I was born in June 1976, only weeks after Argentina’s most violent dictatorship began. Early in the morning on a sad March day before I was born, my father was taken away by the military regime. He didn’t meet me for the first time until almost a year later.
I was lucky; thousands of children never saw their parents again. More than 30,000 individuals—Argentines and foreigners, students and workers, people with or without university degrees, politicians and non-politicians, activists and non-activists, even priests and nuns—were tortured, abused, raped, killed, and disappeared by a self-appointed dictatorship that launched a “national reorganization process.” In many cases, the captors would wait until captured pregnant women had their babies before they kidnapped the newborns and killed and hid the bodies of the mothers.
The leader of the 1976 military junta, Jorge Rafael Videla, died this morning at 87 years old.
I grew up watching my country go through a bumpy transition from dictatorship to democracy. I have a clear memory of the madness of the Malvinas War in 1982, the hope and happiness of the democratic restoration in 1983 and the Juicio a las Juntas (Trial of the Juntas) in 1985. I also have a vivid memory of the anguish created both by President Raúl Alfonsín’s Ley de Punto Final (“full stop”) and Ley de Obediencia Debida (“due obedience”) amnesty laws, and President Carlos Menem’s pardons that, in my view, ruined the progress made in the Trial of the Juntas.
On Wednesday, Argentina began the trial of 68 suspects accused of kidnapping, torture and murder at the notorious Buenos Aires Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy Mechanics School-ESMA) during the country’s 1976–1983 dictatorship. All but two of the suspects are former members of the Argentine military.
Some 5,000 political prisoners are estimated to have passed through ESMA, which was converted into a clandestine detention center during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” and the vast majority were never seen again. A number of the disappeared were later found washed up on the shores of the Rio de la Plata on the Argentine and Uruguayan coasts, leading to speculation that members of the military dumped living prisoners from navy planes to their deaths. In 1995, the former captain, Adolfo Scilingo, testified that he had thrown 30 people into the ocean in two of the so-called “death flights.”
Azucena Villaflor, one of the founders of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), was disappeared in 1977 and is believed to have been murdered on the death flights, along with the disappeared French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet.
The trial that began this Wednesday will be the largest human rights trial involving ESMA thus far, and could clarify the fates of 789 disappeared political prisoners. Several prominent members of the former Argentine military government will be put on trial, including Juan Alemann, Argentina’s former treasury secretary, and eight former navy pilots. One of the pilots, Julio Poch, was working as a commercial pilot in Spain as recently as 2009.
Judge Daniel Obligado will preside over the trial in Argentine federal court, which is expected to take two years and involve at least 900 witnesses. Human rights groups estimate that some 30,000 people were disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship. Today, ESMA is a historical memory museum and cultural center.