About 5,000 people disappeared behind the walls. Many were never seen again.
Now the Argentine Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) – a military school turned secret detention center – has been declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in a bid to preserve its grisly history.
“The Navy School of Mechanics conveyed the absolute worst aspects of state-sponsored terrorism,” President Alberto Fernández told the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in a video message on Tuesday.
He thanked UNESCO for designating ESMA as a heritage site. “The memory must be kept alive,” Fernández said, referring to the “horrors” experienced at the former school.
In 1976, a military group overthrew President Isabel Perón, beginning a period of dictatorship that lasted until 1983.
Under his leadership, widespread human rights abuses occurred as military leaders sought to stamp out dissent, activism and left-wing political views.
As many as 30,000 people are believed to have lost their lives, with many of their fates still unknown. They simply disappeared into military custody and were never heard from again.
As many as 340 detention centers sprang up across the country. However, ESMA was among the first, with prisoners transferred there in the early days of the coup.
It would also become one of the largest such facilities in Argentina. The detention center, located in the capital Buenos Aires, turned the school’s layout into a place of torture. Only about 200 prisoners survived.
ESMA even had a maternity ward, where pregnant detainees saw their children being taken away during childbirth. These children were often adopted into families with ties to the dictatorship.
Military leaders did their best to conceal the crimes that took place at ESMA, both during and after the dictatorship.
For example, when international observers arrived to investigate human rights claims in 1979, ESMA employees removed the stairs leading to the basement where much of the torture took place. They even built a wall to hide the stairwell.
Decades later, in 2007, ESMA would be redesigned as a memorial site, reopening to the public to tell the story of the human rights violations that took place on its premises.
Just this year, the ESMA Museum acquired an aircraft used to kill detainees held at the site, in a practice called “death flights.” Prisoners were drugged and – often alive – thrown into the sea during the flight, as a form of execution.
Museum organizers hope the plane and similar exhibits will help future generations remember the tragedy that unfolded at ESMA – and underline the importance of democracy.
UNESCO is currently holding its 45th extended session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where it is adding more sites to its World Heritage List. Native ceremonial and burial mounds in Ohio, United States, were among the new additions announced Tuesday.
But ESMA’s inclusion on the World Heritage List underlines its importance at a time when some high-profile politicians in Argentina are accused of denying the brutality of the military dictatorship.
Victoria Villarruel, the vice presidential candidate of leading presidential candidate Javier Milei, is among politicians criticized for downplaying the violence at the time.
Milei, a right-wing populist, emerged as the front-runner in the August primaries, passing over establishment candidates.
But Argentina’s Human Rights Minister Horacio Pietragalla Corti said UNESCO’s decision serves as a rebuke to those who try to ignore the human rights violations that took place at sites like ESMA.
“This international recognition represents a strong response to those who deny or attempt to downplay state terrorism and the crimes of the last civil-military dictatorship,” Corti said.
President Fernández also welcomed the UNESCO designation as a bulwark against denial as he took the stage at the UN General Debate in New York on Tuesday.
“By actively holding on to the memory that the deniers want to hide, we will ensure that this pain will never be repeated,” he said. “In light of these crimes against humanity, our solution is not revenge but justice, precisely because we know the horror represented by the disappearance of 30,000 people.”