(Never Again) - Report of Conadep
Mass executions by firing squad
The 'pit 'on the Loma del Torito
Soon after the work of the Commission began, we started receiving a large number of depositions about the 'disappearances' of people in Córdoba. Their stories all converged on the La Perla secret detention centre.
The most horrific violations of human rights were committed here. Mass executions were also carried out.
In their testimony the survivors speak of their fear of 'transfers', carried out regularly in a sinister Mercedes-Benz lorry which would return after a brief interval without its human cargo. They associated transfers with the repeated threats by their gaolers that they would be taken 'to the pit'.
This awful reference was to the execution of many prisoners by firing squad on the edge of a pit, dug in advance to bury their bodies. The place was in the area known as the Loma del Torito, inside the La Perla camp, under the military jurisdiction of the base of the 4th Airborne Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in Córdoba.
This Commission obtained legal authorization to excavate the land, and did so on 22 March 1984, without any positive result. Nevertheless, confirmation by a witness, who had farmed in the area for many years, that the earth had been disturbed, backed up by other testimony and accounts of the exhumation of human remains there, tends to indicate that the prisoners' fear for their lives was well-founded. Let us took at some of the statements.
1. Testimony of Gustavo Adolfo Ernesto Contemponi and Patricia Astelarra - File N°. 4452
After being shot, the kidnap victims were thrown into a pit which had been dug in advance. With their hands and feet tied, gagged and blindfolded, they were sat on the edge of this and shot. Many prisoners heard accounts of this from soldiers, and sometimes we could even see people being taken away in this state. They were usually taken from La Perla at siesta time. The number and frequency of the transfers varied. People were taken from the block by a police guard, who would sometimes call out their numbers aloud, or sometimes go up to the condemned prisoner and say something in his ear before taking him away. We all heard the sound of the lorry, so when their mattresses were still empty a few hours later we knew for certain that they had been taken away in it. During 1976 and early 1977 nearly all kidnap victims were told that our fate was to be 'the pit' and threats about it were common. By spying through an office window two of us managed to see a group of condemned prisoners being loaded on to a lorry. They had been taken to the shed a few hours earlier, with their hands and feet securely tied, blindfolded and gagged, and later we saw how the interrogators and a lot of people in uniform tossed them into the back of the Mercedes-Benz lorry like so many sacks of potatoes. General Centeno and about five high-ranking officers were there, and followed the lorry in a Ford army van.
2. Testimony of José Julián Solanille - File N° 1568
After the March 1976 coup I went to work as an agricultural labourer in a place beside the La Perla camp called Loma del Torito. Around May that year I saw a pit measuring about 4 metres square and 2 metres deep. One Sunday I saw ten or fifteen cars arriving, including two white Ford Falcons. In one of these I noticed General Menéndez, Commander of the 3rd Army Corps, whom I recognized because I had often seen him before. There were also two army lorries with army canvas covers over their backs, one with a white cross painted on it. A little later I went out into the fields driving my cattle and on the way I met a neighbour called Giuntolo, who worked a piece of land nearby. He told me that he wanted to find out whether the rumours he had heard were true, that there were ditches there where they buried people. I agreed to accompany him, lending him one of my horses and mounting another myself. As we approached the place where the ditch I have described was we saw, from about 100 metres away, that the vehicles I had seen approaching earlier were there. Then I warned my companion Giuntolo: 'Wait, something nasty may happen,' and we drew back. At that moment we heard loud gunfire. When we saw the cars near the ditch there was a large group of people on its edge who seemed to have their hands tied behind their backs and their eyes blindfolded or covered with glasses painted black. The next day I returned to the place and saw that the pit had been filled in, and there was a lot of earth left over. I would guess that the number of people shot on this occasion was over fifty.
3. Excavations at Loma del Torito - File N° 1568
The most relevant details of the Commission's investigation are the following:
For the purposes of the investigation, the excavation was carried out in the place which had been pointed out ... going to a depth of about 2.20 metres. When this excavation produced no result, Solanille said that despite his certainty there was no point in continuing there. Next we moved on to the place referred to by the witness as the 'little tomb', where he said there would be human remains. We proceeded to dig manually in this place. Witness Solanille took part voluntarily in this task until he thought it unnecessary to dig any deeper, given that in his opinion the earth had been disturbed since the occasion on which he had seen human remains.
