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Part I
The Repression

Nunca Más (Never Again) - Report of Conadep  - 1984


D. Secret Detention Centres (SDCs)

General considerations

The policy of the disappearance of persons could not have been carried out without the detention centres. There were about 340 of them throughout the country. Thousands of men and women illegally deprived of their freedom passed through them, often being kept in detention for years, sometimes never returning. This was where they lived through their ’disappearance’; this was where they were when the authorities would reply in the negative to requests for information in the habeas corpus appeals. There they spent their days at the mercy of others, with minds twisted by the practice of torture and extermination, while the military authorities (who frequently visited these centres) would respond to national and international public opinion by asserting that the disappeared were abroad, or that they had been victims of feuding amongst themselves. (Statements of this nature are included in the answers given by the de facto government to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS - see ’Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Argentina’, 1980.)  

The characteristics of these centres, and the daily life led there, reveal that they had been specifically conceived for the subjection of victims to a meticulous and deliberate stripping of all human attributes, rather than for their simple physical elimination.  

To be admitted to one of these centres meant to cease to exist. In order to achieve this end, attempts were made to break down the captives’ identity; their spatio-temporal points of reference were disrupted, and their minds and bodies tortured beyond imagination.  

These centres were only secret as far as the public and the relatives and people close to the victims were concerned, inasmuch as the authorities systematically refused to give any information on the fate of the abducted persons to judicial appeals and national and international human rights organizations. It goes without saying that their existence and operation were only possible with the use of the State’s financial and human resources, and that, from the highest military authorities down to each and every member of the Security Forces who formed part of this repressive structure, these centres were their fundamental basis of operation.  

The reality was continually denied, the military government also making use of the total control it exercised over the media, to confuse and misinform the public. It would subsequently be seen during the hostilities of the war in the South Atlantic, to what extent covering up the truth and misinformation were essential to the most important acts of the military governments between 1976 and 1983.  

I categorically deny that there exist in Argentina any concentration camps or prisoners being held in military establishments beyond the time absolutely necessary for the investigation of a person captured in an operation before they are transferred to a penal establishment. (Jorge Rafael Videla, 22 December 1977, Gente magazine.)  

There are no political prisoners in Argentina, except for a few persons who may have been detained under government emergency legislation and who are really being detained because of their political activity. There are no prisoners being held merely for being political, or because they do not share the ideas held by the Government. (Roberto Viola, 7 September 1978.)  

From the highest levels of the military government they attempted to present to the world a situation of maximum legality. Disregarding all limits - even the exceptional de facto legislation - the dictatorship kept up a secret, parallel structure. At first categorically denied, later - faced with a mass of evidence resulting from accusations made by relatives and the testimonies of prisoners who were released - they had to admit the existence of this structure, though with false explanations.

La Perla, did it exist? Yes. It was a meeting place for prisoners, not a secret prison ... the subversives were there but in the protection of each other’s company ... (Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, 15 March 1984, Gente magazine.)  

A substantial number of reports and testimonies received by this Commission corroborate the presence of high-ranking military officials in the detention centres. Martha Alvarez de Repetto (file, No. 7055) states:  

I was arrested in my house in the town of Corrientes, and taken to offices of the Federal Police in that town. There I was hooded and tortured, and later transferred to the officers’ mess of the 9th Infantry Regiment, where they set up simulated executions and also tortured people. One of the visitors I saw myself and was even interrogated by was the then Commander of the 7th Brigade, General Cristino Nicolaides. Another of the visitors was the then Commander of the 2nd Army Corps, General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who was there in mid-November 1976.  

The prisons were crammed with political prisoners, whom the authorities tried to present as common criminals, avoiding any recognition that ideological persecution was reaching levels unheard of in our country before. This legal structure, however, was intimately connected to the other one, of darkness and death, where thousands of disappeared suffered without the slightest chance of protection.  

Thus, after lengthy periods in secret detention, many of those released would find their abduction made official by their transfer to public prisons or to police stations.  

Guillermo Horacio Dascal (file No. 6533) states:  

In the early hours of 11 May 1978 I was awakened in my bedroom by two or three men shouting orders. They carried rifles and wore civilian clothes. They ordered me to get dressed and then put a pillow-case over my head, like a hood, leading me out to a car and putting me in the boot. This car took a route which I cannot work out and, after passing through a gate or some place where they had to identify themselves, we came to a halt and I was taken out. I remember that there were more people in the same place, about six in my situation. After some time, which I can’t specify, I was led to a room where there was a table or bunk on which I was beaten up by two or three men who questioned me for the names of other ex-students of the Carlos Pellegrini School. I was held in this ’house’, which I now recognize as the one known as El Vesubio on the Ricchieri motorway, for about forty days. Then with other prisoners I was called out by name and we were separated into groups of four. Our captors told us that until then we had been held at the disposal of the self-styled ’CALA’ (liberators of America Anti-subversive Commando) and that we were now to be handed over as prisoners to Army authorities. My group were put into the back seat of a car which was driven for about thirty minutes, after which I heard the kidnappers stop a taxi and put the four of us in it, after roughly forcing the driver to get out, We went a short distance in this second car and then were left inside it, a few metres from the 10th Ordnance Battalion in Villa  Martelli. Our captors threatened that if we tried to escape they would detonate a bomb they had placed in the car. A few minutes later I heard one of the doors being opened by a man who removed our blindfolds. I could then see that he was wearing green military uniform. He took us into the Battalion. There we were put in cells, the men separate from the women. In the Battalion we had to sign a ratification of the statement that we had signed under duress at the secret detention centre. According to the evidence (of the second copy) issued by the Military Tribunal 1/1, my entry into the 10th Ordnance Battalion was on 19 June 1978. I remained there until 31 August 1978, when we four prisoners were transferred to Villa Devoto Prison at the disposal of the same Tribunal until 3 October 1978, when my case was dropped. I was released on 5 October 1978. Despite being at the disposal of the Military Tribunal 1/1 since 19 June 1978, my family only learned of my arrest on 1 September 1978.  

By the same token, prisoners in official penal establishments were abducted, and many of them are still to this day ’disappeared’.

Others were returned to the prisons after months in the secret centres.  

Afterwards I was transferred to the place known as Puesto Vasco ... From there I went on, in September I think, to the Arana outpost ... In Arana I saw Camps and Inspector Miguel Etchecolatz, who often went there. In December 1977 I was transferred again to Unit 9, La Plata Prison, from where I was released on 24 July 1978.  

The places mentioned in the preceding testimony by Dr Juan Amadeo Gramano (file No. 3944) after his transfer from La Plata Prison, operated as secret centres. He was held in them for seven months before being returned to the official establishment.  

Although the adaptation of premises to house prisoners in secret was intensified from the time of the coup d’éat in 1976, this Commission has records which show that already in 1975 there were centres of this kind operating in the 3rd Army Corps region, in Tucumán and Santiago del Estero, which functioned as pilot centres during the ’Independencia’ operation.



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