Navy Petty-Officers School

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Navy School of Mechanics
Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada
Former namesEscuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada
General information
LocationNúñez, Buenos Aires

The Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy (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 Dirty War of military dictatorship.

The original ESMA was a complex located at 8151 Libertador Avenue, in the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, in the barrio of Núñez. It was the seat of U.T.3.3.2—Unidad de Tareas (Task Unit) 2 of G.T.3.3 [es][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). Since 2014 plans are also made for the campus to house a second museum, this time, to honor the military personnel killed and wounded during the Falklands War, since several of its alumni and 230 students fought in the conflict.

The School, once again legitimate, was renamed Escuela de Suboficiales de la Armada (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 600 km southwest of Buenos Aires.

Etymology and usage during the Dirty War[edit]

Almost 5,000 people were abducted and held in the original ESMA campus in its active participation in the Dirty War between 1976-1983; all except 150 were killed during or after interrogation and torture.[4] When announcements were made that prisoners were to be "transferred", 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. These are only some examples of the many treatments that prisoners of the ESMA were forced to experience during the kidnappings that forced them into clandestine detention centers.

Who became los desaparecidos/the disappeared?[edit]

There were certain types of individuals within Argentinian society who were to be kidnapped and removed from it. Stories show, for example, that there was a disproportionate number of Jews taken in custody, shedding light on anti-Semitic victimization.[5] Another group targeted included the people who potentially supported a different government, opposing the current junta and military dictatorship of Argentina.[6] If there was any suspicion that Argentinians were meeting secretly and consistently to resist General Jorge Rafael Videla and his regime, the government would kidnap these people and place them in detention centers such as the ESMA. This would serve as a lesson to incite fear within other members of the community who were also against the current governmental structure of Argentina. Upon being kidnapped, for example, many kidnappers would interrogate the prisoners about why they were opposing the Argentinian dictatorship and spreading a new political ideology, disregarding the fact of whether or not this was actually the case.

Layout of the ESMA[edit]

Once kidnapped, it was very rare that these prisoners would return home, leaving loved ones wondering if they would ever see their family members or friends again. During the beginning stages of the Dirty War, Argentinians living in Buenos Aires were unaware that the building that once housed a school had been transformed into a center for punishing "subversion."[6] Once the prisoners had arrived to this new "renovation," their basic human rights would be ignored. Instead, they were taken to certain floors depending on their status of punishment in an effort to dehumanize the victims. The basement contained interrogation rooms and a station meant for taking and maintaining photographs of each of the prisoners.[7] These photos would allow victims to be recorded, providing an accurate count today as to the five thousand people who died due to the treatment within this camp.[4] The first floor was staged as an operation room for the leaders of the torture to plan, execute, and continue their efforts to punish the prisoners. The second and third floors were adequately furnished and kept, as these were the floors where the officers lived and slept. These officers were committed to torturing the dissidents, contributing twenty four hours, seven days a week of fear for the victims who never knew when the next hit would happen. Also on the third floor, extending to the fourth floor, was an area known as the "capucha," or hood. This was where prisoners were kept, and this was where conditions were purposefully kept dark and hopeless.[6]

Survivor stories of the ESMA[edit]

A few victims that were able to survive and escape the ESMA have made it a priority to share their experiences of the torture and human rights infractions they faced while living in this center. One detainee who survived, Ana María Martí, has related some of the horrific treatment she faced while in the confines of the ESMA.[6] By the time she was captured, information was out that this torture center was something to fear. When she was kidnapped, the officers who snatched her laughed at the fear she had at the mention of the ESMA. Once she arrived, her stories telling her torture resembled the other stories that have been told by those lucky enough to survive. The main goal of the ESMA officers was to inflict as much pain as was possible, testing every victim's capability of surviving amidst deathly circumstances.[7] Just within the basement floor of the interrogation methods, victims were subjugated to electric shocks, humiliating treatments, and removal of genitalia and other organs of the human body.[6]

The "capucha" of the ESMA was another terrifying area within this clandestine detention center. After the initial torturing and interrogations, prisoners were chained on the third floor and left alone while hooded (hence the name of the "capucha"). They were left in complete darkness with no communication, forced to be isolated in another way to instigate panic and fear for the prisoners. Eventually, night and day turned into one continual nightmare once prisoners became more veteran members of this torture site. Ana María Martí was able to survive these horrid conditions, but she witnessed many other of her fellow victims die and suffer at the hands of the officers. She remarked that prisoners would begin to know when someone was about to be taken to the killing chambers; in order to prepare, the ESMA would properly feed and take care of the victims to bulk them up. This was in a concerted effort to make the eventual corpses seem more healthy and less connected to the operations of the ESMA.[6]

Killing methods in the ESMA[edit]

The ESMA, because it killed approximately 4,850 prisoners, used a plethora of methods to kill their victims. Many popular techniques did not require that the prisoners left the confines of the ESMA. Inside the basement, interrogation methods such as drowning and electrocuting were common and an easy way to kill. The ESMA officers, in other manners, found more unique ways to commit human rights violations that led to the deaths of many. For example, as seen in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, these officers would attempt scientific experiments to show how well the human body could handle the loss of limbs, the removal of organs, and the fluctuation of hot and cold temperatures.[6] Victims were also taken outside of the ESMA in the custody of those in charge to promote a sense of entertainment on the way to their murders. They would leave the prisoners in the middle of the jungle, supervising them as they unsuccessfully attempted to escape. Eventually, the guards would shoot them until they were dead.

The most cited killing method in the ESMA includes the murders of the prisoners off of moving planes.[8] Officers would require that the ESMA residents took rides in these planes, only to push them off and watch them fall to their deaths. The victims were often still conscious, despite having been drugged. As a result, numerous bodies of victims washed up on beaches hundreds of kilometers south of Buenos Aires.[8] Also known as death flights, this inhumane treatment contributed in a major way to the numerous deaths that came from this detention center. Overall, the ESMA committed approximately one-sixth of the total murders during the eight-year period of the Dirty War.

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, merging the NCO schools of the Argentina Marines and the Argentine Naval Aviation in the process into one institution.

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 either as naval servicemen, professional army or air force NCOs or working elsewhere either in the public or private sector.

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, 230 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, and the use of the old campus as a museum.[9] ESSA continues to function in the Puerto Belgrano base.

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.[10] 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 trial was still in progress as of April 2016, and was being covered in a dedicated blog, Causa ESMA, with links to video reports of significant court sentences and similar events;[11] many items are selected from the Argentine Infojus Noticias (National Agency of judicial news) Web site, Nacionales section.[12]

Gonzalo "Chispa" Sánchez was extradited to Argentina and faced charges, as of 2020.[13][14]

A federal court sentenced eight sailors and police officers and a civilian in the trial of crimes against humanity perpetrated during the military dictatorship at the ESMA on February 19, 2021. Among those convicted are former Navy officer Carlos Castellvi, police officer Raúl Cabral, and civilian Miguel Conde.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Memoria Abierta: Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA)" (in 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 Archived 2013-11-01 at the Wayback Machine (in Spanish) [in Spanish initials a plural is often indicated by a double letter, thus "SS" stands for "Suboficiales", plural]
  4. ^ a b "Argentina's dirty war: the museum of horrors", The Telegraph
  5. ^ Go-i, Uki (March 24, 1999). "Jews targeted in Argentina's dirty war". The Guardian.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Guest, Iain (1990). Behind the Disappearances: Argentina's Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. ^ a b Centros clandestinos de la ciudad de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Instituto Espacio para la Memoria. 2007.
  8. ^ a b Sims, Calvin (March 13, 1995). "Argentine Tells of Dumping 'Dirty War' Captives Into Sea" – via The New York Times.
  9. ^ Armada admitió que la ESMA fue "un símbolo de barbarie" Archived 2015-07-09 at the Wayback Machine, Terra, 3 de marzo de 2004.
  10. ^ starMedia: Trial for crimes against humanity in Argentina reaching its close, 7 July 2015 (in Spanish)
  11. ^ "Causa ESMA". (in Spanish). Retrieved 7 December 2015.
  12. ^ "Infojus Noticias". Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  13. ^ The arrest and extradition of Gonzalo Sanchez. Interpol
  14. ^ Government asks Brazil to extradite suspect accused of ESMA crimes
  15. ^ Calloni, Stella (February 19, 2021). "La Jornada - Argentina condena a 8 ex represores por delitos de lesa humanidad". (in Spanish). La Jornada. Retrieved February 19, 2021.

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