(Never Again) - Report of Conadep
Southern Region: 5th Army Corps
The security zone under the control of the 5th Army Corps covered the Buenos Aires provincial areas of Tres Arroyos, Coronel Dorrego and Carmen de Patagones as well as the city of Bahía Blanca where the Corps command had its base - apart from the area under navy jurisdiction (the Puerto Belgrano base) - and beyond that the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut and Santa Cruz.
There was secret repression throughout this vast territory, based on temporary detention centres (police stations, barracks, federal police posts, etc.) from which the prisoners were taken to permanent centres in Bahía Blanca, one in the buildings of the
5th Army Corps headquarters and the other nearby.
The only exception to this was in the Alto Valle of Río Negro and Neuquén, where a permanent secret camp was set up for prisoners from Sub-zone 52. This was under the command from April 1976 until September of the following year of General José Luis Sexton, Commander of the 6th Mountain Infantry Brigade based in Neuquén.
In the days leading up to the coup a large number of political and trade union activists, parliamentarians, university lecturers and officials of the deposed government were arrested in seemingly legal operations, later to be transferred, as space became available, to the buildings of the 5th Army Corps command, where many joined the lists of the 'disappeared'. Some of them had been tracked down with great speed in other parts of the country and put at the disposal of Security Zone 5.
The former member of parliament for Santa Cruz, Orlando Stirnemann (file No. 4337), testifies:
At the beginning of April 1976 1 was arrested at Malabrigo in the province of Santa Fe. Three days later they took me from Reconquista to Buenos Aires Municipal Airport in a Guarani plane, registration Y116, and from there in another plane, registration AE106, to Comandante Espora camp. I was able to see all this because I wasn't blindfolded, as they said I was 'sure to have got my number'. First I was in a secret centre in a large shed belonging to the Communications Battalion. After a fortnight being held in this secret detention centre I was transferred to another one, presumably under the same army authority ...
Francisco Tropeano, who was legally arrested at the 6th Brigade headquarters in Neuquén on 28 March 1976, had to wait in the city's prison to be taken to the Comandante Espora base and there handed over to the personnel from the 5th Corps. He was housed in the same shed as Stirnemann. While he was a secret prisoner Colonel Swalter (file No. 6956), Chief of Intelligence in the zone, refused to admit to Señora Tropeano that her husband was being held under his jurisdiction until, after several weeks, he was made an official prisoner at the Villa Floresta Prison.
There he was able to prove that the above-mentioned officer was the one who had often inspected the secret detention centre in which he had been held, with other people who are still missing:
We all heard when someone was taken out of the main shed to be tortured with the electric prod. I imagine there was a doctor telling them when they should stop. Twice while they were torturing I heard something like: 'It's stopped ... it's stopped.' I think they also gave injections. During the night military commanders came and gave instructions to those in charge of the shed about how to treat the prisoners during operations. They also gave ideological guidance. One of the commanders who came several times turned out to be Colonel Swaiter ...
I remember many scenes of terror, but there is one in particular which I must mention. It was night-time, the guards began shouting that the Montoneros were coming to rescue the prisoners and started firing their guns and exclaiming: 'They must all be killed.' The firing was inside, right beside us, and outside as well. The guards ran about, sometimes stopping by a bed to beat a bound and blindfolded prisoner. Although these beatings were frequent, that night our terror was tenfold because of the shots. I think they shot some prisoners outside the shed that night, and the guards behaved as they did so that we inside would not notice. (Francisco Tropeano, file No. 6956.)
Given the scale of the repressive operations in the city of Bahía Blanca and its surroundings, it became essential to have new buildings, and so La Escuelita was done up. This was an old building made up of several rooms, about 100 metres from the shed. When there were too many prisoners, some would be taken temporarily to another building on the naval base or nearby, where they were guarded by navy personnel. This base had another secret detention centre of its own on Battery 2, off the coast, where at the height of the repression a ship used for this purpose lay at anchor.
Pedro Maidana (file No. 6956), arrested in mid-June 1976 while attending a class at the Cutralcó Technical School, was taken with others from Neuquén to the Escuelita at Bahía Blanca and interrogated, then spent a fortnight's captivity in this 'other building which you reach along a road full of pot-holes and smelling of the sea'. Finally they took him to the Neuquén prison, under the authority of Area 521, where the Intelligence Chief was Major Reinhold.
La Escuelita, set up in an old building at the back of the 181st Battalion in Neuquén capital, was repaired and adapted for its new purpose by A and C Construction Companies. The Commando, Service and Combat Companies provided logistic support, external guards and people to carry out abductions. The Battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Braulio Enrique Olea, passed on any dealings with the families of disappeared people to the headquarters of the 6th Brigade, even when, as in the case of conscript José Delineo Méndez, the victim was being held secretly in the cells of the barracks themselves (file No. 2287).
In the 6th Brigade the relatives were usually dealt with by Major Farías, administrative head of the Escuelita who, according to his own statements, was responsible for the list of prisoners in the secret centre. He also often dealt with transfers of prisoners from various prisons to spend days or weeks under torture as disappeared people, waiting for their fate to be decided by the regional command.
