“It’s the army, open up!”
Someone was knocking violently on Jacobo Timerman’s door. It was the early morning of April 15, 1977, at the height of Argentina’s military dictatorship, and illegal detentions were taking place left, right, and center. Timerman, a prominent journalist and businessman, had feared for his life for months.
When he opened the door, 20 armed men entered and locked his sons, Héctor and Javier (then 23 and 15), in a room. The operation leader was Colonel Ramón Camps, head of the Buenos Aires Province police force, who wanted to “uncover a Judeo-Marxist conspiracy against Argentina.” The men took Jacobo to a clandestine prison, where they would torture him for two and a half years.
On Saturday, more than 46 years after the kidnapping, Argentina’s Human Rights Secretariat put that prison on the map with a commemorative event — the former Centre of Tactical Operations I (COTI, by its Spanish initials) in Martínez, a neighborhood in Greater Buenos Aires.
Standing at the entrance of what is now a police station, Javier Timerman read what his father wrote about his captivity. Approximately 200 people listened, including Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla Conti, as Jacobo’s words described the torture carried out there.
“Someone places a piece of rubber in the man’s mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue or destroying his lips. A brief pause. And then it starts all over again. With insults this time,” Javier read. “A brief pause. And then questions. A brief pause. And then words of hope. A brief pause. And then insults. A brief pause. And then questions.
“What does a man feel? The only thing that comes to mind is: ‘They’re ripping my flesh apart.’ When electric shocks are applied, all that a man feels is that they’re ripping his flesh apart.”
After reading, Javier visited the place for the first time in his life. He recalled the aftermath of the kidnapping.
“We started to research his location. We thought the Army had him, but they hadn’t made it official. My mother [Rische “Risha” Mindlin] and my older brother were desperate, trying to contact the government to say that they had imprisoned him, so he wouldn’t become a desaparecido,” he told the Herald.
A teenager at the time, Javier said he didn’t realize how important maintaining public awareness of his father’s kidnapping was. However, he remembers noticing that the Buenos Aires Herald, then under the direction of Robert Cox, was instrumental in getting the military junta to recognize his father’s situation.
“It was the only newspaper that, during my father’s captivity, published about him constantly and demanded the government to free him,” he said. “The rest of the press was completely complicit.”
Pressure from the US government, including a mention of the case by President Jimmy Carter during Jorge Rafael Videla’s visit to Washington, forced the military junta to place Jacobo under house arrest in 1980. Soon after, he went into self-imposed exile to Israel and the United States. The next year, Jacobo wrote Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, a book documenting the horrors of his captivity that was later made into a movie— the source of the excerpt Javier read out loud.
Speaking with the Herald, Javier also highlighted how his father “revolutionized journalism” in Argentina. “In a normal country, he would have been the director of a newspaper,” he said. According to Jacobo himself, his newspaper, La Opinión, was “economically right-wing, politically centrist, and culturally left-wing.” However, Javier said that Jacobo’s stance on non-violence was “too much” for the dictatorship.
“When he started to mention kidnappings and disappearances, that was the end of his newspaper,” he said. “The dictatorship detained him, took over the newspaper, and killed many of its journalists.”
‘We are going to have to fight’
Uruguayan activist Raúl Borrelli was also held at the COTI — unlike Jacobo Timerman, he remains a desaparecido to this day. Borelli’s sister Graciela spoke at Saturday’s event.
“‘Never Again’ is not just a slogan. It is built daily with actions like this,” she said, becoming increasingly emotional as she read the speech she had printed out. By the end, she was on the verge of tears.
Borelli also mentioned that society is enduring an “onslaught” from forces that want to “rebuild history” and say that the dictatorship was “the result of a war, thus denying the government’s responsibility in the infernal machine of terror.”
Pietragalla Conti also told attendees his story — he was abducted by the dictatorship and adopted by friends of the military under a false identity in a process known as apropriación or “appropriation.” He recalled how Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz — a high-ranking Buenos Aires Police intelligence officer convicted for homicide, torture and kidnapping — was close to his apropiadora or “adoptive” mother.
“He was my godfather,” he said. “These sinister characters represented the explicit perversion of the dictatorship, and they can’t be celebrated. Ever.”
The human rights secretary mentioned that many are worried about Victoria Villarruel, Javier Milei’s vice-presidential candidate, who has claimed the dictatorship’s documented crimes against humanity were the result of a “war against subversion.” For Pietragalla Conti, if human rights activists continue to give her opinions more visibility, people won’t vote for her.
However, Javier Timerman didn’t share the secretary’s optimism, arguing that society is “asleep.”
“Terrible times are coming. We are going to have to fight,” Javier told the Herald. “A lot.”
“A couple of years ago, questioning the fact that the dictatorship disappeared 30,000 people would have been stigmatized and something no politician could have recovered from. Today, people who praise the dictatorship are leading the polls and there isn’t generalized indignation about it.”
In fact, Javier thinks there are “much more” than 30,000 desaparecidos. His father died in 1999, 22 years after his kidnapping, and was never able to set it aside.
“It ate his life away and his wife’s, and it had a great impact on my family as a whole,” he said. “I consider myself to be a desaparecido — the family, the friends, every victim of state terrorism is a desaparecido.”
Javier said that society will have to fight “so we don’t end up in a repressive situation, and places like this go unmarked.” The audience applauded.
Next to him, the newly inaugurated sign said “A clandestine center of detention and torture operated here. 47 years after the latest civic-military coup, crimes against humanity do not have a statute of limitations, that’s why they are being judged to this day. State terrorism, never again.”