INSIDE ARGENTINA'S SECRET DEATH CAMPS
In 1977 Nilda “Munu” Actis Goretta was walking home from work on a busy street in downtown Buenos Aires when members of the Argentinian Military Death Squad blindfolded her from behind and shoved her into a nearby car. She wasn’t seen or heard from for 13 months. I recently met the now silver-haired artist, and after hearing her story I have yet to regain my confidence in Locke's whole "man is inherently good" thing.
During the height of Argentina’s seven-year military dictatorship Munu lived as a political prisoner in the clandestine torture center, ESMA. She was a victim of Argentina’s National Reorganization Process that was enacted after the 1976 military coup. Due to the societal disorder and economic conditions that preceded the coup, which overthrew the government of President Isabel Peron, the military junta led by Lieutenant General Jorge Videla was welcomed with support. In order to reign without the unrest of the past, the junta organized a system to eliminate any threats to the new government. Anyone who expressed the slightest sympathies for leftist politics would vanish without a trace. The ensuing events were undoubtedly the fucking craziest and bloodiest in modern Argentinian history.
The general public was not aware of the concentration camps. ESMA operated as the navy mechanical school in the center of the city, but beneath its deceitful concrete exterior was a basement death camp where thousands of political prisoners, including pregnant women, were brutally tortured and killed. In a particularly horrible type of torture called “picana,” high voltage shocks of electricity were delivered through a bronze spoon that was forced up the vaginas of pregnant women. Once these women gave birth, their babies were abducted and adopted by military families. Today human rights groups estimate that over 500 babies were abducted, and a total of 30,000 people illegally imprisoned, while the government has only admitted to around 10,000.
Munu is one of the few who narrowly survived. Each time she was taken by guards from her unbearably hot cement cell in ESMA’s attic, she wasn’t sure whether it was to be electrocuted in the basement’s torture chambers or killed in one of the routine military “death flights.” According to Sergeant Ibanez, a former guard at the Camp de Mayo detention center, the routine flights occurred three to four times a month, during which victims were drugged with Pentothal (a tranquilizing drug) and stripped naked before being herded onto an airplane or helicopter and thrown alive into the rolling Rio Del Mar.
The abducted included journalists, students, philosophers, artists, and anyone who resembled Devendra Banhart. Members of the military Death Squad would infiltrate universities, private homes, and sometimes pull over cars and beat the shit out of people based on invalid accusations. If one so much as possessed a book on western philosophy they were branded a threat.
As a former political activist and artist, Munu fit the bill. In 1976, one year prior to her abduction, she was a happily married fine arts student living just outside Buenos Aires, but by night she was “Betty,” a daring left-wing political activist who worked with her husband to teach the impoverished how to unionize themselves for state aid. This was also the year shit hit the fan.
Munu was 30 years old and five-months pregnant when her husband was shot and killed by the military for his suspected political activities. After suffering a miscarriage and abandoning her own political actions for fear of meeting the same fate, Munu fled to a southern suburb of Buenos Aires to start a new life. She thought she had left everything behind, including “Betty,” her political identity. She believed she had become anonymous in a city of millions and impossible for the government to find. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
Four months into her imprisonment at ESMA Munu’s fate was realized. The guard who was torturing her ordered her to work on producing fake passports and documentation for military members. Their illegal abductions spanned from northern Argentina to Brazil, and they needed a way to move without suspicion. Pleased with her precise work, the military moved her to an apartment that had belonged to another of the abducted. (It was common practice for the military to renovate and sell the apartments and belongings they had stolen from their abductees.)
Although she wasn’t locked inside ESMA anymore, Munu was still under constant military surveillance, and her activities were limited to working in the basement of ESMA, and immediately returning to her apartment where she lived alone, unable to contact the outside world. Sometimes military guards would take her out to the nicest restaurants in the city and then lock her inside her apartment again, a form of psychological torture that slowly gnawed away at her mind.
“I wasn’t sure if they were going to murder me or take me out to dinner,” Munu told me in voice that sounded like she was reliving the horror.
The routine continued for several months, until one day the same guard who had ordered her to work told her he was planning on escaping the country, and urged her to leave before he did. She fled to Venezuela and lived there for several years, eventually returning to Buenos Aires. Now 54 and working as an artist and writer, Munu is one of the few survivors from the hundreds of clandestine detention centers that operated throughout Argentina.
The aftermath of the Dirty War and its victims is still shrouded in mystery, but the gaping gaps of information about the disappeared continue to be filled. Now 85 years old, Videla sits in his own hot cement cell serving a recently sentenced life term for the deaths of 31 prisoners, while nearly 700 other suits against military offenders await their own uncertain fate.
WORDS BY EMILY THOMAS
PHOTOS OF ESMA BY CLOE DANESHGAR