The History of Torture
That Inferno: Conversations of Five Women Survivors of an Argentine Torture Camp
by Munú Actis, Cristina Aldini, Liliana Gardella, Miriam Lewin, and Elisa Tokar translated by Gretta Siebentritt
Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006, 302 pp., paperback
Truth, Torture, and the American Way
by Jennifer Harbury
Boston: Beacon Press, 2005, 227 pp., $14.00, paperback
Reviewed by Pamela Crossland
Argentina in the 1970s was torn apart by the civil and economic upheaval that followed the 1974 death of Juan Domingo Peron and the 1976 coup against the corrupt government of his widow Isabel. As head of the three-man military junta, Argentinean army chief Jorge Rafael Videla became de facto president. The other members of the unholy trinity were Air Force Commander General Orlando Ramon Agosti and Navy Commander Admiral Eduardo Emilio Massera. Suspected terrorists, especially those from the People’s Revolutionary Army and the Monteneros, became the junta’s prime target; they were kidnapped, tortured, and often killed in one of the 340 secret prisons scattered throughout the country. Some of the junta’s subordinates, such as Generals Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri and Carlos A Dallatera, trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia ((now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC).
Of all the prisons, the Escuela Mechanica de la Aramada (ESMA, or the Navy Mechanics School) had a reputation as the most brutal and notorious.. As Tina Rosenburg explains in her foreword to This Inferno,
In the 92 months of the school’s existence, the number [of prisoners] topped five thousand. Several hundred survived—tortured and released after a few days. Fewer than a hundred were…keep for years in a bizarre, hellish zoo. The others who passed through the school…—the vast majority of whom had never taken up a gun—died in torture or were thrown from an airplane into the sea.
That Inferno is the story of five women who survived years of incarceration at ESMA. Together, Munú Actis, Cristina Aldini, Liliana Gardella, Miriam Lewin, and Elisa Tokar have carefully documented the topography of their personal terror: the layout of the building, the names and photographs of their torturers, the torturers’ slang, and the slang of the prisoners. Chillingly, ESMA was hidden in plain sight on the Avenida del Liberator, a main street in the center of Buenos Aires; passersby did not suspect what was going on behind its walls. In part, the women survived because of the Monteneros Gray Matter project, the brainchild of Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, which used prisoners as “enslaved intelligence” to advance their oppressor’s goals. Although being selected for such work guaranteed a prisoner nothing, not even her life, it somewhat improved her odds of survival.
For each of these women, life at ESMA began with what they all describe as a “fall”—a kidnapping or illegal detention. They fell into the hands of the enemy, they fell out of luck—they became prisoners. Some militants had “the pill”—arsenic or cyanide—which would give them the dignity of choosing their own death—as long as the pill wasn’t discovered and taken from them during their interrogation, as happened to Munú Actis. Cristina Aldini describes how she attempted suicide after her “fall” by breaking a ring in half and inserting the halves into an electrical outlet. Such attempted suicides drove the captors crazy, because it threatened to deprive them of control over their victims.
The guards made every effort to break down the prisoners: they hooded them, bound them, beat them, shocked them with electric prods, deprived them of sleep, submerged them in water, and forced them to watch as friends and family members were tortured or killed in front of them. (Although the women refer to submergence, they don’t describe it in detail. Most likely it is the same or similar to the “waterboarding” technique used on prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanemo). A women might be awakened in the middle of the night, given the impression that she was about to be killed, and instead taken out to dinner. The group remembered an unnamed woman who was taken to a nightclub after her husband had been killed and she had been tortured with the electric prod. Actis recalls being taken to celebrate the 1978 World Cup Soccer match; she and several other women were offered a choice between going out with marinos [sailors] or death. Said Actis:
The outside world became even more unbearable, the subjugation was laid bare in all its cruelty: Go out, see the world, see life, and now, go back to the Basement; I own you.
While imprisoned, the women began to manifest classic symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome. The causes of this psychological syndrome can include abduction; isolation; physical threats; sexual abuse; blindfolds, boxes, or hoods that block out daylight; reduction of food and water; threats of harm to family and relatives; and threats of transfer to more severe captors. These kinds of traumas can cause prisoners to feel dependent upon their captors for their lives and sometimes even fall in love with them. Miriam Lewin describe the experience:
Relationships between prisoners and jailers have existed throughout the history of humanity…I think that essentially there was the possibility of two types of feelings toward the kidnappers as “men”: either repugnance or the feeling of being protected by one of them. Maybe some compañeras became confused by the latter. This was clearer in the air force or in other camps, where the isolation was absolute. They tortured you; they didn’t feed you; they didn’t let you go to the bathroom, you shit on yourself in the cell; you vomited there; you menstruated and stained everything; you had no light, no air. And suddenly the guy took you to bathe; he brought you the Bible, a café au lait and two croissants; he asked you whether you believed in God, what you did on Saturday nights when you were free. It caused a bewildering feeling of gratitude.
Patty Hearst is the most well known example of Stockholm Syndrome in the United States. Just as she participated in a bank robbery, the women sometimes had to go out on scouting expeditions, finding potential kidnapping victims for their torturers. And like Hearst, Lewin related that she was forced to make a videotape proving she was “recuperated”:
They made me sit down at a desk in front of a video camera, wearing a wig, all made up, and wearing glasses. They made me write something about what my native land meant, what God meant, and the family. I had to read it on camera. It was surreal.
This Inferno comprises transcripts of taped discussions among the women that tooke place over three and a half years. The women did not initially intend to write a book; they just knew they had to create a record of what had happened to them in the ESMA. They decided to remember together, because they believed their survival had been a collective undertaking. Some of them knew each other from the EMSA; others were survivors whose times there did not overlap. They explain:
We decided to limit our group to women, because our experience in the concentration camp was colored in special ways by our gender, nudity and humiliation, sexual harassment by our oppressors…For our male companeros, the time spent in the ESMA surely evoked different types of feelings.
The format lends a unique voice to these women, but it is not without drawbacks. They assume readers know the details of contemporary Argentinean history. It can be difficult to keep track of each woman’s particular experience. They omit some specifics and recount others far apart. It can be difficult to piece together when and how each woman “fell,” when she was released, who testified in front of which foreign courts, when the trials of the junta members were held, and what their outcomes were. Many of their tormenters were pardoned or given ridiculously light sentences. Orlando Ramon Agosti was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison and was pardoned before serving the entire term. Emilio Massera, convicted of several cases of homicide, false arrest, torture, and torture resulting in death, was given a life sentence and released after serving four years. Jorge Videla was convicted of the same charges as Massera and also released after four years.
Sharing their stories transforms the women from victims of a brutal regime into historians with unique perspectives. Because the state and other institutions delegitimized their suffering by pardoning their tormentors, they felt it even more important that history not be written solely by the winners. Their stories remind future generations that torture and abuse are neither necessary nor justified.
Jennifer Harbury’s story is no less shocking than that of the survivors of ESMA, and it strikes closer to home. Harbury’s husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez (nom de guerre Everardo) was a high-ranking Mayan resistance leader in Guatemala when he vanished during a battle in March 1992. Guatemalan army officers reported his suicide, but Harbury did not believe them and began to investigate. She discovered that her husband had been seen as late as June 1992 by Santiago Cabrera Lopez, a man who had served with her husband for many years. She had Everardo’s grave exhumed to find not her husband’s remains but those of a much younger man. Unable to learn more through government channels she tried a more drastic way of drawing attention to her husband’s case:
By late 1994…I sat down in front of the Guatemalan National Palace and declared a hunger strike to the death. I stayed there for thirty-two days, as congressional inquiries mounted…After nearly four weeks a 60 Minutes program aired, reporting a CIA memo to the embassy which confirmed Everardo’s capture.
Harbury then filed a Freedom of Information Act demand for additional records, but received no information beyond the official story that her husband had been captured alive and not seriously wounded—though she was instructed to assume he was dead.
Harbury resumed her hunger strike in March 1995, this time in front of the White House. Twelve days later, then U.S. representative Robert Torricelli publicly stated that U.S. intelligence files confirmed Everardo’s murder. Torricelli also denounced the startling “asset relationship between the CIA and Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez,” a School of the Americas graduate. If Alpirez’s salary is anything to go by, CIA informants are well paid. Alpirez received $44,000 for June 1992, the month when Lopez saw him bending over Everardo’s bound, swollen body.
Everardo’s case is not an isolated one, as Harbury documents in her gripping book, which leads from her own personal tragedy to Abu Ghraib prison, providing evidence that these abuses were not the isolated follies of undisciplined troops. Their methods of torture and intimidation, from the use of dogs to putting prisoners in a torturous position known as the “Viet Nam,” were standardized. From Iraq to Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Central and Latin America to Vietnam, the United States has used torture on a wide scale. Harbury says,
Our long-standing intelligence methods fall far beyond even the outermost limits of our Constitution. The denial of toilet privileges and painful positions have already been struck down in the penal context. The water-boardings, electric shocks, suffocations, and severe beatings are unthinkable. In short, the CIA has been making a mockery of traditional American values and legal principles.
In 1948, the United States signed the four Geneva Conventions that forbid torturing either prisoners of war and civilians. Torture is against US military law and civil law; indeed, members of the military have been charged and found guilty of misconduct in matters of torture, as have FBI agents. President Bush pledged in 2002 that all prisoners would be treated humanely, but in the same year, Alberto Gonzales, now the attorney general, stated that CIA agents were not bound by that pledge.
Harbury does a good job of integrating survivor testimony about CIA involvement in South and Central America, where it oversaw and paid for torture. The story of Everardo is less clear; she seems to presume anyone reading this book has read her previous book, Searching for Everardo, which makes for some confusion. Harbury is passionate in her devotion to husband’s memory, and her chapter regarding international prohibitions against torture is interesting, though she does not always make clear which treaties the United States has signed or affirmed. Nevertheless, she presents sufficient documentation to prove without question that as a country, the US can neither condone nor legally participate in prisoner abuse.
Both of these books are insightful and painfully honest. What ties them together are the horrible abuses the victims of torture share, and their collective and individual bravery in telling their stories. The national security policy of the United States must never include making acceptable that which has never been considered normal or decent. As Harbury points out, torture is not performed by a few rogue solders. It is a learned behavior. It is important to note that while the CIA was not explicitly referred to in That Inferno, both books mention leaders who were trained at the School of the Americas, a failing that will haunt this country for years to come.
Pamela Crossland is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Colorado. She holds a Master of Science degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology.