At 20 and six months pregnant, Silvia Labayrú was kidnapped during Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983) and spent a year and a half in prison at the School of Marine Mechanics, the dreaded ESMA, the most important clandestine detention center for opponents of the regime.
There she was beaten, mistreated and raped. It was even transported to motels and military houses and was used for law enforcement agents to infiltrate a group of opponents. In the end, she was always sent back to prison. The girl, for example, was born in a makeshift delivery room.
Today, more than 40 years after his release, Labayrú, 64, celebrates the fact that, for the first time, an Argentinian court has convicted perpetrators of sexual offenses committed at ESMA, on the basis of statements made by her and two other former detainees. Captain Jorge “Tigre” Acosta, 80, and intelligence agent Alberto González, 70, are in prison convicted of more than 80 crimes of torture, murder and baby theft.
The conviction is also important in setting a precedent for the prosecution of the regime’s sex crimes as a separate crime. Previously, abuse was included in the torture figure. Labayrú, who has lived in Spain since leaving the detention center and where he studied psychology, spoke to Folha by video call.
How did sexual abuse happen at ESMA? There were different periods during the dictatorship. The sooner you were arrested, the worse it was. In my case, it was very hard, because I was kidnapped in December 1976 and I was in the detention center until June 1978. These were the years of lead.
It was established that the highest ranking officers had rights over the abductees. They said that the underlings, like the soldiers and the guards, did not have the right to share the spoils of the war, that we were the prisoners. But the point is, it has also happened. There were people raped in the cells and in the corridors, hooded, tied up, on mats, for several days.
The Navy gave a speech that the detention center was a recovery center. And, with that in mind, letting the rape happen would show that you were interested in the recovery process, that you didn’t hate them. The rape was not violent in the sense that we were beaten or had to give in because they had a gun on our heads. But because we knew that if we didn’t obey, they would throw us in the water [nos chamados “voos da morte”, em que prisioneiros eram vendados, drogados e lançados nas profundezas do rio da Prata] or kill our whole family.
During the time I was arrested my family was in the crosshairs, relatives were kidnapped. And we knew that many of our comrades were killed. So the threat was not an abstraction, it was something very real that we lived with. That’s why we gave in.
Was allowing yourself to be abused the price to pay for your daughter to be kept with you and not handed over to other families like over 500 babies did? The price we paid was for everything. Start by letting us live, by letting us eat. Letting them rape us was a fight for life, not a deal or a negotiation for any benefit.
Of those imprisoned at ESMA during the dictatorship, 5,000 were murdered, thrown into the Rio da Prata. I am one of the 200 who survived. [O almirante Emilio Eduardo] But it will be [líder da Marinha] he intended to be in politics after the dictatorship. Therefore, the idea that some militants would survive was welcome to him, because he could tell that the navy was not as bad, as cruel as the army and the air force, that the navy was more lenient with the prisoners and that she was trying to get them back. . It was a huge lie that, over time, was completely known.
Were you disappointed with what happened after freedom? Have you been prejudiced because you are a survivor? Yes, I had this experience very early on, I was in my twenties. I thought if I left ESMA everything would be easy. It was not. Today I know this is something that happens to anyone who survives such an experience. Authors like [o italiano] cousin Levi and [o espanhol] Jorge Semprun [que sobreviveram a campos de concentração nazistas] they dealt with this theme: when you are released you become an uncomfortable person because it is the memory of horror because you know things about the human condition that no one wants to hear.
There are those who believe that if you are alive it is because you did something terrible that you should not have done, such as whistleblowing. And those who are interested, but ask general questions, do not want to know the details, because they refuse to imagine that such a terror exists and that it could have happened to this person. It has accompanied me in exile for decades. They forbade me to go to the bars frequented by Argentines in Madrid, to participate in psychology associations, they obstructed me from the exercise of my profession.
What did you think of the fact that they finally resulted in a conviction of these repressors for sexual offenses? It seems unique to me that a country with such a precarious democracy as Argentina has been able to achieve this. I always say that human rights redress is the most exportable item we have.
The complaint, however, is old. I did it as soon as I left the field, in 1978, before the Argentine courts and the United Nations. Then, with the re-democratization and the end of the Councils [em que repressores e guerrilheiros, na gestão de Raúl Alfonsín, nos anos 1980, foram condenados], I came back to denounce. More recently, I also presented the indictment in the two criminal cases committed at ESMA.
The difference is that on these occasions, sexual abuse was not a separate crime. They were classified under the offense of torture. I always thought they should be a separate legal person. In 2014, under pressure from me and other victims, a separate trial was filed, and then I returned to testify.
What was different now? Justice has matured, times are different. The whole process of taking testimony, questioning and hearing took place in an atmosphere of extreme respect and in a technical manner. A team of women gender experts advised judges and prosecutors.
In the past, it was not like that. There was a via crucis that a woman faced for this type of denunciation. We always heard jokes, disrespectful remarks and innuendos from the magistrates which, in addition to dropping the accusations into a holey bag, discouraged women from talking about the subject. Many are ashamed to date, or are psychologically incapable. Having treatment like this is essential so that more women can report abuse.
I had only one inconvenience when the defense of the repressors demanded that an investigation be carried out on me to find in my body supposed traces of the abuse. Traces more than 40 years later! Fortunately, the request was denied. They did everything to make them wary of what I was saying. But my statements were very detailed, with details impossible to invent, in which I described how and where the abuse had taken place, with descriptions of places, addresses and dates.
You belonged to the Montoneros [guerrilha urbana de esquerda que se opôs à ditadura]. How do you position yourself politically today? I come from a high ranking military family, therefore conservative. I went to a very politicized college. Then it was in the 1970s, we felt the influence of the French May 68. I joined the Montoneros with the idea that we could change the world.
After my release from prison, I thought a lot. Today I am a person of the left, but of a democratic left, I no longer believe in the armed struggle as an answer to anything.
Do you believe that Kirchnerism politicizes human rights? Yes, politicians are using everything they can. On the other hand, they have credit. They started the trials. Alfonsín did this in the 1980s as well, but eventually backtracked. I do not know if another government would do it, but it is a fact that this one did.
Do you know a reaction from your attackers to this conviction? I had no contact with them, but learned that they were delighted that these facts were known. It is a pride for them and they do not regret anything. They just wish they had killed us. But I did not bring this action to have them spend more time in prison, but for there to be a condemnation and a recognition from the society that these sex crimes took place and that they did not stay. unpunished.
Silvia Labayru, 64 years old
Born in Buenos Aires, she was kidnapped during Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1976 and released in 1978, when she moved to Spain, where she studied psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid.