Giselle Figueroa ’23 – Blog Post 3

My last two weeks in Argentina were spent with the committee against torture. During weeks 5 and 6, I visited four prisons in the Florencio Varela and Lomas de Zamora complexes with the Unidad Temática de Intervenciones Complejas (Complex Interventions Unit of the Committee Against Torture). This specific unit of the CPM focuses on complex cases relating to extreme isolation, health issues, and mental health issues.

On week 5, when I visited the Florencio Varela complexes, there was one common aspect to all of the inmates we interviewed—they had all had a lack of substantial medical assistance within the prison system. The first male we interviewed on our trip to Varela claimed he had swallowed a razor blade in order to receive his prescribed medicine. During our interview, he seemed to be in distress about his lack of medicine. “I’m not asking for my medicine because I’m an addict, I am asking for it because I need it to survive,” he stated. He showed us self-inflicted cuts on his arms. This case shows just how inadequate the medical systems are within the Buenos Aires prisons. Inmates feel the need to go to extremes to get the medical attention they need, going as far as putting their lives at risk. A few days later, I overheard one of the leaders of the UTIC team speaking to this same inmate on the phone. The inmate was once again threatening to self-harm, the UTIC member tried to calm him down and reassure him that they were trying their best to present his habeas corpus. The patience with which the UTIC member managed this situation was admirable and showed the close connection that the team has with each of their cases.

Another example of the prison system’s inadequate medical system is that related to the process of setting up appointments for inmates. Another inmate from Varela claimed that SPB officers, the correctional officers, had scheduled an appointment for him to get x-rays for his leg; however, they failed to mention to him that he had a appointment. He was in a morning bible study class when they called him to get on the bus for his appointment. He claimed that he quickly ran to his room to get some things he needed, taking no more that 5 minutes. When he met with the SPB officers to leave for his appointment, they had him sign a paper stating that he had willingly decided not to attend said appointment. He signed the papers because the officers gave him an attitude—he said their demeanor made him think that if he refused to sign, they would beat him. Thus, he missed his appointment and had to continue dealing with sharp pain in his leg. This case demonstrates SPB’s general carelessness regarding the wellbeing of the inmates. They purposely allowed this inmate to miss his appointment and showed that they do not care that an inmate had to deal with extreme discomfort as a result of their negligence.

On week 6, I visited the last prison of the trip at UP 40 in Lomas de Zamora. This prison was co-ed, separated between male and female complexes. Here, I visited a woman who had been in solitary confinement (SAC) over a year. She claimed the last time she was in the general population area of a prison was in November 2020 in the Magdalena complex. She had remained in SAC partially due to constant transfers from prison to prison. Her cell had one small window that allowed little light to shine through, a concrete latrine covered by a piece of cardboard to avoid smells and bugs, and a blanket covering a large opening on the bottom part of the metal cell door to prevent rats from coming into the cell. She claimed that she was only allowed one hour outside of her cell to shower, use the patio, and clean. The CPM considers the use of SAC as a human right violation, and the UTIC team arranged to present this woman’s case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because of her prolonged period in SAC.

Working with UTIC the last few weeks at the CPM allowed me to see just how much the team cares about each of their cases and the people they are filing motions for. They have a more personal connection with the inmates because of the complexity of their cases, and they take the time to listen to the needs of the inmates and suggest the best course of action. Their work goes beyond the in-person interviews because they have contact with many of their cases daily as the inmates keep them updated with changes to their lives. Overall, this experience further emphasized the importance of choosing a career that you are passionate about. Every day, I looked forward to going into the office because I knew that the work I was doing, even if it was something simple like translating or uploading documents to a server, was contributing to improving the lives of others.

The outside of UP 23, one of the many prisons in the Florencio Varela complex. We visited three out of the four units in the Florencio Varela area. These prisons are all close to one another.
The outside of the prison’s hospital unit outside of UP 23. This healthcare system serves inmates that need quick hospital work such as x-rays.
The inside of UP 40. The inside of the complex is split into the men’s region (left) and the women’s region (right).
The inside of a SAC cell in UP 40. The cardboard is used to prevent smells from the latrine and to keep out insects. The average SAC cell measures about 3 by 3 meters—they are built to hold one person, but, because of overpopulation in the prison system, in some cases may hold up to 4 or 5 people.
Laina, Giselle, Malena, Astrid, and Emmy in the William & Mary aula at the CPM on our last workday of the trip.

Laina Lamont ’24 – Entry #3 – Week Six

I did not expect to feel culture shock when I returned to the United States. In many ways it felt like we were in Argentina forever. I had finally adjusted to my daily routine and to the pace of life in La Plata. In other ways it felt like we had just arrived. There were still moments when I felt like such an outsider, particularly as I still stumbled over words in Spanish on my last day at the Comision. Still, it is crazy to think about how much I have changed in just six weeks.

My last week absolutely flew by. I finally went to visit the vibrant neighborhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires. Every restaurant had live music and a couple performing the tango. I hope that I will have the chance to come back to Argentina one day to see a Boca Juniors game. I finally bought my own mate while in Buenos Aires. My host mom helped me cure it. It blows my mind that we don’t drink yerba mate in the United States and that many people have never even heard of it. It is funny how different cultural norms can be around the world and how much my own habits have changed. I am really excited to introduce my friends and family to mate.

When Daniel and I went into Buenos Aires again on Thursday we saw the weekly protest that the Madres de Plaza de Mayo hold in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada. While there were only a dozen or so people marching, it was still so powerful to hear the names of the disappeared read as the group made laps around the Plaza. One Mother, who had to be at least 90, was pushed in a wheelchair. After they finished reading the names, the group congregated on one side of the Plaza as the Madre spoke.

On our last day at the Comision, we put together the physical version of the biographies we have been working on over the past six weeks. At first I was a little uncomfortable with decorating a booklet that talks about how someone was imprisoned and tortured. On the surface, it felt a little insensitive. Malena and the other people at the Comision did not feel that was the case. Instead, they saw these booklets as an artistic and engaging way to honor someone’s life. I had never thought about memory work in that way before.

We all cried when we said our last goodbye to Malena. I did not expect to feel as emotional as I did as we walked out of the doors of the Comision for the last time. I was especially emotional when we said goodbye to our host mom, Roxana. Astrid and I cooked “breakfast for dinner” for Roxana and her two sons, Camilo and Fermin, on our last night. They had never had pancakes before. My host mom carefully wrote down the recipe in her journal as I cooked. Camilo and Fermin spoke some broken English, which mostly consisted of references to movies and TV shows.

I accidentally said “gracias” to the cashier at the Charlotte airport. It took me a second to realize my mistake. I was floored that using Spanish had become like second-nature to me in just six weeks. That was when it hit me just how far my language skills have come since I first arrived in La Plata. I remember the panic I felt in my first few weeks when someone would ask me a question. Even something as simple as ordering food felt so uncomfortable. It is mind blowing that now, in the airport in the United States, I did it without even thinking.

I am so incredibly grateful to William & Mary, Professor Tandeciarz, Malena, Diego, the Reves Center, Charles Center, Government Department, Global Research Institute, Hispanic Studies Program, Public Policy Program, my host mom Roxana, and everyone we met in La Plata for giving me this incredible opportunity. I know that I will carry the experiences I had in Argentina with me for the rest of my life.

La Boca is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, even though it is by far the most touristy!
Me, Astrid, and our host mom, Roxana.
One of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
One of the biographies I worked on was for a young man named Hugo Roberto Serenelli. Here is a photo of me with the final product.
Me, Giselle, Malena, Astrid, and Emmy on our last day at the Comision.

Daniel Posthumus ’24 – Blog #3


The conclusion of my internship with the sitios team was a whirlwind. We largely focused on honing the biographies we had written about the victims of the military junta—for me, María Cristina Lanzillotti and Víctor Vázquez. Telling these stories can be a delicate task. As I wrote in my previous blog post, emphasizing the individuality of the victims while recognizing that these crimes were hardly personal in intent but instead were part of a deliberately-planned genocide that touched every sector of society.

Part of this balancing act is placing the victims’ stories in a larger context and highlighting how their persecution fit into what the junta was seeking to achieve through genocide and repression. María Cristina Lanzillotti’s story is part of the junta’s brutal persecution of university students in the political opposition. The junta planted propagandic stories in newspapers about María Cristina’s husband murdering an elected official.

María Cristina Lanzillotti

This false story is part of a larger pattern of propaganda the junta created to justify brutal tactics towards its opponents, such as members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT) and the Revolutionary Army of the Republic (ERP)—both of which included María Cristina and her husband among their ranks. Through this, the junta isolated its political opponents from the rest of society.

We encountered an excellent example of this isolation when we visited a memory site in La Plata in which the junta brutally murdered another family of political opponents, in a very public and gruesome display in an upper-middle class neighborhood. By falsely justifying its crimes, the junta demarcated a line between the “lawless” and the “lawful”—removing any stake those not persecuted felt in the fate of the persecuted. Thus, despite the plethora of neighbors who witnessed the brutal murder, they didn’t speak out because of fear and they felt they didn’t have a stake in the outcome. Understanding the junta’s strategy to create the conditions that enabled their human rights violations is critical for understanding how we can prevent human rights violations.

Víctor Vázquez

Víctor Vázquez’s story is part of a longer tradition in Argentina—the brutal repression of organized labor. Víctor devoted his entire life to the cause of labor, through his participation in the Communist Party of Argentina and the railroad union. He rose to amazing heights and ran in nationwide union elections. He was also arrested on nearly a dozen occasions, by the repressive forces of multiple military dictatorships that ruled the country. He had suffered persecution at the hands of many, revealing how the junta built upon on the tradition of the repression of previous military dictatorships.

Víctor’s story also revealed how different the repression of the junta was, in contrast to that of previous dictatorships. As Víctor’s granddaughter told me, Víctor’s disappearance was particularly brutal in that the family had no closure over the fate of their beloved. The 30 Thousand Disappeared faced a brutal fate as the junta embarked on an unprecedented campaign of genocide and disappearances. Víctor’s story also reveals how widespread the repression was, touching every single sector of society. It’s important to illustrate the variety of stories of the disappeared, to demonstrate the humanity that distinguishes one victim from another.

These instructions for storytelling and more mechanical help with our Spanish were crucial in the final week of the internship. One thing I loved about my internship was that I didn’t just learn a series of technical skills or learn a set of facts about human rights, but instead learned a whole host of ephemeral challenges associated with maintaining and protecting human rights. Collective memory is as important for preventing the re-occurrence of abuses as anything else, and collective memory isn’t an algorithm and doesn’t require a regression model to solve. Instead, it requires something more difficult, recognition of feeling. I was incredibly honored and happy to have this experience and learn what only such an in-depth and immersive experience could have instilled in me.

Laina Lomont ’24 – Week Four Blog Entry

One of the most powerful parts of studying abroad is learning about history where the events really happened. Our internship with CPM takes place in the former headquarters of DIPPBA (Intelligence Directorate of the Police of the Province of Buenos Aires). DIPPBA collected and reported information about “subversive” activity. Their archives, which are protected and studied by CPM, stand as a testament to the repression and institutional violence which occurred throughout the last military dictatorship. It has been both a fascinating and really difficult experience to read through these archives in the same building where they were created.

Many of the documents in the archives were created by a number of intelligence agencies to conceal the truth about their role in forced disappearances. One of the biographies I wrote was about a young political activist who was involved in the armed branch of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PRT), Carlos Benjamin Santillan. While sitting in the DIPPBA archives, I read through the paper trail of information (or lack thereof) regarding his disappearance: from an official letter submitted to the Ministry of the Interior by his father asking about his whereabouts or body, to the inquiries sent from the Ministry to other government organizations, to the numerous responses that essentially said “we do not have any information.” I cannot help but think about how many people were involved in generating all of these official documents and how that makes the systematic, institutional side of state terrorism so powerful and terrifying.

La Plata was one of the cities hit hardest by the violence of the junta. Two weekends ago we went to visit the Mariani-Teruggi House, which was a secret Montonero (Peronist guerilla organization) base of operations before all of the members who lived there were assassinated. There is nothing you can learn in a classroom that quite prepares you for physically seeing the bullet holes in the walls from the day the house was attacked.

That weekend we also went to visit ex-ESMA in Buenos Aires, which is a site of memory at the former Navy School of Mechanics. The school, which was originally used for training young officers, doubled as a Clandestine Center of Detention, Torture and Extermination (CCD) beginning in 1976. Roughly 5,000 people were detained and disappeared at this site. We quickly stuck out as the only Americans in the tour group. As the guide spoke about the effect of Operation Condor throughout South America, including the US government’s role in training the Argentine military in torture techniques, she would look in our direction. Learning about the history of US interventions in a classroom does not even compare to the shame and anger I felt as an American at a site of such extraordinary violence.

This weekend I went to visit Montevideo and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. I was immediately blown away by the clean streets and the slower, relaxed pace of life. While in Montevideo, we went on a walking tour of the Old City. I was so impressed with how easily the guide switched back and forth between Spanish and Portuguese (most of the tourists in Uruguay are Brazilian). While we were standing in the Plaza Independencia, the guide asked us to point out which buildings around us were old and which were new. It reminded me a little of the College of William & Mary, where history blends so fluidly with the present.

I cannot believe my time in Argentina is almost over. My Spanish skills have vastly improved and I have even begun to use some slang words. I have never felt more proud than the night my host mom told me how she was excited that I have been speaking more frequently, with more confidence, and about more complex topics. It always strikes me when simple activities, such as getting something to eat for lunch, feel natural. During my first week, I could only point at which empanada I would likeand it would take me a few minutes to remember which pesos to use. Now, I can chat with the server, ask questions about which items they recommend, and not have them immediately ask “where are you from?” I thought I knew a lot about Argentina going into this internship, but now I no longer feel like such an outsider.

There is so much street art throughout La Plata. I pass by this mural on my way to the Comision every day.
A photo of Carlos Benjamin Santillan from the DIPPBA archives.
The bullet holes in the walls of the Mariani-Teruggi house.
The exterior of ex-ESMA.
A photo of me standing with the famous Montevideo letters, with the city skyline in the background.

Emmy Giacoia ’22 – Blog Post 3

Week 5

On Tuesday, I visited Unidad Penitenciaria No. 28 (de Magdalena) with the general inspections team. The goal for the day was to visit the isolation cells in SAC (sector de aislamiento de convivencia), to see the conditions and interview each of the prisoners. It was difficult to walk through the prison and see men staring and clutching at the bars from inside their cells. At least those men could see outside, though. The prisoners we visited in SAC were kept in tiny, dark, damp cells. Bugs crawled on the walls and the floors, and the smell of sewage and sweat and mold was overwhelming. Several of the men I spoke with had not left their cell in over 2 months, not even to shower. One man was heating up a pot of hot water to “shower” with as we spoke to him. It was painful to see how resigned they were to this life, how they almost seemed okay with the fact that they hadn’t seen the sun in months. It is terrible that they are so used to it.

The Committee contains a second team that goes inside prisons to work directly with prisoners. Instead of conducting general inspections, the complex cases team visits prisons to work with specific prisoners whose cases need more attention than a few interviews. The vast majority of these prisoners have chronic health conditions that require regular medical attention, procedures, and medications, all of which are nearly impossible to obtain from within the prison. First, we attended the team’s weekly meeting, where all current cases are discussed and tasks are divided.

One of the prisoners being discussed was hospitalized for respiratory issues, and I chose to go with the team visiting her. Since I’m planning to go to medical school, I came to Argentina hoping to learn more about what hospitals and healthcare look like here, and I was able to learn a lot about common medical issues and lack of access to healthcare in prisons while working with the complex cases team. On Wednesday, we visited this prisoner at Mi Pueblo Hospital in Florencia Varela to ensure she was getting sufficient medical attention. We found her in a very overcrowded ward, with multiple patients curled up on stretchers in the hallway. Due to the possibility of tuberculosis, she was in an isolated room without windows, naked and covered only in a thin blanket. Her feet and one of her hands were handcuffed, so she was unable to move, and the glass in the door took away any semblance of privacy. She told us that she would rather be in the prison, since being in the hospital alone and unattended was torture in and of itself. Although her symptoms were improving, she was still ill, and she hadn’t received a formal diagnosis of tuberculosis or another respiratory disease. We reassured her that we would speak to her medical team about her prognosis. As we left, she asked us whether it was day or night.

Later that day, I visited several prisons in the Florencio Varela complex. We met with three trans women, all of whom had serious medical conditions that weren’t being adequately followed. I noticed that, besides the obvious lack of medical attention, these women seemed more satisfied with the living conditions in the prisons. Clearly, there are disparities between the prisons, even though the prisoners themselves have committed the same (alleged) crimes. I wonder if the prisoners know about these arbitrary differences, and if they do, how they cope with the knowledge that there are many prisoners that have it a lot better.  

Outside of UP 28 in Magdalena. The suffering inside of these walls is inconceivable.
The toilet and sink in a “buzón” (isolation cell) in the SAC unit of UP 28. The prisoners told us that the toilets often overflow, and there was indeed standing sewage on the ground surrounding the toilet.
The tiny table inside the buzón, with the only light the prisoners had available. There were exposed electrical connections everywhere, which posed a great risk to the prisoners.
The guard tower outside of a prison in the Florencio Varela complex

Week 6

Our last week in La Plata was much more relaxed. We spent most of our time examining the first and second versions of the Istanbul Protocol, which I discussed in the previous blog, and compiling a list of all the revisions. On Friday, we went to a different hospital, this time in Berazategui, to visit the prisoner we checked in on last week. I was relieved to see that she was clothed, in a room with a big window, with food that her friends had brought her. She was excited to show us that only one foot was handcuffed and neither of her hands. It’s a sad thing to celebrate, but I was glad that she was feeling better and receiving better treatment in this hospital. It was a happy ending to my work with the Committee, and I’m very thankful to the prisoners who gave us the privilege of hearing their stories and seeing their vulnerable moments.

