Argentinean Silvia Labayrú was 20 years old and five months pregnant when she was kidnapped and sent to the Escola Superior de Mechanica da Marinha (ESMA, its acronym in Spanish), the largest clandestine detention center of the Argentine dictatorship. In her first few weeks there, she was hooded, threatened, beaten. A baby gave birth in captivity, which was then snatched from his hands, and shortly afterwards the frigate captain Jorge Tigre Acosta told him that he must have sexual relations with an officer as proof of his “recovery”. After 45 years of that hell, Argentine courts sentenced the man who raped her, former intelligence officer Alberto González, to 20 years in prison. Acosta, González’s direct boss on the ESMA task force and instigator of this crime and others against two other prisoners, was sentenced to 24 years. Previously, these two repressors had already been convicted and were now serving a life sentence for other crimes.
Labayrú, who in 1978 went into exile in Spain, received the verdict accompanied by her son and close friends in a restaurant in Galicia. “Although it may seem paradoxical that I was eating lobster with white wine, this was a grand finale for me, I wanted to be in a situation of maximum happiness”, he tells by videoconference, hours after listening to the sentence being read through his computer. Tell that towards the end of the interview. Initially, when answering about his reaction to the sentence, he first speaks of “joy”, and then corrects himself: “I don’t know if that’s the word. I am satisfied”. He had doubts —“Because sometimes there is no correlation between social condemnation and justice”—but he left them behind: “I think it’s good that it’s a strong condemnation”.
His eyes widen to point out that the greatest gratification is “that there was a realization that in ESMA, as in other detention camps, women were systematically raped”. He recalls that journalist Miriam Lewin, who was also imprisoned at ESMA, has already detailed in her book Whores and guerrillas that sexual violence was part of the “prisoners crushing plan”. “There were many raped women, like me at ESMA, who, out of fear or for other reasons, did not report it. This sentence pleases me because perhaps it allows other women to think that it is possible to denounce and they are encouraged to do so if they know that they will be treated with respect by the Justice.”
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The complainants asked that the trial hearings be private, given the intimate nature of the facts reported and the pain of reporting them. However, Labayrú believes that after the conviction it is necessary to make the case public “to account for the complicity of certain sectors of society” with the dictatorship.
“González wasn’t satisfied with just raping me. He wanted me to be a sex slave to his wife too. He not only took me to motels but also to his house, where I was submitted to satisfy the couple’s sexual fantasies. This lady knew I was kidnapped. The couple’s daughter was one or two years old, and this happened five or six times. She was a slave to her desires and whims, and it was so traumatic that I didn’t even tell the people closest to me about it. It took me a long time to realize that I had also been raped by her”, she reveals.
Labayrú speaks slowly, but with a firm voice. She filed a complaint against González and Acosta for sex crimes in 2014, in a case that took six years to reach the trial stage, which concluded on Friday after 10 months of hearings. In them, the victim described from memory the scenario where she was humiliated: “I made a detailed description of the house because he took me with his eyes open. The first time I was convinced that they were going to murder me because they had let me see the building”.
“These gentlemen, in addition to annihilating militants and non-militants, used the State apparatus to rape, to appropriate our children and property and goods. They became a group of common criminals who raped, robbed and kidnapped, and part of society applauded them, knew them or turned a blind eye,” he says.
When she was released in 1978, she was surrounded by a cloak of suspicion. “In a field where some 4,800 people were thrown into the sea, and 200 survived, there was a prejudice against us and a mark: ‘Something must have done’”. That image began to change with the trials, as more and more cases surfaced than was a systematic plan of repression. But she recognizes that even today there is an indelible taste: “The survivor is always an uncomfortable, annoying, suspicious person, because we know things about the human condition that it is better not to know, we know what happens to the soul in a situation of extreme terror ”. For Labayrú, the memory of horror “is a lonely memory, because these experiences can hardly be shared with other people”.
Overcoming the tortures suffered was something that required many years of therapy and the help of friends and family. In her case, as she told the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, on his recent visit to the former ESMA, it was also useful “to have left hell to reach Transitional Madrid [do franquismo para a democracia]”. “It was the best restorative therapy I could have. I arrived at the right place at the right time”, he highlights. He went to live in the Spanish capital, where he rebuilt his life, but he never failed to give his testimony about the terror regime that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. The court has just confirmed that rapes and other sexual crimes were committed in this great center of tortures. Labayrú hopes that now more victims will be encouraged to speak.
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