In a new exhibition, 28 women recall harrowing tales of rape and sexual abuse, carried out on detainees held at the former Navy Mechanics School during the military dictatorship. This is one woman’s tale.
It was the only the second time Graciela García Romero had entered the
former Navy Mechanics School since
her release in 1978. Her hands were
sweating. She was nervous about returning to that infamous place, where she had
been illegally held during the last military
dictatorship (1976-1983). The memories
kept flooding back.
Today, the site where Graciela was tortured, raped and abused is now a memorial. Today, she returned for the inauguration of a new exhibition detailing the
sufferings experienced by women in the
country’s most infamous clandestine
detention centre, more commonly known
The exhibition, Ser Mujeres en la ESMA
(“Being Women at ESMA”), retrieves her
testimony and that of 27 other women
who, like Graciela, suffered sexual violence while they were held captive.
Graciela only came forward in 2007 to
report what had happened at ESMA, accompanied by lawyers Carolina Varsky
and Pablo Llonto.
As Federal Judge Sergio Torres pointed
out, when he indicted Jorge Eduardo
Acosta in 2009 for his crimes, it took 30
years for her to build up the courage and
dare to testify.
“When we were released, we were a
bomb about to explode. Nobody wanted
to get close,” said Graciela in an interview
with the Times, a few days after the opening, at a café in Barrio Norte.
“We have to tell how badly those of us
who were accused of being collaborators had it – and how being raped was
associated with that.”
Graciela García Romero was
kidnapped on October 15, 1976,
in Buenos Aires City. After she
was detained, she spent more
than a month in the area called
a “capucha”, lying on the floor
with her head covered with a
hood. Sometime later, she was
moved to another space on the
It was there she came to learn
the meaning of the phrase: “544,
downstairs.” Every time a guard
said it, she shrank inside. It
meant one of the officers would
come and rape a fellow detainee.
‘544’ was the identity that person had been ascribed within
ESMA, dehumanising the prisoner and erasing their identity.
A memory returns to her as
she talks. Once, she recalls, she
was with three other female
prisoners when a retired naval
captain, Francis Whamond,
“Which personal care products do you want?” he asked
“We looked at each other and
thought he had gone mad,” Graciela recalls. “But [in fact] they were preparing us for them.”
How many of her comrades
“I think that all the female prisoners who were held at ESMA
in 1976 were raped. In that year
they didn’t hide the crudity of
the extermination,” she responds.
“The operation of the concentration camp changed in
1977, when the Montoneros’
finance arm was abducted. At
that moment the repressors’
sexual drive was softened, and
they focused on money. That’s
what they effectively did: steal,”
One day she was taken down
to the office of Jorge “Tigre”
Acosta, a Navy captain the
head of the ESMA taskforce.
There was little light in the
room. He was wearing a light
blue T-shirt and had a piece of
cake in front of him, Graciela
“Do you want some?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. She was
starving. For months she had
eaten had sandwiches with rotten meat.
Acosta, who is now serving
life in prison for numerous human rights crimes, spoke for
several minutes. Eventually he
said: “Well, tomorrow I’m going
to get you out of here.”
Graciela knew what was coming. The next day she was
taken to an apartment used by
There they would rape them,
use them, and later return them
to the concentration camp.
Shortly after she was abducted, Graciela was taken to a holiday home with other prisoners. Acosta and other naval
officers were also there.
“Well, pick your couple,” ordered Captain Acosta.
Since none of them moved, he
was the one who decided the
For Graciela, the sexual violence committed at the ESMA
was planned. In their book on
the subject, Putas y Guerrilleras, authors Miriam Lewin and
Olga Wornat state that Captain
Raúl Scheller, who died in 2015,
told a US investigator that Acosta had ordered the officers to
seize female prisoners.
“There is also something that
has been left unsaid, namely
what it meant to be gay in the
clandestine centre,” adds Graciela. “I was one,” she adds.
After her release from ESMA
in 1978, the repressors kept an
eye on her. She was forced to
work at the Foreign Affairs and
Social Welfare Ministries,
along with other prisoners.
“During that time, they took
me twice to see Acosta. The last
time I dared to tell him that I
didn’t want to see him anymore,” she remembers. “I didn’t
care if he killed me. To my surprise, Acosta told me that the
same thing had been said to him
by another comrade.”
“Be careful, Negrita, with women. They can hurt,” he told
“His words confirmed what I
thought: he was tapping my
communications,” she says today. “Acosta separated me a lot
from the rest of the comrades.
It’s obvious there must have
been other gay comrades, but I
didn’t see them. It must have
been one more reason why they
In the years that have passed
since those dark days, democracy did not heal the wounds
of the survivors. Graciela lived
with the stain of being a survivor, of having been picked to
integrate a group within the
ESMA (a small group of prisoners whom repressors labelled
as ‘collaborators’), of having
had a relationship with Acosta
that she did not choose.
“I lived in isolation for a long
time. A colleague told me to go
to the Argentine Forensic
Anthropology Team [EAAF in
Spanish]. There a group was
formed, and we used to meet on
Wednesdays to make lists of
people seen at ESMA. The next
day, I was always sick.”
That’s how she met Carolina
Varsky, a lawyer at the Centre
for Legal and Social Studies
(CELS). Varsky asked her if she
wanted to sue Acosta.
“At the time the complaint
was filed, sexual crimes were
invisible,” says Varsky, currently the coordinator of the
Against Humanity Office. “The
survivors had referred to these
offences before the National
Commission on the Disappearance of Persons [Conadep in
Spanish] and the courts during
the Junta trial and the proceedings against Héctor Febres
(2007), but nobody was investigating them.”
The challenge was, as Judge
Torres explained, to separate
sexual crimes from torture in
order to make them visible and
to demonstrate that it was also
a systematic practice that
sought to debase women.
Difficulties in prosecuting
sex crimes continue. According
to statistics from the office coordinated by Varsky, only 12
percent of the sentences condemned sexual abuse. Neither
Acosta nor any other ESMA
repressor has yet been convicted of these crimes.
The exhibition about the women who were kidnapped in the
ESMA was curated by journalist Alejandra Dandan. Its
gathers sworn testimonies
from 28 survivors about forced
nudity, sexual violence and
childbirth in the clandestine
centre. Graciela’s is one of the
testimonies making up the exhibition, which can be visited
until June 14.
At ESMA, it is estimated that
there were 5,000 illegal prisoners detained between 1976
and 1983. So far, investigators
have found the names of 360
women held there and four baby-girls born in captivity.
“The script of the museum
did not speak of women. We
have taken care of that,” said
Alejandra Naftal, the director
of the museum, at its opening.
“This exhibition is an appeal
from the present to the past.”