiltrated the Madres in order to later kidnap members Villaflor, Ballestrino, Ponce, the French nuns, and a handful of other human rights activists. In numerous testimonies Astiz has shown no remorse for his crimes, and in 2009 appeared in court holding a book entitled ‘To Kill Again’ about the threat of leftist guerrillas. Jorge Acosta was a high functionary of the ESMA, responsible for the death of Rodolfo Walsh, and the commander who made decisions about the life, death, and treatment of detainees at the centre. Beyond Argentina he is also known for giving the apartheid government of South Africa training in counterinsurgency.

“The trial for the ESMA case is the first big trial that has been conducted, what we call the ESMA ‘megacase’,” says human rights lawyer Leonel Curutchague. Over the course of 22 months, the court heard the testimony of 250 witnesses made up of family members of the disappeared and survivors.

“It’s important because it’s the first trial carried out against the Navy in the Republic of Argentina,” says Curutchague.

Horacio Tiseria holds a photo of his father Francisco Enrique Tiseira, who was detained in the Campo de Mayo clandestine detention centre when Horacio was but 1 year old. In April 2010, six ex-military functionaries of the Campo de Mayo, including former de-facto president Reynaldo Bignone, were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“I have to be here because I want justice just like in the Campo de Mayo,” says Horacio.
“What we are asking for is that they are in common jails, not with privileges like they have had for the last years and decades.”

Victory for the People

As the judges finally took their seats, the crowd outside gathered round a giant screen with a live feed of the courtroom. One by one, the sentences of the 18 accused were read along with the names of the victims: Alfredo Astiz, Jorge Acosta, and ten other former ESMA functionaries were given life sentences; four were handed 25 years; and two were absolved (though remain defendants in ongoing cases). After being read his sentence, Alfredo Astiz slyly wiped clean a ribbon of the Argentine flag pinned to his lapel and chuckled.

The crowd responded with cheers of joy, tears, and shouts of “Murderer!” to each sentence as a wave of catharsis and outrage came over those who have been so broken, and tired of being broken; those who have fought so hard and weary from the fight.

“I can’t stress enough how costly this triumph has been,” ESMA survivor Graciela Daleo told the newspaper MU.

'Life for the Murderers' read the protest signs (Photo: Patricio Guillamon)

“Jorge Julio López is disappeared and he also contributed to this. The next victories should include the punishment of those responsible for the disappearance of Julio.” Five years ago, 76-year-old López disappeared after leaving his home to attend the trial of former director general of police investigations, Manuel Etchecolatz—a trial in which he was a key witness. His disappearance is a chilling reminder that traces of the dictatorship still exist in Argentine society today.

Though the sentences were a victory for those directly affected by the military junta’s repression, Daleo says the triumph is “collective.”

“I hope it is experienced as a victory for all our people.”

Until the Last One

The biggest trial against the military dictatorship to date is over, but the 18 sentenced are still a fraction of the 70 accused of crimes committed at the ESMA against a remaining 900 victims. Starting in the coming year, these trials will commence under the titles ESMA I, II, III, and so forth. More than justice, organisations like the Madres de Plaza de Mayo continue to demand that the files of the disappeared be opened and that the children who were illegally appropriated be returned to their families.

Meanwhile, the ESMA, no longer a naval training school, has since become a memorial to the disappeared and a cultural centre to promote human rights.

Marie Trigona contributed to reporting of this article.

Posted in Analysis, Human Rights, TOP STORYComments (0)

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