Memorials in Argentina

Behind these barred windows, the Argentine military once tortured thousands of detainees. Today, the torture cellar is part of the ESMA Memorial in Buenos Aires. Since 2011, when Argentina declared all former secret prisons to be places of remembrance, almost 50 information sites have been built across the country. Another 160 sites have been marked with plaques.


Credit: Juan Ignacio IglesiasCC BY-SA 3.0

ESMA Memorial

At first glance, one would hardly suspect that one of Argentina’s most notorious torture centers used to be located behind these classical pillars. But during the military dictatorship, thousands of people were tortured and killed in the stylish building on the Avenida del Libertador in Buenos Aires. In the meantime, the former Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) has become a memorial site. The Mechanics School was the largest of the many secret prisons in Argentina. Approximately 5,000 people were held here between 1976 and 1983. They were tortured in the basement of the building and forced to sleep chained in the attic. They had to wear a hood over their heads, which is why the wing was also called “Capucha.”

According to estimates by human rights organizations, only about two hundred prisoners survived their imprisonment. In so-called death flights, dead or stunned detainees were dropped from a plane over the adjacent bay of the Río de la Plata.

After the end of the military dictatorship, the building returned to its original purpose, that of a navy training center. But in 1998, then President Carlos Menem ordered the navy school to be demolished. A decree stated that the country wanted to leave the "contradictions of the past" behind and express the "will for reconciliation." The plan was to erect an official symbol of national unity at the site of the notorious torture center.

The demolition plans triggered mass protests. Relatives of the disappeared went to court to oppose them. They argued that the site was part of the nation’s cultural heritage and served in court trials as important evidence of the crimes committed there. The judiciary agreed. After years of struggle by several human rights organizations, President Néstor Kirchner arranged for the building to be handed over to them in 2004 – in a ceremony on the anniversary of the military coup. They opened a memorial there three years later.

More than 20 years after the end of the dictatorship, little remains of the secret prison. The human rights organizations nevertheless decided to leave the building in its present condition instead of building a reconstruction. An exhibition on state terrorism is presented in the main building. In the former officers’ mess, visitors can view the torture cellar and attic. In 2015, a permanent exhibition based on survivors' testimonies also opened here.

The former secret prison is located in a 17-hectare park with more than 30 other buildings. In 2007, the navy had to vacate them as well and they were taken over by other institutions dealing with the past. In 2010, for example, the government decided to house the headquarters of the Institute for Human Rights on the site. The former naval war college is now home to the National Memorial Archive. Guided tours and special events are held regularly at the site.

The memorial is run by fourteen organizations working under the Secretariat for Human Rights of the Argentine Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. They include the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo). During the military dictatorship, they wore white headscarves and protested once a week in front of the presidential palace, drawing attention to their children who have disappeared without a trace. Today, they organize exhibitions, concerts and political discussions in their own cultural center on the grounds.

In 2017, the memorial was added to the UNESCO's provisional list of World Heritage Sites.


Website of the ESMA Memorial

ESMA Memorial on the UNESCO website

Image video of the ESMA Memorial (spanish)

Social scientist Estela Schindel on memorial sites in Buenos Aires (german)


After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems An International Comparison

A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg

Twitter: @afterdictatorship
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With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development

Memory Park

The gray wall juts out like a wedge into the park on the banks of the Río de la Plata. The narrow stone strips contain the many names of people who disappeared during the military dictatorship: names such as “Bruzzone, Marcela, 22 years old” and "Budini, Eduardo Daniel, 19 years old.” The monument to the often very young “victims of state terrorism” is one of the first state memorials established in Argentina.

The monument is located inside the Memory Park (Parque de la Memoria) in Buenos Aires, directly on the Rio de la Plata. It commemorates the thousands of people who the Argentine military had disappear without a trace into a huge estuary. Some of the bodies of the dead washed up onto the shore.

The call to establish a memorial was first made in 1996 on the 20th anniversary of the military coup. A year later, human rights organizations presented a concept for the creation of a memorial park. It envisaged using contemporary art as a way to come to terms with the past. After the city of Buenos Aires passed a corresponding law, a national ideas competition was held in 1998, from which the architectural firm Baudizzone, Lestard, Varas, Ferrari and Becker emerged as the winner.

In 2001, the park's entrance square was inaugurated. Another six years passed before the monument was opened to the public. In 2009, Law No. 3,078 provided the park its permanent legal and administrative framework. The park is run by a board of directors, including representatives from human rights organizations, the University of Buenos Aires and the city government.

The park grounds extend across 14 hectares along the coast of the Río de la Plata. In addition to the monument, the park contains a hall for temporary art exhibitions including rooms for workshops, conferences and the park administration offices. A separate artistic department is responsible for erecting more sculptures in the park and organizing temporary exhibitions. The hall also houses an information and documentation center where visitors can consult a database to look up the names of the victims on the monument. The hall bears the name PAyS, which is an abbreviation for “Present. Now and Always” (Presente. Ahora y Siempre) and alludes to the practice of enforced disappearances in Argentina.

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