Raw Nerves at a Museum of Argentina's "Dirty War"

A former death camp remains a focal point for controversy over a dark time in Argentina's history.

By + More

BUENOS AIRES—Cut into the tapis trees here on the former campus of the Navy Mechanics School, and the branches bleed a blood-red sap. Their canopy of leaves turns afternoon showers into a gentle drizzle that guide Daniel Schiavi calls "lagrima," or the tears. "They are weeping," he says, gesturing to the grove beside him, "for what took place in the basements and attics."

It is among these elegantly neoclassical, whitewashed buildings that Schiavi's college sweetheart, the mother of his child, was tortured three decades ago. It is on this site, too, that the country continues to wrestle with the horrors of the "dirty war" under the military junta that seized and held power here from 1976 to 1983.

The grounds, which more closely resemble a country club than a concentration camp, reopened in late 2007 as a museum called the Space for the Memory, Promotion, and Defense of Human Rights to commemorate those who were kidnapped and "disappeared" under the dictatorship. This has proved, however, a wrenching and controversial undertaking in a nation that is still grappling mightily with its recent past.

Nicknamed the Sorbonne of Repression, the school was the site of the largest of a national network of secret death camps where the Argentine military brought university students, trade unionists, and others suspected of supporting socialism and "subverting" what the junta called its "western and Christian values." Here, some received electric shocks and were made to lie down in rows before being run over with motorcycles. Others were told they were being transferred to southern prisons where they would need special antimalaria medication. They were then given injections of sedatives, loaded onto a twice-weekly plane flight, and dropped unconscious into the freezing waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. Of the roughly 5,000 people brought here, only some 200 survived.

Decades-long efforts to bring those responsible to justice have not fared well. After democracy was restored in 1983, ex-generals accused of kidnapping and assassinations were protected from prosecution by amnesty laws. It was not until Nestor Kirchner became president in 2003 that the government began overturning the pardons. Since then, in several cases where trials have taken place, photographs and evidence painstakingly smuggled out of the prison have been "lost." Alleged torturers awaiting trial in jail have escaped, aided by the police themselves.

Those who have been brought to trial after decades remain contemptuous of those they killed and convinced that they were a government at war with subversives who threatened national security. A general convicted of torture and murder in August told the court, "Argentina flaunts the dubious merits of being the first country in history to judge its victorious soldiers." He took issue with the fact that the court called "the operations of the armed forces illegal repression." After another ex-general sentenced in the same trial was told that he would remain under house arrest rather than being jailed because he was 70 years old, police in riot gear used tear gas to restrain angry crowds that promptly began protesting outside the court.

Evicted. The Navy school has become a focal point for controversy in the face of what many view as this continued disdain for the victims among the ex-military, as well as among some conservatives within the government. In the late 1990s, the Navy, supported by then President Carlos Menem, fought to destroy the buildings and create what it called a park of remembrance and a monument to reconciliation. In 2004, Kirchner evicted the Navy and turned the campus over to the city government, which created a board that included human rights organizations, as well as the country's Ministry of Human Rights. The move sparked military protests, and five provincial governors declined to attend the base's handover ceremony.

Organizations including the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which continue to protest for the full accounting of disappeared children and grandchildren, were among the most vocal proponents of keeping the campus intact. "To make a place without memory, without justice, without accountability," says Schiavi, his voice trailing off. He and others fought to keep the buildings.