Secret Detention Centers

General Information

Although the number of secret detention centers increased rapidly after the 1976 military coup, with the state investing ample resouces to promote this principal tool of repression, a few pilot centers already existed in 1975. The first secret detention center was set up in the Escuelita de Famaillá in Tucumán province - a small deserted rural school transformed into a detention center that could hold up to forty prisoners. It was an experimental model which the military utilized during the 'Independencia' operation in order to examine the efficiency of the method.

The initial secret detention centers were limited in size and functionality since they were located mainly in small houses or in cellars. After the military coup, on march 24, 1976, the secret detention centers grew larger and were set up in civilian buildings (El motel - Tucumán province, Quinta Seré - Buenos Aires province), in police stations and offices (COT I Martínez, Monte Pelone - Buenos Aires province), in Army, Navy and Air Force bases (Campo de Mayo, the Navy Mechanics School, 7th Air Squadron of Morón - Buenos Aires province), and inside official prisons (La Ribera - Córdoba province).

Many of the secret detention centers were situated in old, run-down, and often disused structures. Some centers operated in buildings that were still under construction. The chosen sites were not renovated, but rather, adapted to their new purpose. The adjustments included setting up cells, in those centers where there were none, and installing torture rooms. The cells, both the communal ones (the 'lion's cage') and the individual ones (the 'tubes', approximately 2 metres by 1 metre), were frequently created by partitioning off the sections intended for the detainees. As a rule, the prisoners were put up in the least habitable areas of the detention centers: basements, attics, sheds, huts, stables, vacant garages.

All secret detention centers were jointly run by military, police and Gendarmería (armed border police in rural areas) personnel. However, to ensure the secrecy and isolation of the detention centers, it was essential to restrict the number of people involved in anti-subversive activities. Consequently, these operations were placed in the hands of special task forces. The task forces, which, in effect, controlled the secret centers, dealt with the following topics: intelligence, operations and logistics (handling the task forces' maintenance and financial administration).

The units in charge of intelligence obtained their information mainly through the methodical torture of the prisoners during interrogation sessions. Other sources of information were accusations, betrayals and counter-intelligence. On the basis of the information compiled, the members of these units decided who was to disappear (be 'arrested' or kidnapped), and issued illegal search and target (arrest) orders. The orders were then circulated to the operational units, along with the necessary background material regarding the 'suspect' - name, home address, type of neighbourhood, possible access and escape routes, local police station (for requesting a 'free zone', thus preventing any likely interference). The operational units planned and carried out the abductions. They also conducted searches in people's homes, stealing valuable property and destroying everything else. The abducted victims were taken directly to a secret detention center, where the intelligence units were waiting.

The task forces, comprised of officers and NCOs, were directly dependent on the military, each task force openly supported by its own headquarters and its own respective Commander-in-Chief. Army Task Forces 1 and 2 had their headquarters in the central office of the 601st Battalion of Army Intelligence. Task Force 3 depended on the Naval Intelligence Service (SIN). Task Force 4 depended on the Air Force Intelligence Service (SIA). Task Force 5 depended on the State Intelligence Service (SIDE). The task forces passed the gathered information on to these Intelligence Services in a detailed report describing the actual 'arrest' and interrogation procedures.

The guards in the secret detention centers, young conscripts and low-ranking personnel from the armed and security forces, were constantly under the responsibility of the task forces. They rarely took part in the centers' operations. Those who came into contact with the prisoners were not allowed to communicate with them. They brought the prisoners their food, they walked them, in handcuffs and hoods, to the bathroom or to the torture room, they transferred them from one center to another, and, on numerous occasions, they physically abused them. They were part of the victims' ordeal.

According to the witnesses who testified before the National Commission, the secret detention centers were closely supervised by high-ranking military officials. The Commanders of the Armed Forces, the police and the Gendarmería personally inspected the installations under their jurisdiction, interviewed prisoners and, in many cases, at one time or another, actively participated in torture sessions and mass executions.

The repression mechanism was enforced by the highest levels of Command: men like General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri (Commander of the 2nd Army Corps and later on the 3rd president appointed by the de-facto government), General Arturo Jáuregui (Commander of the 2nd Army Corps after Galtieri), General Reynaldo Bignone (the 4th and last president appointed by the de-facto government), General Antonio D. Bussi (governor of Tucumán province), General Ramón J. Camps (Commander of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police Headquarters), Admiral Massera (Commander of the Navy), General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez (Commander of the 3rd Army Corps), Gendarmería commander Agustín Feced (police chief), General Carlos Guillermo c. Suárez Mason (Commander of the 1st Army Corps), General Cristino Nicolaides (Commander of the 7th Corrientes Infantry Brigade), General Juan Bautista Sasiaiñ (Commander of the La Ribera secret detention center and later on the Head of the Federal Police).

The internal structure of the secret detention centers corresponded with the military's order to isolate this clandestine system of imprisonment. Funds (and sometimes food and equipment like cars, blankets, dishes) were provided by the military, but in terms of daily functions, the secret centers were self-sufficient.

The prisoners' section, as well as the torture rooms, occupied only part of a secret detention center. The rest of the space was usually allocated to the following purposes: dormitories for the guards and members of the task forces; an officers'/soldiers' lounge; toilets and showers for the staff; a kitchen where meals were prepared; a dining-room for the staff; an infirmary for treating ill and badly tortured prisoners whose interrogation was still underway (the more serious cases were briefly hospitalized in military facilities and then returned to the secret center); administrative offices belonging to the intelligence units of the task forces - file and documentation office, X-rays office, photographic and fingerprint laboratorty (the equipment in these offices, where information concerning prisoners and their acquaintances was being recorded and filed, was used to forge documents and certificates required for the illegal activities of the task forces); an operatios office where the relevant units of the task forces planned the abductions of 'suspects'; a storeroom where the task forces kept the goods stolen from victims' houses; a parking area and a garage for repairing the task forces' vehicles.

In the middle of 1979, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) visited Argentina in order to investigate reports about human rights violations and inspect the activities in some of the detention centers (La Ribera, La Perla, the Navy Mechanics School). In preparation for the visit, and in an attempt to deceive the OAS, the military government either modified, dismantled or completely demolished some of the secret detention centers.

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