The ESMA Mega Trial: Crimes against Humanity during the Last Dictatorship in Argentina 1976-1983


This blog has been written by Argentinean lawyer Federico Gaitan Hairabedian. He graduated from the Faculty of Law, University of Buenos Aires, and specialised in Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure at the Torcuato Di Tella University and has a Law Masters in International Law for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law from the Washington College of Law, American University of Washington DC, United States. He started his professional career working for the federal courts in Buenos Aires. He is also a visiting scholar at the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights of Rutgers University, New Jersey and the President of the Luisa Hairabedian Foundation.  From 2014 to 2017, he has taken on the role of a plaintiff attorney for CELS (Centre of Legal and Social Studies) in the ESMA Mega-case for the crimes committed at the Naval School of Mechanical Engineering (ESMA) representing the victims and families of those disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

The 1976-1983 Argentinean military regime, named “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional” (National Reorganization Process) was the synthesis of the previous coups that took place in Argentina between 1930 and 1976. The joint alliance between the army, the navy the air force; and the support of strategic civilians developed a “final solution”. This was the method of extermination and destruction in order to eliminate what they considered enemies or anybody else who was opposed to their political and economic mission.

The mechanism used over the country was the abduction of people from public places or from their homes, the detention of these people in clandestine detention and extermination centers where they were tortured and then their bodies disappeared through “death flights”.

There were more than 600 detention and concentration camps, and around 30.000 people were detained and or disappeared. Many of them in official military bases such as the ESMA (Escuela Mecánica de la Armada) which belonged to the Navy. The typical extermination method used there were the “death flights”, a way of making people disappear by throwing prisoners into the Atlantic Ocean or the “Río de la Plata” while they were still alive. Many of the bodies appeared days later on the coasts bearing signs of torture and abuse. Another method used by the military was the appropriation of children who were born in the detention camps. After many years some of these children were able to recover their true identity but there is still a large number of them living under a false identity.

The persistent action taken by the families of disappeared people, especially the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, to recover the identities of those who have been kidnapped and tortured as well as their need to recover the bodies of their dead, has established an objective truth of what was going on. This action, symbolically expressed by walking week after week, month after month around the Plaza de Mayo in front of the government house, has added to the moral authority of their claims since the dictatorship. As well as calling for an end to the military regime at the time, which undermined the power of military by raising awareness in civil society, of the human rights violations committed by the military regime and the urgency to establish the truth, as well as justice and the need to recover not only democracy but the rule of Constitution and Law.

After the military dictatorship ended, President Alfonsin created a Truth Commission called CONADEP and brought to justice the head of the military junta. As a reaction, the military responded with threats of another coup d’état, forcing Alfonsin to abandon ending impunity for the armed forces. President Menem, succeeding Alfonsin, granted impunity to those who had been prosecuted giving an indult.  Between 1986 and 2003 there was impunity for the crimes against humanity and the military trials were stopped. However since 2003, the Argentinean state began a new era of the process of Truth, Memory and Justice, expressed through public trials against the perpetrators of crimes committed during the military dictatorship began.

The main trial of this process was the “ESMA Mega-case” trial which took place in Buenos Aires between 2012 and December 2017. This was the largest in Argentine history. It investigated the crimes against humanity committed against 789 people. The case allowed for the unraveling of the Navy’s repressive structure and identified the stages of the criminal repression carried out at the ESMA between 1976 and the end of the dictatorship in 1983. The trial, brought to our attention denunciations made by international human rights on the violations which occurred during the dictatorship. In addition, the trial also served to reconstruct the so-called death flights (their structure and operational mode) and to deepen our knowledge about how the ESMA functioned as a clandestine maternity ward. The role of the Catholic Church was also exposed in this trial. On Novembrer 27 after a trial lasting five years, ended with 29 life imprisonment convictions, 19 sentences of between 8 and 25 years in prison, and 6 acquittals. Also the “death flights” were proven.

The novelties brought to light by this trial strengthen the link between justice and truth: today we know much more about the way ESMA functioned as a clandestine detention and torture center. The reparation for the victims and society is only possible if the state complies with its obligations to investigate, sanction and reconstruct history.