The ESMA Memory Site Museum in Buenos Aires

Sometimes, it is difficult to give a new meaning to a space to turn it into a place of memory. In this article we show an example that, despite the difficulties and pain, it is possible to make this transformation. The ESMA Memory Site Museum in Buenos Aires is an example of this.

In 1976 there was a coup in Argentina that gave rise to a civic-military dictatorship called the National Reorganization Process (PRN). During the seven years that the PRN lasted, an attempt was made to establish a neoliberal economic and social model. To carry out his plan, state terrorism was institutionalized to eliminate any dissidence.

human rights were violated and the dictatorship ended with approximately 30,000 people disappeared. Since 1983, Argentine society has worked hard to repair this tragic episode in its history. His work has become an example to follow in the fight for truth, justice and historical reparation.

The ESMA, clandestine detention center

The Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) began to be managed in 1924, when the Municipality of Buenos Aires ceded 17 hectares of land to the Navy so that it could install a school for non-commissioned officers. In 1928 the first building, known as Cuatro Columnas, was inaugurated. Between 1930 and 1950 another two were built: the Naval War College and the Officers’ Casino.

throughout the years more buildings were built until reaching 35. In this small city, students entered as naval candidates at the age of 15, approximately, and were trained in seven specialties.

From the year 1976, the ESMA began to function as a clandestine detention center, torture and extermination. It is estimated that up to 5,000 detainees-disappeared passed through these facilities.

State terrorism and clandestine detention centers

Research carried out has shown that there was a repressive methodology whose sequence was kidnapping, disappearance and torture. All of them, obviously, were carried out clandestinely. The kidnapping, generally, was carried out in the wee hours of the morning.

Members of the armed forces called ‘patota’ entered violently and armed at the victim’s home. Once at home, the kidnapped person was deprived of sight and transferred to the clandestine detention center.

Sometimes, interrogation and torture began at home in the presence of relatives. When there were children, eventually, their parents were made to witness the torture and were even tortured in the presence of their parents.

Once in the clandestine detention centers, the interrogations and the physical and psychological torture of the kidnapped began. The stories of the testimonials are really chilling. Some of them were published in the Report of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.

It is estimated that there were up to 340 clandestine detention centers throughout the country.. Thousands of people passed through them who, illegally deprived of their liberty, were disappeared for years or never returned. In these centers they suffered a sinister form of captivity, where daily life was transferred to the most underground confines of cruelty and madness.

The ESMA was one of the main clandestine detention centers in Buenos Aires. The Officers’ Casino was the core of the repressive action, although all the facilities of the military complex participated in that State terrorism.

The former ESMA

With the end of the dictatorship in 1983, despite public knowledge of the crimes committed there, the facility continued to function as a school for non-commissioned officers. The governments after the National Reorganization Process, with their policies of impunity for the process, they considered demolishing the ESMA to build buildings.

Given this, human rights organizations fought to prevent it and succeeded. In 1998, relatives of the disappeared filed an amparo appeal before the Justice to prevent their destruction.

Finally, in 2004 the Navy was evicted from ESMA and a project was started to create a space for memory and for the promotion and defense of human rights there. Currently, the place is the ESMA Memory Site Museum, former Clandestine Center for Detention, Torture and Extermination (CCDTyE).


The museum is a space for denouncing State terrorism and transmitting memory. Its mission is to contribute to knowing, experiencing and understanding the human rights violations committed by the Argentine State, fostering an intra- and intergenerational dialogue in the present and towards the future.

The museum can be visited from Tuesday to Sunday between 10 am and 5 pm. Admission is free and children under 12 are not allowed to enter. Minors between 12 and 15 years old can access, but always accompanied by an adult.

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