Argentine ex-navy officer convicted of torturing 300 people thanks to smuggled photo

Jorge Luis Guarrochena became the first person to be convicted of kidnapping children who were with their parents when they were detained

An Argentine former navy officer has been convicted of crimes against humanity after a photo smuggled by a detainee helped to prove his involvement in the atrocities.

Ex-navy lieutenant and Navy Intelligence Service member Jorge Luis Guarrochena was sentenced to life imprisonment for abuses committed against over 400 victims during the last civic-military dictatorship at the Higher Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA by its Spanish initials), the regime’s largest clandestine detention center. The verdict was announced during a trial session on Wednesday.

Víctor Basterra, a victim illegally detained in the ESMA between 1979 and 1983, was key to identifying Guarrochena. During his detention, he was forced to take pictures of dozens of officers, which were used to create fake documents. One of the pictures he took was of Guarrochena, posing as a federal police officer.

In the final months of his imprisonment, Basterra was allowed to leave the ESMA once a week, and managed to sneak out the photo negatives. His pictures and testimony, along with expert analysis, made it possible to prove that Guarrochena worked in the intelligence sector from 1982 to mid 1983, according to Argentine human rights organization CELS. Basterra died in 2020.

The Buenos Aires Federal Oral Court n°5 convicted Guarrochena of being the co-perpetrator of hundreds of crimes against humanity, including over 300 kidnappings, 100 murders, 300 cases of torture against political detainees, and the kidnapping of 44 children of the detainees. He was also convicted of rape and sexual assault.

While other officers had already been convicted for most of these crimes, Guarrochena was convicted of 25 offenses that had gone unpunished until now.

Children kidnapped for years

This is the first time a person has been convicted of kidnapping children who were with their parents when they were detained. These children were kept hidden at ESMA or other locations. 

“Some of those children remained kidnapped for days, months or even years, some alongside their parents, who were forced to do slave work,” federal prosecutor Félix Crous, who was in charge of the investigation, told the Herald

These children, unlike those who were appropriated by the military, were later returned to their families.

Guarrochena’s conviction ended the seventh trial of the ESMA mega-investigation, which has been going on for two decades. The verdict was announced at a courtroom in the presence of the plaintiffs, the accusing party and general public, but Guarrochena and the judges participated via video call.

“This sentence is key to prove the crucial role the navy intelligence had in the ESMA repressive circuit because of its cooperation to carry out the extermination plan designed by the navy,” wrote the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS by its Spanish acronym) on X. CELS was one of the plaintiffs, representing some of the victims’ families.

Guarrochena has been in pre-trial detention since 2018 at the 34th unit of the Campo de Mayo penal institute, where many other repressors are detained. This is the first time he has been tried for his crimes.

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Neither Basterra nor the other detainees knew Guarrochena’s real name. They identified him as “Raúl,” which Guarronchena said was a common name for officers in his rank. Another alias was “Carlos Alberto Encina,” which he claimed to have used while carrying out secret intelligence tasks during the 1982 Malvinas war.

Then, in 2010, his name appeared in a list provided to the judiciary by Carlos Capdevilla, a convicted military doctor who attended to illegally-detained mothers as they gave birth inside ESMA during the dictatorship. Capdevilla was key to the baby appropriation system.

The prosecutors’ office asked a team of army archivists to look for his personal file and other documents. There, they found his information matched the description Basterra had given of Guarrochena in 1984, when he approached CELS to provide the 70 pictures and other documents he had smuggled out of ESMA.

Most of the army archivists were recently fired and the program was virtually shut down. “This goes to show the importance of the team, which [Defense Minister Luis] Petri tore apart,” said Crous. “The armed forces don’t spontaneously collaborate; if you don’t request the information, they don’t give it to you, and that’s their way of covering things up.”

While Guarrochena denied having ever worked at ESMA during the trial, those files and Basterra’s testimonies proved otherwise. The files also showed he was working in the intelligence sector in close collaboration with the ESMA before the dictatorship started, according to Crous.

Three other repressors were indicted in this trial, but they all died before they were tried.


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