One of them, a former police officer who was kept there (file No. 6956), recognized his torturer despite having been blindfolded. He was Lieutenant-Colonel Gómez Arena, alias 'The Executioner', head of the 6th Brigade Intelligence Department, whom the witness knew because he had frequented the 'information group' of Area 521, which had met at this unit long before 24 March 1976.
In Viedma, where there is no military garrison, the 'information group' operated as a branch of the State Intelligence Service, from which a series of kidnappings were coordinated towards the end of 1976, with officials of the Viedma Federal Police Station taking part:
On 15 December they put me into a vehicle. I was accompanied by Inspector Forchetti (file Nos. 473, 475, 476 and 480) and Officer González (file Nos. 478-80) of the Federal Police. Half-way along the road to the airport they blindfolded and hooded me. I was taken to the headquarters of the 5th Army Corps under General René Azpitarte (file Nos. 473-5). The man in charge of repressive activities was Colonel Páez. The next day they took me to the Escuelita. There they tortured me horribly, and I still suffer the consequences of the punishment I received. I discovered that Dario Rossi from Viedma was also a prisoner there. They later made it appear that he had been killed in a shoot-out. (Eduardo Cironi, file No. 473.)
Oscar Bermúdez (file No. 476), kidnapped in Viedma on 7 January 1977 by the same Inspector Forchetti, relates:
They took me in a vehicle to La Escuelita. After lying beaten up on the floor for a while I managed to establish contact with an old friend of mine, Dario Rossi, who asked desperately after his wife and daughter. After being officially recognized at the Villa Floresta prison I read in the paper that someone had been shot in a gun battle. It was Dario Rossi. Such was the fate of some of the kidnap victims in the secret centre.
The testimony of Jorge Abel coincides with the above on Rossi's case and adds more details about summary executions of prisoners (file Nos. 477-80):
Another of those shot was Fernando Jara. They also brought sixteen boys aged about seventeen from the secondary school into the Escuelita. They tortured them to make them carry out an attack on the Ford agency in Bahía Blanca in mid-December 1976. Only two of these boys stayed with us; they later both appeared as casualties of a 'confrontation' near La Plata. A few days before Jara's execution, the place had been inspected by General Acdel Vilas. (File Nos. 477 and 4636).
This was his farewell visit before retiring to be replaced as deputy commander by General Abel Catuzzi. But there were no changes in the way La Escuelita was run (file Nos. 473 and 475). On 12 January 1977 Alicia Partnoy was kidnapped in Bahía Blanca and taken by Army lorry to the 5th Corps headquarters, where she was blindfolded and hooded shortly after giving a statement. She was taken in a vehicle to a house where, throughout the first night, she heard her husband screaming as he was tortured (file No. 2266).
I gradually found my bearings. The old house we were in was behind the 5th Corps headquarters, flfteen blocks from a motel, on the La Carrindanga road. The soldiers called the place Sicofe. it is very close to the railway line and we could hear the trains passing, the shots as the army units practised, and the lowing of cows. The torture room, kitchen, bathroom, cells and guardroom were all in the same building. To relieve ourselves we had to go out to a latrine in the yard. There was a caravan where the guards slept and a well they used for torturing prisoners, suspending them in it for hours on end.
This was exactly the torture suffered by Sergio Voitzuk (file No. 3077) who, along with three other witnesses, accompanied a delegation from this Commission on an inspection on 11 June 1984. They all recognized the place where La Escuelita had been, some 2 kilometres from the command headquarters at a spot known as the 'Viejo Tambo' on the La Carrindanga road. It has now been demolished, but the trees surrounding it were still standing and unmistakable.
After going over the place thoroughly the witnesses also recognized the ruins of the building (fragments of masonry with their original paintwork, paving stones and sanitary installations), which all coincided with descriptions given earlier to the Commission. In the case opened before the Bahía Blanca federal judge, Dr Suter, the commander of the 5th Corps admitted to the existence of the buildings referred to in the testimony and stated that they had been demolished during military manoeuvres in
Although many of the prisoners were later officially recognized, including Doctors Hipólito Solari Yrigoyen and Mario Amaya, others left the centre to go to their deaths.
The delegation of the Commission in Bahía Blanca has made a list of people killed in supposed shoot-outs, several of whom had been seen alive at La Escuelita:
On 12 April 1977 they made Zulma Izurieta, María Elena Romero and their male companions take a bath. Then a doctor or nurse came and gave them an injection. I heard the guards joking after the injections had been given. They wrapped them in blankets and took them away. The next day the two couples appeared as casualties of a shoot-out near Bahía Blanca. A few days later Graciela, the sister of María Elena Metz who had been kidnapped in Neuquén with her husband Raúl Metz, had a baby. The little boy came into the world without any medical help, in the torturers' hut. One of them took him away from his mother, who herself was taken away a few days later, we don't know where to. (Alicia Partnoy, file No. 2266.).