Forty-six years have passed since Hernán Abriata, then 24, was kidnapped from the flat where he and his wife Mónica lived on the night of October 30, 1976. He was taken to the ESMA, the former Navy Mechanical School in Buenos Aires, one of the biggest clandestine detention centres of the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
On December 21, Federal Court number 5 sentenced Mario Alfredo Sandoval to 15 years in prison for Abriata’s kidnap and torture. Sandoval has been detained in Campo de Mayo since December 2019, when he was brought back to Argentina through an extradition request after hiding in France for almost 40 years.
Sandoval’s role in ESMA
Back in 1976, Sandoval worked as a sub-inspector for the Argentine Federal Police. But he was also a part of the 3.3 task force, the group that carried out the kidnapping, torture, assassination and disappearance of civilians in the ESMA.
Aged 24 at the time, Abriata was an architecture student and a member of Peronist University Youth at the University of Buenos Aires. A message from him was discovered on the wall of the attic where he was held during the conservation process of the building in 2017. “H.A. [for his initials] Mónica te amo” (“Mónica, I love you”). But, to the day, the fate of Abriata after being kept in ESMA remains unknown.
Sandoval’s conviction comes as part of the ESMA VI trial, the sixth phase of sentences for crimes committed at the center. Former port workers Carlos Loza, Oscar Repossi and Rodolfo Picheni, who were also detained in ESMA between 1976 and 1977, gave testimonies that were essential to reconstructing Abriata’s passage through the facility.
Although Abriata’s family and their friends hope to find out what happened to him after being held in the ESMA, Sandoval refused to provide that information, claiming he was not the man they were looking for. However, during the investigation and trial, ESMA victims and witnesses including Mónica Dittmar, Abriata’s partner, testified that they recognized him.
The extradition process
Sandoval fled to France after the dictatorship, where he was granted citizenship. Upon his arrival, he worked as a security consultant for a company dealing with imports and exports for the airforce. He started to teach international security, starting out in small schools. Then, in 1999, he became a lecturer at the Institute for Latin American Studies, which is part of Paris’s prestigious Sorbonne university. Sandoval had no university education, nor any other educational credentials.
Rumors about his potential ties with the dictatorship arose in 2008, when Nora Vieiras published a story about him in the newspaper Página 12. In 2012, a federal court in Argentina requested his extradition. He was charged with 602 offenses relating to the dictatorship, including Abriata’s case. In 2019, a French court authorized the request. By that time, Sandoval had turned 66 and had lived in France for 34 years, leading a wealthy and comfortable life.
He spent the years between his arrival in Argentina and the end of his trial in the Campo de Mayo prison complex. Although he was known and recognized by many of the ESMA victims, he was only sentenced for taking part in the torture and kidnapping of Abriata. The Court denied the plaintiff’s request that he be tried for genocide.
In the trial, human rights organization, the human rights non-profit Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS, by its Spanish initials) participated as a plaintiff. Since Sandoval still receives his pension as a former police officer, they sought Sandoval’s expulsion from the police.
“We requested it formally from the Ministry of Justice,” Sol Hourcade, coordinator for the Memory, Truth and Justice area in CELS, told The Buenos Aires Herald. “We did it so that he’s no longer considered former police, and is administratively sanctioned for the severe damage he’s committed against human rights.”