Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics

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

The Navy School of Mechanics (in Spanish, Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, commonly referred to by the acronym ESMA for Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada[1]), was 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 Task ESMA3.3.2 - Unidad de Tareas 3.3.2,[2] also known as GT332, which was charged with 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 legitimate functions of the school were moved to the renamed Escuela de suboficiales de la Armada (English: Navy Petty-Officers' School) in the Puerto Belgrano Naval Base, 28 km from the city of Bahía Blanca.

Human rights violations[edit]

Almost 5,000 people were abducted and held in the ESMA. Only 150 survived their detention; the remainder were killed during or after torture during interrogation.[3] 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 firing squad, others in death flights: they were flown over the Atlantic Ocean or the Rio de la Plata, and pushed out of the plane or helicopter to the waters below. 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, which were associated with the "disappeared".

Functions and authorities[edit]


Under construction in 1928.

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] On 12 October 1928 the current complex was inaugurated,[4] designed by the architect Raúl J. Álvarez on Blandengues street (now Avenida del Libertador), between Arroyo Medrano and the extension of Deheza street. Each year, around 10 000 youths signed up to enter as regular students, of which around half were admitted and given scholarships for courses of study such as electronics, aeronautics, management, marine engineering (mecánico naval), radio operation, meteorology, oceanography, and so on. The students lived in the complex from Monday through Friday, taking 8–10 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 exercising their new profession elsewhere.

The main entrance opens onto the central pavilion, where the authorities' offices were located. There's a covered patio there, which was also 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 military dictatorship which governed from 1976 to 1983. To the right of the central pavilion, the checkpoint, the military guard building, and the Naval War School (Escuela de Guerra Naval).

Behind, at the rear, were the dormitories, and crossing Avenida Lugones, the institution's sports field. On the perimeter of the school were checkpoints, which were manned by the students themselves 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 during the sinking of the Belgrano or of the ARA Sobral.

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

Illegal 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.

The group was ultimately (between 1976 and 1978) 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.


The internal layout and conditions of the ESMA 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 (literally "hood") 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 US navy task force numbering systems.
  3. ^ "Argentina's dirty war: the museum of horrors", The Telegraph
  4. ^ Historia de la Escuela de Suboficiales Escuela de Suboficiales de la Armada Argentina.
  5. ^ Armada admitió que la ESMA fue "un símbolo de barbarie", Terra, 3 de marzo de 2004.

External links[edit]

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