I am not the same person I was when I came to Argentina. The changes I’ve seen in myself are too difficult to write about in a short blog post, but it’s sufficient to say that I learned much more about human rights and about myself than I would have thought possible in 6 weeks. I’m already counting the days until I can go back to La Plata.

The last visit to El Bosque in La Plata
My view, drinking mate in a plaza in Buenos Aires – I felt like a local.

Astrid Garcia ’23 – Post #3


The last two weeks taught me that the CPM’s Committee Against Torture is a vital mechanism in enacting change within a static and unjust prison system.

UP 28, Magdalena
UP 28, Magdalena: worker’s pavilion

During the fifth week, I accompanied the inspections and complex cases teams to different penitentiary units to conduct interviews. The first penitentiary unit I visited, with the inspections team, was UP 28 in Magdalena. There, we conducted interviews in SAC (solitary confinement), pavilion 4 (the worker’s pavilion), and the holding cell also known as the “leonera” or lion’s cell. SAC is grossly known as “buzones” or the mailbox. The reason behind this name is that the cell door has a slot at the bottom that allows the SPB to give the detainees food and medicine. In SAC, I assisted the director of the Committee Against Torture in interviewing four inmates who were suffering from a series of life-threatening and communicable diseases. The detainee who had been in SAC the longest had not left his cell in over a month, nor did he have access to the patio or the showers. When I was leaving SAC, I noticed the detainees throwing items such as sugar and yerba mate through the slots in the cell. I found this peculiar because they devised a contraption known as “the paloma” (the dove) built out of tied rags. This device was a symbol of survival within SAC. In the worker’s pavilion, detainees seemed to be “better off” and had greater access to amenities such as the showers and kitchen area. Here, we interviewed detainees who largely needed contact with their counsel. In the lion’s cage, three detainees were being processed while living in conditions of squalor. The holding cell was dimly lit, there were oranges (the detainees’ food) on the floor, and cardboard boxes for them to sleep on.

The most unpleasant encounter I experienced during this inspection was the interaction between the director of inspections and one of the penitentiary unit’s nurses in the health wing. Throughout our encounter with the nurse, I witnessed the corruption within the unit’s health system. There was blatant mismanagement of records that led to the detainees going without necessary medication and medical attention. The nurse mansplained the situation, which the director was clearly aware of, and rudely spoke over her and another interviewer, all whilst avoiding answering the director’s questions to save face. This prison visit was difficult to endure but the inspections team made it as good of an experience as possible by encouraging me and another William and Mary student throughout the day.

Two days later, I returned to UP 28, where I accompanied the complex cases team to conduct an interview in the health wing and follow up on some of the inspection team cases. I was unable to enter the interview with a detainee because of the risk of transmittable diseases. Later that day, we encountered the same nurse who had been rude; however, he had answers to our questions this time. I was happy to learn that two of the detainees I helped interview had received their medication, and one had been transferred to another penitentiary unit closer to his family. After learning about the outcome of these cases, I realized that the Committee Against Torture’s presence causes changes to occur.

UP 40, Lomas de Zamora: This unit is a mixed-gender unit. In the front of this picture, the women’s wing can be seen

During the last week, I went to UP 40 in Lomas de Zamora to follow up with some detainees monitored by the complex cases teams. This was a smooth prison visit. For the remainder of the week I, along with two other William and Mary students, helped the inspections and complex cases team find revisions in the new Istanbul protocol that has only been released in English by the United Nations.

The last day of my internship was bittersweet. Since the start of the program, I felt welcomed by the CPM staff and made to feel like a member of their staff. I was sad to part ways with many staffers who were always receptive to my endless questions. Feeling that way, in the end, represented the close bond I had created with the CPM and showed the success of this pilot program. I was sad to say goodbye to Argentina, but after this experience, I know this will not be the last time I visit.

Giselle Figueroa ’23 – Post #2

Identifying Human Rights Violations in the Buenos Aires Province

On week three we worked with the reception team uploading interviews and habeas corpus to the CPM’s SISCOTT system. We read the interviews and identified the human rights violations that were brought up during the team’s visit with each prisoner. During this part of the internship, I discovered that many incidents that are common in prisons, including American ones, are human rights violations. For example, placing a prisoner in a unit that prevents them from having a relationship with their family and solitary confinement are common situations that violate the prisoner’s human rights.

