Secret Detention Centers

Living Conditions

The horror which dominated the desaparecidos' lives began with their abduction. They were taken from their homes, from their places of work, from prisons, from hospitals, or off the street. The kidnappers - members of the operational units of the 'task forces' - were always heavily armed. They came without warning, usually at night, spreading terror and destruction. They beat up victims, vandalized houses and threatened witnesses to their illegal actions. Whether in uniform or in civilian clothes, they never presented any warrants authorizing them to make arrests, to conduct searches or to confiscate property. When they finally left the scene, their captives lying gagged, hooded and bound on the floor or in the trunk of the car, their next destination was one of the secret detention centers.

To be taken to a secret detention center meant to disappear. The military government consistently denied the existence of such clandestine centers, and Argentine authorities repeatedly disclaimed any knowledge of the men and women imprisoned there. The victims were physically and mentally isolated from the rest of the world. As unregistered detainees, they had no official status. They no longer existed.

The disappearance of people was only one aspect of the repression in Argentina. Every secret detention center was designed primarily as a torture center. The intelligence units were after names and addresses of dissidents allegedly involved in subversive activities. In order to extract such information from the prisoners, each detention center had at least one fully functional torture room (an 'operating theatre' or 'intensive therapy' room) run by professional teams of torturers. These rooms ordinarily contained an iron bed, a table, a tub or barrel filled with water, a battery-operated field telephone that generated electric currents (the faster the turning of the handle, the higher the voltage produced), and wires or electric prods of two different intensities: 125 volts (causing involuntary muscle movements and pain all over the body) and 220 volts (causing violent painful contractions, as though limbs are being torn off the body, inducing vomiting and leaving deep ulcerations in the flesh).

All the prisoners in the secret detention centers, regardless of their sex, age and physical condition, were taken to the torture room. During their interrogations, which were conducted by task force members, they were held naked and blindfolded, tied down to the bed (or the table) with their arms and legs spread open. They were tortured and beaten by invisible hands, and were questioned by anonymous voices who kept shouting insults and threats at them. Occasionally a doctor was present in the 'operating theatre' to prevent the untimely death of victims. Nevertheless, many prisoners died as a result of torture.

The forms of torture varied in correlation with the sadistic inclinations of the interrogators in charge. 'Softening up' sessions (beatings intended to persuade the victim to cooperate), the 'grill' or the 'machine' (electric shocks applied particularly to the temples, ears, gums, teeth, breasts and genitals of the victim), 'wet submarino' (immersing the victim's head in a container full of water until the person nearly drowned), 'dry submarino' (putting the victim's head inside a plastic bag until the person nearly suffocated), and 'burial' (burying the naked victims in the ground up to their necks for a few days without food or water) were routine procedures. Another common technique was to apprehend prisoners' family members and hold them as hostages. The prisoners were compelled to witness the torture of their relatives.

Punishment and torture in the secret detention centers were integrated, and excuses for intensifying persecutions were never-ending. Prisoners would be punished if they appeared non-cooperative, if they gave the wrong answers, if they seemed trying to avoid the touch of the electric prod, if they were caught talking to each other or sharing their food, if a terrorist bomb exploded somewhere in the country, if military bases were attacked by terrorists, if a soldier was killed. The punishments were always severe and capricious.

Torture in the secret detention centers was not confined to the interrogation rooms. Abuse became part of the victims' lives throughout the months, and sometimes years of their imprisonment. They were forced to remain bound and hooded ('walled up') from the moment of their abduction. Their handcuffs were almost permanent; the shackles on their legs were removed only when they were taken out of their cell, especially if the fetters were attached to the wall or to a collective chain. The hood was lifted only at mealtimes. They could not see the faces of their torturers, nor could they see the rubber truncheon or the electric prod approaching their body.

Waiting was another kind of torment. During the long periods of anticipation, the prisoners - hooded and chained - were made to sit or lie down on the ground of their cells in the same position from the time they woke up every morning and until they went to sleep at night. They were not allowed to move, not even turn their heads, unless ordered to do so. They were not allowed to talk among themselves under any circumstances: conversations, mutual assistance and solidarity were banned.

The determination to dehumanize the prisoners brought about a series of deprivations. The victims were forbidden to use their names (a prohibition that coincided with the government's demand for secrecy). They were identified only by numbers which they were given as soon as they arrived in the secret detention centers. They were told to remember their number, as they would always be called by it, whether to be tortured, to be transferred or to be walked to the toilet.

