River Plate wants to build there. Dictatorship survivors say it’s a burial ground

A decision to allow the football club to develop the Higher Navy School of Mechanics sports field is sparking complex questions about memory in Argentina

Argentina's River Plate Monumental Stadium. Photo: River Plate

Behind a fence and a set of low buildings in northern Buenos Aires, the secluded grassland of the Campo de Deportes ESMA is easy to miss. Spread across its seven hectares overlooking the Río de la Plata are sports fields where students at Argentina’s navy school used to train. From a nearby pedestrian bridge, the river glistens on the horizon. Faint cheers echo in the distance.  

However, behind this peaceful setting lies a history of terror. Testimonies say the sports field was used by the military to dispose of victims during Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. For decades, it was off-limits while its past was investigated. But the site hit the news in 2023 after Federal Judge Ariel Lijo granted River Plate football club permission to build a new training facility there.   

The sports field is a short distance from the Higher Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA by its Spanish initials), one of the dictatorship’s most savage detention centers, which today is a museum and memorial. Although the Navy originally used it as a training ground, military officers and survivors have testified that the military buried some of their victims in the field after burning their bodies — especially militants killed while trying to evade capture and detainees who died under torture.

Famed journalist Rodolfo Walsh is among those reportedly buried in the fields. He was kidnapped and taken to the ESMA in 1977 following a shootout with Navy officers. Witnesses have said he died from his injuries before he could be subjected to questioning or torture. 

The fate of the field has raised painful questions regarding the legacy of Argentina’s dictatorship. The country’s memory policies have been lauded worldwide, most recently with UNESCO’s 2023 decision to declare the ESMA Museum a World Heritage Site. But with specialists saying some dictatorship sites may yet be undiscovered, the issue of how to preserve them all — and whether this is feasible — is poised to become a crucial debate. 

A sports field turned burial ground

Testimonies about the military’s use of the field first appeared in 1979, when three ESMA survivors appeared before the French National Assembly and spoke of the dictatorship’s crimes. 

Former navy officer Adolfo Scilingo, the first member of the military to publicly acknowledge the existence of “death flights” during the dictatorship, mentions in his book Por siempre nunca más (Forever never again) that victims’ bodies were burned in a field behind the ESMA, an operation the military called asaditos (little barbeques).  

Officers and corporals have testified in trials since the 1980s that from the ESMA, they could see large fires in the field. At least two ESMA survivors have said their captors told them that other detainees who died under torture were buried there. Based on court documents and other testimonies, survivors have compiled a list of 36 people who were allegedly buried in the sports field. 

You may also be interested in: His military captors forced him to pose as a journalist for the 1978 World Cup

Judge Lijo’s decision was divisive among human rights groups. Many dictatorship survivors protested it, calling for the grounds to be turned into a memorial. However, the Human Rights Secretariat, led at the time by ESMA survivor Horacio Pietragalla Corti, signed off on the decision, provided one condition was met: that the respected Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF by its Spanish initials) be given six months to search the field for human remains. If anything is found, the River project must be halted. 

“Nobody informed us of the judge’s decision when it happened. We only found out later, when we started seeing the news on sports networks,” ESMA survivor Carlos Muñoz, one of the most active opponents of the project, told the Herald. “We were distraught.”

A long judicial battle

Map showing the location of the sports field, the River Plate stadium and the ESMA memory site

In 2003, painter León Ferrari filed a legal petition saying his son had been kidnapped during the dictatorship and taken to the ESMA. In response, a court ordered that the premises be preserved as evidence. Developing the land was forbidden. This was the starting point of three trials carried out to investigate and judge those responsible for crimes committed in the detention center. The last trial ended in 2017.

Today, the land belongs to the Defense Ministry, so River Plate requested use of the sports field via Argentina’s State Asset Management Agency (AABE, by its Spanish initials), which asked Lijo to lift the restriction. In his ruling, Lijo noted that he had asked the Human Rights Secretariat to weigh in on the issue, granting their request that the EAAF be brought in.  

Blueprints for River Plate’s facilities have circulated online, but a spokesperson for the club told the Herald the project would only be finalized once the judicial process is over. River also says it intends for the new facility to contribute to memory policies in Argentina.  

In 2023, at least two survivors’ groups asked Lijo to change his decision, but to no avail. The judge rejected them on the grounds that the deadline for objections had already passed. Muñoz and other survivors said they would also ask the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene.

Time, however, is running out. After multiple delays, a spokesperson for the current Human Rights Secretariat told the Herald that the EAAF team is now working on the site. If nothing is found, River could take over the premises.  

Muñoz is not hopeful about stopping the redevelopment. “I’ve given up hope. Too much silence, too much swimming against the current. Nobody cares. Well, actually, I should say that no one ‘important’ cares,” he said. 

Cover photo: River Plate’s stadium. Credit: River Plate


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