One of the most common violations was lack of medical attention and medication on behalf of the health unit of the prisons. I was able to sit in on interviews with PICC on week four. Both women I interviewed had serious ongoing health issues. The interview process was an emotional experience because it was frustrating to hear that after multiple interventions on behalf of the CPM, the women were still struggling to receive the medical attention they needed. The lack of proper attention anguished both women; they both cried during the interview. This was difficult to watch because, while it’s common to villainize and dehumanize people in prison, hearing the women talk about their lack of medications and ability to get appointments and see their families humanizes them again. They claimed that the health unit used ibuprofen to solve everyone’s health issues, something we heard during our first prison visit to the university center at UP 1.

One of the women I interviewed had a terminal illness called Osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that was deteriorating her skull. She is awaiting her trial, which is programed for the year 2023. This means that she is in prison with a terminal illness without having a sentence. I admire the approach my supervisor, lawyer Augusto Infante, took during the interview because he managed to help the woman look for the good in her situation. He explained that his goal was to help her spend the time before her trial at home with her family. Because her illness is terminal, for Augusto and the CPM it is unjustified that this woman spend the last part of her life in prison, especially since she has neither been proven guilty nor given a sentence.

Something that shocked me both while sitting in on interviews and reading them was that most of the people imprisoned had not been tried and therefore had no sentence. In one case, two sisters were arrested at their aunt’s house because they were there when police ambushed the house. Because they were the only ones in the house at the time of the ambush, they were taken in as suspects of illicit drug trafficking even though they were not the people the police were after. The two sisters were placed in “preventative prison” with their children, one of them having gone into labor soon after being arrested, because the judge claimed they were a flight risk.

Many prisoners are in a similar situation; however most of the people who the justice system claims are at risk of fleeing if set free to await trial do not have the means to actually flee. Most people are working class citizens with little resources—fleeing is not an option for them. Preventative prison seems more like a tactic used by the SPB and justice system to keep people imprisoned. It is frustrating to hear that many people have been in prison for years not having had a trial.

These days that we have spent at the prisons and identifying human rights violations, I have gone home feeling fulfilled because I feel like I am doing something that is genuinely helping others. The work done by the teams at the CPM is helpful to many people and knowing that I am contributing to the effort (even if it is just a small amount in comparison to the work the team does as a whole) makes me feel grateful to be a part of such a great team of people.

The outside of UP (Unidad Penitenciaria/Prison Unit) Number 1 in Lisandro Olmos. This is one of the most populated prisons in Argentina. UP 1 was the first prison we visited—we interviewed the university students at the prison.
Poster found outside of Ex-ESMA that says “Nunca Mas” (Never Again). We visited the site in between weeks three and four. The tour we took allowed us to understand how and why state security forces target certain groups. This was useful information to us because we saw that some groups of Argentines make up more portions of the prison population than others, suggesting that the system continues to target certain groups of people.

Daniel Posthumus ’24 – Week 2

When writing the biographies about the two desaparecidos I had chosen from the city of Pergamino, I was immediately faced with daunting challenges. First, was the language—Argentinean court records are, obviously, entirely in Spanish. And these records are not in the conversational Spanish in which I have vastly improved over dinner with my host mom or in conversation with other Argentineans, but instead in a technical, formal, and often outdated Spanish. Second, was the lingering footprint of the propaganda of the junta. To give cover to their brutal persecution of political dissidents, the junta (or “la ultima dictadura” as it is often referred to here) crafted false stories of dissidents fomenting violence. They then used these pieces of propaganda as evidence of the “subversion” that supposedly required the draconian junta to counter. Third, was that many descriptions and biographies about the desaparecidos seemed to gloss over what made them human, instead solely focusing on political activity. It was up to us to paint the pictures of the desaparecidos in as human a way as possible.

Daniel, Silvia Fontana and Laina

This third challenge, in particular, was one that sprouted from a discussion that our team of human rights fellows had with Silvia Fontano, a key member of the organization Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. The organization emerged during the dictatorship and consisted of women whose daughters were detained and disappeared while pregnant. The dictatorship would leave the newborn children of these disappeared mothers in the care of Junta sympathizers or with adoptive families in random places throughout the country, and it has often taken years to recover the identity of these children. In some cases, their true identity has yet to be recovered. They and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo would march in front of government buildings to protest the junta’s persecution of dissidents, boldly defying the dictatorship even at the height of its repression.

Silvia Fontano’s sister was disappeared. She is a woman marked by great tragedy and great strength, having devoted her life to telling the stories of her sister and other victims of repression to ensure that the abuses which occurred under the junta never occur again. Our conversation with her was critical for understanding how to tell the stories of these victims most effectively. Though they lost their lives for the political causes in which they were involved, they were not solely defined by their politics: they were human beings who dreamed, wept, and loved.

After our conversation with Silvia, I was inspired to be more proactive in seeking out the human details at the core of the lives of the two desaparecidos I was studying—Víctor Vázquez and María Cristina Lanzillotto.

In the case of Víctor, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with a granddaughter of his, Susana Corradini Vázquez. After a fascinating conversation that stretched nearly two hours, I came away replete with anecdotes about who Víctor was. Víctor devoted his life to the cause of the worker in Argentina, entering the Communist Party and the railroad union as a teenager and throughout his life was arrested nearly a dozen times. He was unique among the desaparecidos given his age—most on the list for Pergamino were college students when disappeared and Víctor was in his 60’s—and for his experiences—Víctor had experienced 43 years of the yo-yoing of Argentinean politics, between democracy and autocracy. From Susana, I learned of his relationship with his father, who would take the pre-adolescent Víctor to workers rallies and read with him alongside his mother. I learned Víctor once organized a peace debate with a future senator of the nation of Argentina in high school. I learned of Víctor’s love for books and how passionately intellectual he was and how he expected nothing less from his daughter or three grandchildren. How the last thing he did with Susana was take her to a book fair.

In the case of María Cristina Lanzillotto, I found two poems written by her twin Ana María, also disappeared. One described their childhood as one of many fathers and many mothers, a wondrous time in a household filled with energetic activists and a father who, from an early age, instilled a political consciousness in his daughters that would later in life sprout into deep participation in activism. Ana María’s other poems described her experiences in the ‘land of warlocks’ and the experiences of the ‘orphans’ of the junta’s crimes, experiences which María Cristina, detained in some of the same prisons and who also had two children disappeared, would have shared.

These details add to the humanity of the victims of the junta, a humanity that is essential to understand. There were 30,000 desaparecidos during the dictatorship—yet, in an oft-repeated framing by Comisión employees, these 30,000 victims aren’t just a collective but instead 30,000 individuals, individuals whose stories must be told with granular attention and detail. If we lose the individuals, we give in to the de-humanization and forgetting of the victims and do dishonor to their memory.  

Astrid Garcia ’23 – Weeks 3 & 4

The third and fourth weeks represented a period of growth for me. During this middle phase of the internship, I learned about the various injustices committed against people deprived of their liberty and was able to witness it first-hand. 

During the second week, I continued working with the team that interviews victims. The CPM’s committee against torture mechanisms has various teams throughout the Buenos Aires Province that interview detainees in prisons further away from the Capital and La Plata. These teams submitted their interviews which have to be loaded onto a greater database. This week, I worked independently on loading cases onto the CPM’s committee against torture’s online database. This task allowed me to identify the different forms of torture detainees face throughout their time in Buenos Aires’ penitentiary units. Although there are many penitentiary units scattered throughout the Buenos Aires province, I realize that many of the problems detainees face are congruous. The work I conducted during the third week was essential because it gave me a greater understanding of the problems detainees face daily. I also learned specific terminology which I quickly encountered during the fourth week. 

The beginning of the fourth week marked the beginning of joining both the inspections and complex cases teams in conducting interviews in different penitentiary units. Early on, I realized that working with the team that interviews victims was fundamental work that allowed me to understand the violations most detainees face. This week I accompanied the inspections team to penitentiary unit 1, and the complex cases team to penitentiary unit 33. 

With the inspections team, I joined them in interviewing detainees in the unit’s college center. There, the detainees work to complete various college degrees. Some of the detainees pursue longer careers such as law, whereas others were working towards getting their secondary school degrees. This was a unique experience because I did not expect to see the level of organization the detainees had in completing careers while deprived of their liberty. Upon speaking with a detainee, I learned about a successful case where a detainee completed his law degree and upon his release, about 6 months ago, he was able to find a job as a lawyer. This story seemed to give them more reason to work harder so that when they leave prison, they too can find a job. However, pursuing a college degree while in prison also exposes them to prejudice. I spoke to a detainee who left the prison to take an exam. He expressed that it was a very traumatizing experience because he was chained until he got to the university, and there when they realized he was a prisoner, he faced discrimination. This experience taught me a lot about the battle detainees face in order to pursue college degrees.

With the complex cases team, I accompanied them to interview two sisters in penitentiary unit 33. There, women are able to keep their children with them until the age of 5. During the first week when teams were presenting their work, they mentioned the fact that women can have their children with them. This subject intrigued me, and I realized that this was something I wanted to do more work with. I thought that prison was not a suitable place for children to grow up in during their most formative years. However, upon talking to both sisters, I realized that having their children gave them greater sanity than other prisoners who have little to no familial relations. Their children were also very happy being with their mothers because they were able to create a bond with them, had access to the patio and plazas during the day, and could leave the prison with other family members for weeks on end. Being able to join this team for this interview changed my perspective because talking to and hearing the sisters’ stories is different than reading their official law documents. 

During this last week, I was grateful to join both groups. I felt fulfilled joining these groups in their tasks because they are working with real people who have fallen victim to the violence perpetrated by the State.

Penitentiary Unit 1. The structure of this prison reminded me of Michel Foucault’s idea of the panopticon. There is a watch tower in the middle, known as “el tanque” or “the tank” that watched over the unit’s pavilions. Here, the SPB (penitentiary unit officers) can see the detainees without being seen themselves. This reinforces the idea of total control and dominance over people deprived of their liberty. (Photo credit: Emmy Giacoia)
This is a different angle that shows “el tanque” looming over the prison.
“El tanque” can be seen from different angles. It is a symbol of this prison and of the control over people deprived of their liberty.

Emily Giacoia ’22: Week 2 and Week 3

Week 3

This was the first full week of individual work, and the first week that I’ve felt productive and fulfilled when I leave the Commission each day. As I read more and more interviews with prisoners, I realized that they shared a feeling of resignation and dismissiveness. These people were describing acts of extreme torture and cruelty with the detachment of someone discussing the weather or what they had for dinner. What’s more, there were thousands of prisoners on file and even more thousands of interviews. Unless the prisoner was new to the system, it wasn’t uncommon to click on one’s file and see a list of at least 10 interviews, each with multiple human rights violations. It was frustrating to read an interview with a prisoner asking desperately for medical help, knowing that he got medical help because we took legal action, and then reading the next interview about how he was never taken for follow-up appointments. Although I don’t know about all the work the Committee and the Commission overall do, I wish there was something more tangible and long-term that we could do to help the prisoners. It seems like right now, we’re just putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound.

Week 4

There are two teams within the Commission that work directly in prisons. One team performs general inspections in different areas of prisons. First, they observe the prisoners’ living conditions and to what extent basic human rights (e.g. properly cooked food, mattresses to sleep on, access to showers) are being met. Then they conduct individual interviews with prisoners, who tell them what specific needs they have so their legal team can be informed. One of the materials we used to prepare for our first inspection was a manual called the Istanbul Protocol, which was written by the UN and sets global standards for investigating and documenting torture and mistreatment. I was impressed by the depth and breadth of this manual. Since I’ve never worked in human rights before, I didn’t know that there were so many guidelines. I’m happy that there are guidelines, but I wish torture wasn’t so widespread that we need them.

On Wednesday, we visited Unidad Penitenciaria No. 1 (de Olmos), about 30 minutes outside of La Plata. The plan was to visit the university center there and interview the students about both their education and the general living conditions. As soon as we drove up to the prison, I could sense this feeling of sadness and resignation. It was made worse by the SPB (Servicio Penitenciaria Bonoaerense) guards, who were all joking around with each other in the lobby and cheerfully greeted us as they unlocked each door. I saw the smiles on their faces, and I thought about all the interviews I read the week prior and how these friendly guards treated the prisoners when we weren’t there. Thankfully, the university center was lively and notably lacking SPB presence. We took a tour around the school, and we sat down in a classroom to listen to them talk about the structure of their education, the degrees they could get, and the problems they had getting school supplies and exams. Although I’m not sure why I expected anything different, the prisoners were friendly, and I didn’t feel like I was within prison walls. I know, though, that it would have felt different if we had entered the actual prison.

On Sunday, a few of us took the train into Buenos Aires to visit the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (ex ESMA), which was a naval academy turned into a clandestine confinement and torture center during the last Argentine military dictatorship, from 1976-1983. It was horrific, to say the least. We only went into a few buildings, but the Officer’s House was the most impactful. This was where most desaparecidos were first taken when they were detained. We visited the dark, cold basement where many were kept and tortured, and we read the testimonies from survivors. It was heartbreaking, and it helped me understand the impact of the dictatorships in Argentina. Knowing that people were tortured and assassinated where I was standing, less than 40 years ago, made me realize how important and relevant the work is that the Commission does.

At the end of the week, we began planning our work with the second Committee team, which works on complex cases with specific prisoners.

A mural inside ex ESMA that says “silent no more”
Outside of ex ESMA in Buenos Aires
The outside of UP 1. The university center is located behind the prison.
The view from one of the bell towers of the Cathedral
In Plaza Moreno, facing the Cathedral of La Plata