4. Testimony of Julio César Pereyra - File N° 3801
I did my military service in the 4th Airborne Transport Company, 3rd Army Corps, in the province of Córdoba, from February 1976 to 5 September 1977. Once, in June 1976, when I was with a friend in La Mezquita, we went to the area known as the Loma del Torito, where we could make out what had been a pit, from the disturbed earth, and on digging only a little below the surface discovered human remains (a jawbone) and a blue woollen sweater which also contained bones. We also found spent Itaka
5. Testimony of Ernesto Facundo Urien - File N° 4612
In 1978 I was head of B Company at the General Paz Military Academy. When we heard that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was arriving, Cavalry Lieutenant Gustavo Golfi received an order, though not passed on by myself, to carry out some activity unconnected to those of the Institute where he was stationed. Later this officer confided to me what this activity entailed, telling me that it was a secret. It consisted of digging up corpses in an area belonging to the training camp of the 3rd Army Corps command, using road diggers which they were to operate themselves. Once the bodies had been dug up (they showed signs of not having been buried in any box or bag and were scattered around the area, some with their documentation), they were put into drums, some with quicklime, to be taken to an unknown destination.
6. Testimony of José María Domínguez
In 1976 I joined the Gendarmería; in November or December of that year I was ordered to cover posts in different places such as Penitentiary Unit No. 1, La Perla, La Perla Chica and La Ribera. ... In La Perla I held many posts. ... Twice I saw army lorries entering in the early hours of the morning and proceeding to load up with occupants from the blocks. Once they took away five people, the other time eleven. The lorries did not come back to the block and it was said that the victims were taken to be shot at the pit.
7. Testimony of Carlos Beltrán - File N° 4213
I was a member of the Gendarmería from 1971 to 1980, when I was discharged. Around 1977 or 1978 I was told that I had been chosen to do security duties at Prison Unit No. 1 and the prisoner assessment centres known as La Perla, La Perla Chica and La Ribera. ... The vehicles used to wait in the yard. Once outside the block, the prisoners who had been made to come with the interrogators were put in, their hands tied and blindfolded, and forced to lie on the floor. .. . Then they set off. ... One or two hours after setting out the vehicles would come back without the prisoners. Once I asked 'Gino' where they took the prisoners and he answered: 'We take them to One-eighty ...' Once the 'Captain' ordered me to accompany him into the block along with some other guards. There he ordered four prisoners to stand up and come with him: a young man called Castro; a tallish man, about thirty-six years old, who I think sold ice-creams in Carlos Paz (his bicycle was left at La Perla); another man of twenty-eight; and a pregnant woman wearing a plastic apron and rubber boots (she was about twenty-five and in an advanced state of pregnancy). They were put into the back of a lorry in which we also travelled, with a police guard and four NCOs, while in the cabin there was a sergeant acting as driver and a young officer, maybe a first lieutenant, who was on the short side, rather fat, about thirty-six years old and had a moustache. The lorry set off followed by the Torino car usually driven by the 'Captain', who was accompanied by 'Gino'. The vehicles followed a dirt road through the wire fence around the La Perla buildings. After driving about 3 kilometres they stopped on a country track between a field of sorghum and one sown with peanuts. Beyond these meadows there was nothing but wild vegetation (camalotes, tuscas and bushes). We all got out of the vehicles 'and walked about 50 metres acros this uncultivated stretch, which was covered in weeds. Then the 'Captain' ordered that the youngest prisoner's hands be untied and that he be given one of the spades brought by the NCOs. He told the victim to begin digging a hole. This ended up about 1.80 metres deep, 3 metres long and 1.20 metres wide. The other three prisoners were each guarded by two soldiers. I and another officer were next to the eldest of the four prisoners: I saw him pray very slowly, and as he did so begin to cry. No one spoke, a deep silence reigned as the 'Captain' made the prisoner who was digging climb up to the edge of the ditch and positioned the three others next to him in a row beside the ditch. On a signal from the 'Captain' - after he had told me 'They have to be sent to One-eighty' and I had replied that I wouldn't do It - 'Gino', the four officers and the first lieutenant began firing at the prisoners. The policemen fired too. While the three men remained motionless after the shots the woman, who had fallen, managed to stand up again and walk a few steps away from the ditch. Seeing this the 'Captain' took out his pistol and despatched her with a bullet in the head. The four bodies were thrown into the ditch and doused in five litres of petrol. Then a torch was made from a stick, lit and thrown into the ditch, producing a loud explosion. The fire lasted about twenty minutes, during which we began to notice a revolting smell, probably from the burning bodies and clothes. When they began filling in the pit I approached and saw two of the bodies inside it, charred and shrunk to a size of 70 or 80 centimetres. Once the pit had been covered and the earth stamped down, they threw weeds and branches over it. I had a big row with the 'Captain' for not having obeyed his command, and he ordered me to step down from the post, since I was a useless coward and did not have what it took to make a soldier.