Here, in the officers' casino, people were taken there and upstairs, where the roof tiles are, they were held; they were kept in rooms called Caputxa and Caputxeta", says journalist Edgardo Esteban as we tour the set of buildings around the infamous Escola Mecànica de l'Armada (ESMA). In this compound, between 1976 and 1983, 5,000 people were tortured and killed.
With a neoclassical facade and red roofs, few can imagine that this group of buildings in Buenos Aires was the epicenter of the worst horror of the dictatorship, the largest detention, torture and extermination center in the country. "They were chained up, their faces were covered and they were tortured," continues Esteban, director of the neighboring Falklands Museum. “Look, wherever you see the green windows; it's where they put pregnant women and when the children were born they gave them to the appropriators".
It is estimated that 37 children were born in the ESMA, then handed over to military or police officers or their friends. Their mothers were killed after giving birth, as were many other prisoners. "They drugged them and threw them into the river from the planes." One of the victims of these "death flights" was Azucena Villaflor, founder of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, whose struggle to find her missing family members started a process of truth, memory and clarification of the horrors of the past that has gone much further in Argentina than in other countries with recent dictatorships such as Spain.
In September of this year, the 40th anniversary of the recovery of democracy in Argentina, the ESMA was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. It is added to Auschwitz as buildings that should be protected not because of their beauty but because of the terror they housed. The ESMA is "the most prominent symbol of State terrorism", according to the UN's cultural agency.
For all that, it was shocking on Tuesday when Victoria Villarruel, the vice-presidential candidate of ultra-libertarian Javier Milei, proposed a new use for the old torture and extermination center. "The ESMA has 17 hectares and the whole town could enjoy it", he said in an interview broadcast on the Todo Notícias channel. Villarruel proposed turning the extermination camp, scene of various tortures – electric shocks, poisoned darts, rapes – into a school for children.
The discrepancy between Unesco and Villarruel regarding the historical value of the ESMA comes from two opposing readings of the Argentine past. A 48-year-old lawyer, the daughter of soldiers, Villarruel denies that there was State terrorism in Argentina and defines the genocide perpetrated by the dictatorship as an "excess" in a necessary fight against communist terrorism.
This denialism, which Villarruel has defended over the years, is part of the program of Milei, who has already surpassed his hero Milton Friedman and the Chilean Chicago Boys for his ability to combine the defense of the libertarian agenda with the support to military regimes of extermination.
Milei repeated the old revisionism of Villarruel in the first televised debate in October when he set the number of disappeared during the years of the dictatorship at 8,753, when it is known that the figure is probably closer to 30,000.
Historical revisionism regarding atrocities committed by military dictatorships is in vogue from Madrid to Santiago de Chile. But Villarruel - with the unconditional support of Milei - is the one who goes the furthest in her desire to change the past. He leads a victims' organization. But for Villarruel and Milei, the victims who matter are not those who were tortured in extermination centers at the hands of the military, but those who were victims of armed groups such as the Montoneros.
According to the far-right candidate, the attacks, muggings and kidnappings of the guerrillas are crimes in the same moral category as violent military repression. Villarruel responded to a question about the importance of ESMA as a space of Unesco's memory by affirming that "it is a space of half memory, like all; the other victims must be added."
A close ally of the Spanish Vox, Villarruel visited several of the military imprisoned for crimes against humanity, including Jorge Rafael Videla, and justified those visits as part of research work for his two books.
The most surprising thing is that this reinvention of the past to wash the face of the torturers seems to be to the liking of many young people. Argentina is admired internationally for its process of memory, truth and justice, embodied in the military trials and shown to the world in the film Argentina, 1985, about the trial of the military who tortured the ESMA.
But domestically, denialism has an appeal to the far right: it's politically incorrect. The achievements of the State of Law in the fight against impunity during the governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner are despised by the electorate of Milei. The Kirchners "took all this to justice and thus generated great hatred in the military institution", explains Esteban. This was predictable. What could not be expected was that in a young segment of society it would bring hatred.
"This country has a very bad memory and focus for