The most basic needs of the prisoners, such as eating and sleeping, were systematically denied in the secret centers. Generally, a meal consisted of either a boiled mate drink (no milk or sugar), some boiled cornflour (no milk or sugar), some soup (no meat or vegetables), or a piece of dry bread. The prisoners were usually fed once or twice a day, and in some of the centers, once every few days. Sleeping hours were just as irregular as mealtimes: detainees were wakened in the middle of the night to be interrogated and tortured, to be shot at in the course of simulated executions, to find their cells and matresses flooded with water, to be beaten and raped (a common crime, since abducted women were handled and supervised by male personnel).

The prisoners' hygiene was greatly neglected. Their clothes and their matresses were filthy with blood, vomit, sweat and urine. They were seldom permitted to shower, and in several of the centers, instead of showering, they were hosed down in groups. They were marched to the toilet twice a day - 'a train' of men and women in hoods, each one holding the person in front by the waist or the shoulders to avoid stumbling on the way. Detainees who needed to relieve themselves more often had no choice but to do it on the spot. Cleaning their cells and their toilets depended on the good will of the guards. When neglect led to lice infestations, people were sprayed with insecticides in order to solve the problem. The use of torture, the incessant beatings and the inhuman conditions caused the physical deterioration of the victims. Nevertheless, sickness and injuries did not prevent mistreatment. Medical care was given only in those instances where the autorities wished a certain person to live.

The disregard for the prisoners' well being was strikingly evident on the occasions of births in captivity. Babies of pregnant detainees were born under the worst sanitary conditions: in a shabby infirmary, on a kitchen table, on a corridor floor. These babies came into the world with little or no medical supervision. Women who went into labor were assisted mainly by their cell mates. If a midwife or a doctor were brought in, the delivery would take place in the presence of guards so that information concerning the prisoner (or the prison) would not leak out. The hood was not removed at any stage of childbirth. Many of the babies were taken away soon after being born. Their mothers disappeared from the secret detention center immediately afterwards. Today Argentine courts have established that babies of women who were pregnant at the time of their abduction were illegally adopted by senior officers of the Armed and Security Forces. The mothers are still missing.

Since prisoners were constantly threatened with death, the fear of dying accompanied their daily existence. Many of them experienced the horror of simulated executions when they were marched before a firing squad and led to believe they were about to be killed. They quickly learned to associate the word 'transfers' with death. Detainees who were of no further use to the task forces were destined to be transfered. They were taken away in groups, some of them after being sedated, to an unknown destination. Trucks left the secret detention centers loaded with people and returned empty.

Close to 30,000 men and women were 'transfered', and at the persent moment there is no information as to their whereabouts. There are only clues, and they confirm what has been claimed for the past twenty years: the task forces illegally executed abducted prisoners in the secret detention centers. The techniques for covering up the mass murders varied: prisoners were shot, and their bodies were burnt and then buried in unmarked communal graves; prisoners were drugged and flown over the ocean where they were thrown, often still alive, into the sea. These methods, which left no traces of the crimes commited, maintained the web of secrecy.

Whenever the bodies of victims could not be destroyed, they were thoroughly disfigured to hide the torture marks. Most of the bodies that reappeared under such circumstances were buried in nameless graves. On such occasions, the official cause of death was an 'armed shoot-out' or an 'escape attempt'. Everything was thought out and carefully carried to completion, including the concealment, or even destruction, of records and other documentation.

The work of the National Commission, however, could not be accomplished if it were not for those prisoners who, after months of torture and abuse, were released from the secret detention centers. Many of these victims were to be tried in a military court for their alleged criminal behavior - a process which led to a change in their legal status: they were finally registered as official prisoners and were then placed at the disposition of the National Executive. They were taken to an official prison to await trial, and their families were informed of their whereabouts. They were no longer disappeared.

Some of the victims were released from the secret detention centers in the same fashion they arrived there. After being warned not to talk about what they had gone through, they were unexpectedly taken by car to a street corner and let off. The hood and the handcuffs were removed at the very last moment, and the victims were ordered to look the other way and remain absolutely still or they would be shot. The anonymity of the oppressors was kept to the end.

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