Argentina’s Navy School of Mechanics was the largest clandestine torture and extermination center during the country’s last dictatorship. On Tuesday, the museum and site of memory that commemorates the spot was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The decision was announced Tuesday morning at the World Heritage Committee’s 45th Convention in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
During the presentation of the site’s recommendation, experts from the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) said that the inclusion of the ESMA museum was important because of “the scale, complexity and transnational coordinated nature of the events that took place at this property.”
They also commended Argentina’s work to bring forward the nomination of the site.
After the ESMA museum and memory site’s inclusion was announced, the Argentine delegation to the convention hugged as applause rang through the hall.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a United Nations cultural agency dedicated to the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage of exceptional value to humanity.
Nearly 5,000 people were detained and disappeared at the Officers’ Quarters building in the former Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA, by its Spanish initials). Tortured and kept captive in inhumane conditions, many of them were injected with sedatives and thrown alive into the sea. One of the Navy airplanes used in these “death flights” was recently discovered and repatriated by the government to be put on display at the museum.
Since many of the disappeared women at ESMA were pregnant, their babies were born in captivity, separated from their mothers at birth, and illegally appropriated by military families and acquaintances. Thanks to the decades-long effort of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, 133 grandchildren have already been found, and their identities restored.
The Grandmothers estimate that hundreds of them, now adults in their mid-forties, are unaware of their true identities.
The ESMA Museum and Site of Memory was inaugurated on May 19, 2015 in the old Officers’ Quarters building. It was the result of a long struggle by human rights organizations to preserve the place as judicial evidence of the crimes committed there by the last civil-military dictatorship.
Despite the atrocities committed there, the School continued to operate in the building until 2004. It took three years to finish vacating all Navy institutions from the complex.
The road to the World Heritage List began in 2015, when the Argentine government began negotiations with UNESCO. In 2017, the World Heritage Center included the ESMA Museum on its tentative list.
In late February, the inspector of the International Council of Monuments and Sites visited the property and reviewed the state of conservation, integrity, authenticity and management of the museum. A report from the visit informed the committee’s decision.
The Argentine delegation in Riyadh was headed by Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla Corti, ESMA Museum executive director María Marcela ‘Mayki’ Gorosito, and the general coordinator of the Work Plan for the candidacy of the ESMA Museum, Mauricio Cohen Salama.
The ESMA Museum was on the list with 16 candidates for cultural assets, together with La Maison Carrée de Nimes in France; the ancient city of Si Thep in Thailand; the Sacred Complexes of the Hoysalas in India and the Nyamata, Murambi, Gisozi and Bisesero Genocide Memorial Sites in Rwanda, among others.
Argentina has 11 properties on the World Heritage List. Five are natural, including the Iguazú Falls and the Los Glaciares National Parks. The other six are cultural, including the Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy and the Jesuit Missions of the Guaraníes in Misiones.
The public can visit the ESMA Museum’s permanent exhibition, which consists of 17 rooms. In 2022, the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory received 44,443 visitors. Of these, 63% were middle and high school students and teachers.