Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics

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Navy School of Mechanics
Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada
Former names Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada
General information
Location Núñez, Buenos Aires
Country Argentina

The Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy (in Spanish, Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, commonly referred to by its acronym ESMA[1]), was originally an educational facility of the Argentine Navy. It was used as an illegal, secret detention center during the so-called National Reorganization Process (Dirty War) of Argentina's 1976–1983 military dictatorship.

The original ESMA was a complex located at 8151 Libertador Avenue, in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, in the barrio of Nuñez. It was the seat of U.T.3.3.2—Unidad de Tareas (Task Unit) 3.3.2–of G.T.3.3,[2] which was responsible for thousands of instances of forced disappearance, torture and illegal execution. The military took the babies born to mothers imprisoned there, suppressed their true identities and allowed them to be illegally adopted by military families and associates of the regime. ESMA was the largest detention center of its kind during the Dirty War.

The National Congress passed a law on 5 August 2004 that converted the ESMA complex into a museum, the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Espacio para la Memoria y para la Promoción y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos).

The School, once again legitimate, was renamed Escuela de Suboficiales de la Armada (acronym ESSA; English: Navy Petty-Officers' School) in 2001, and moved in 2005 to the Puerto Belgrano Naval Base,[3] 28 km from the city of Bahía Blanca, and about 600km southwest of Buenos Aires.

Human rights violations[edit]

Almost 5,000 people were abducted and held in the ESMA; all except 150 were killed during or after interrogation and torture.[4] When announcements were made that prisoners were to be "transferred", as if to other prisons, people came to understand they were going to be executed. The prisoners were taken to the basement, sedated, and then killed, some by shooting, others in death flights: they were flown over the Atlantic Ocean or the Rio de la Plata, and pushed out of the aircraft. The victims were often still conscious, despite having been drugged. In late 1977 numerous bodies of victims washed up on beaches hundreds of kilometers south of Buenos Aires.

Functions and authorities[edit]


Under construction in 1928.

According to the ESSA Web site, in 1897 the Escuela de Aprendices Mecánicos de la Armada (Navy Apprentice Mechanics School) was founded in premises that are now the Historical Naval Museum of Tigre, in Buenos Aires Province. In 1900 the School moved to naval workshops in Dársena Norte; in 1902 it became Escuela de Aprendices Mecánicos y Foguistas (Apprentice Mechanics and Stokers School). Two years later it became Escuela de Mecánicos de la Armada, and in 1911 Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada. In 1928 it moved to its later notorious premises, designed by the architect Raúl J. Álvarez, on Blandengues street (now Avenida del Libertador), between Arroyo Medrano and the extension of Deheza street.[3] Once again a legitimate educational establishment, it was renamed Escuela de suboficiales de la Armada in 2001, and moved to Puerto Belgrano in 2005.

Other sources say that the School was founded in 1924, on land granted that year by the Municipality of Buenos Aires to the Ministry of the Navy by a decree that year, during the presidency of Marcelo T. de Alvear. Under the terms of the decree it was to revert to the city if it ceased to be a military educational establishment. The School of Mechanics, Naval War School, and Officers' Mess were built on the land.[1]

Each year about 10,000 youths signed up to enter as regular students, of whom around half were admitted and given scholarships for courses of study such as electronics, aeronautics, management, marine engineering (mecánico naval), radio operation, meteorology, and oceanography. The students lived in the complex from Monday through Friday, taking 8 to 10 hours of classes per day. The degrees could be completed in up to three years of studies, with the students receiving the degree of técnico ("technician"), with the option of continuing in the military or working elsewhere.

The main entrance opens onto the central pavilion, where the authorities' offices were located. A covered patio there was used to show movies to the student body. To the left of this building was petty officers' housing, and further off and separated, the officers' housing, where the clandestine detention center operated during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. To the right of the central pavilion were the checkpoint, the military guard building, and the Naval War School (Escuela de Guerra Naval).

Behind, at the rear, were the dormitories and, across Avenida Lugones, the institution's sports field. On the perimeter of the school were checkpoints which were manned by the students in rotating shifts, at least one week per year for each student.

In 1982 many final-year students of the ESMA were drafted to fight in the Falklands War; some of them died in the sinking of the ARA Belgrano and the attack on ARA Sobral.

In 1998 president Carlos Menem ordered the move of the School to the Puerto Belgrano base.[5]

Extrajudicial detention centre[edit]

The ESMA was used as a detention center from the very start of the 1976 dictatorship: on 24 March, the day of the coup d'état, several people kidnapped by the Armed Forces were taken there.

Task Unit 3.2.2 was led by Rear-Admiral Rubén Jacinto Chamorro and Captain Carlos Acosta Ambone. Among its ranks were Jorge Eduardo Acosta, Alfredo Astiz, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo and Adolfo Scilingo, who became notorious as torturers. Astiz was known as the "Blond Angel of Death". Its chaplain during 1977 was Father Alberto Ángel Zanchetta. It was in charge of the city of Buenos Aires proper and the northern part of the metropolitan area (Gran Buenos Aires). Officers in charge were under strict orders not to reveal their identities or military affiliation when capturing prisoners.

Between 1976 and 1978 the group was ultimately under the orders of Navy Commander-in-Chief Emilio Eduardo Massera. Massera had reportedly been present when the unit was set up, gave an opening speech to the officers, and personally participated in the first illegal detentions.

A major trial, nicknamed "the ESMA mega-trial", of 63 people accused of crimes against humanity (lesa humanidad) during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, including those involved in death flights, was reaching its close in July 2015. 830 witnesses and 789 victims were heard.[6] There had been two previous trials after the Supreme Court struck down an amnesty the military dictatorship had granted its members; in the first the one accused committed suicide before a verdict was reached; in a 2009 trial twelve defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment.


The internal layout and conditions of the ESMA detention center have been partly preserved, partly reconstructed from survivors' testimonies. Task Unit 3.3.2 occupied the officers' mess (casino de oficiales), which had three floors plus a basement and a large attic.

Detainees were held in the basement, the attic and the third floor. The basement was the entry to ESMA for new prisoners, who were taken there for questioning under torture. It included an infirmary and a photographic laboratory. Its layout was modified in October 1977 and again in December 1978, in preparation for the upcoming visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.

The ground floor was called Dorado, and hosted the intelligence and planning area, the officers' dining room, a conference room, and a meeting room. The first and second floors were occupied by the officers' rooms, to which the prisoners had no access.

The area termed Capucha ("hood"—prisoners were hooded) took up the right-hand side of the attic. It was L-shaped, and had a number of narrow cells (called camarotes, i. e. "cabins") lit only by small casement windows, each containing a mattress for the prisoner.

El Pañol, on the left-hand side of the attic, was the storage room for goods taken from the homes of detainees (furniture, utensils, clothes, etc.). Around the end of 1977 part of the Pañol was dedicated to La Pecera.

La Pecera was a series of small offices, plus a press archive and a library, under the supervision of closed-circuit TV surveillance cameras. Some of the prisoners stayed there part of the day.

Capuchita was a second attic for prisoners, similar to Capucha, but with even worse living conditions. It included two torture rooms. It was lent to the Navy's Intelligence Service, the Army and the Air Force for them to keep and torture their prisoners apart from the others. The Task Unit also employed it when Capucha was too crowded.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Memoria Abierta: Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA)(Spanish)
  2. ^ While most English language sources refer to the unit as a 'task force', the attached Spanish webpage gives what appears to the proper name of the unit, named according to the Task force#US Navy numbering systems.
  3. ^ a b Web site of ESSA: History (Spanish) [in Spanish initials a plural is often indicated by a double letter, thus "SS" stands for "Suboficiales", plural]
  4. ^ "Argentina's dirty war: the museum of horrors", The Telegraph
  5. ^ Armada admitió que la ESMA fue "un símbolo de barbarie", Terra, 3 de marzo de 2004.
  6. ^ starMedia: Trial for crimes against humanity in Argentina reaching its close, 7 July 2015 (Spanish)

External links[edit]

ESMA, until 2000
ESSA, from 2001

Coordinates: 34°32′18″S 58°27′49″W / 34.5384°S 58.4636°W / -34.5384; -58.4636