Argentine Borderlands: Relationships Between Torturers and Desaparecidos Under the Military Junta 

Written by Kat Jivkova

On 24 March 1976, a three-man military junta staged a coup d’état and formally took power in Argentina. With General Rafael Videla as president, the junta introduced a plan, known as the Process for National Reorganisation, which aimed to eliminate subversion from Argentina in order to align with ‘Western, Christian civilisation’. Particularly influenced by the National Security Doctrine, a US ideology centred on the containment of Communism, the Argentine military forces launched an obsessive campaign against ‘the hidden enemy’. Ibérico Saint-Jean, Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, reinforced this sentiment: ‘First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill all of their collaborators, then their sympathisers… and, finally, we will kill the timid.’ Argentine citizens suspected of being ‘subversives’ were disappeared within approximately 340 torture camps and became known as desaparecidos. In 1984, President Raúl Alfonsín’s Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP) recorded 8,960 cases of disappearances in an official report, 82 percent of which occurred during Videla’s term. Human rights organisations argue that the real number probably surpassed thirty thousand. The desaparecidos comprised of men and women, some of them pregnant, and others adolescents. To the torturers, however, these factors did not matter; their fate was already sealed. ‘Vos no existís, vos no sos nadie’ (‘You don’t exist, you’re nobody’)–this phrase was ceremoniously chanted by most torturers in secret camps, to the detriment of their prisoners. Contrary to the fixed boundaries which existed between prisoners and prison administrators in regular jails, the distinction between tortured and torturer in these camps was much more ambiguous. I argue that the torture camps of Argentina’s Dirty Wars served as a borderland in which ‘true Argentine citizens’–the guards–intermixed with ‘anti-fatherland’ and ‘anti-Christian’ subversives—the prisoners. 

Mario Cesar Villani’s testimony provides evidence of the peculiar relations between prisoners and torturers in the various secret camps he passed through. A physicist and former member of the National Atomic Energy Commission, Villani was detained by armed commando after resigning from his position following the disappearance of his best friend. He remarked: ‘It was a completely insane situation. The torturers and victims were all living together. Torturers were in constant contact with those they tortured.’ In an interview with author Marguerite Feitlowitz, Villani described his experiences with one of the guards he encountered, Horacio Martín Donati, known by the desaparecidos as Blood: ‘Blood would sit on the floor of your tube [prison cell] and play chess, chat. He’d talk about his kids, he talked a lot about his little girl.’ Blood even brought his daughter to visit his favourite prisoners, including Villani’s cellmate, Guillermo Pagés Larraya.  

Munú Actis, a survivor of the Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) camp, recounts similar forms of interaction with her repressors: ‘Suddenly they would sit there and tell you things about their lives, overwhelmed, worried, telling you as if you were a friend.’ Furthermore, many ex-desaparecidos’ testimonies noted that some guards would play the Argentinian card game trucco with them when they grew bored. ‘We’d sit on the floor, with our ankles and wrists still chained and our blindfolds on our foreheads, playing cards’, Villani affirmed. It is important to note that these gestures on the side of the guards did not mean that they considered their captives as people equal to themselves. Perhaps the guards wanted to reassure themselves that they were still human beings, as Villani has suggested. Nevertheless, both Actis and Villani agreed that, by humanising their torturers, the desaparecidos were able to gain a sense of hope that they could survive their abduction. Ana Longoni’s work on Argentine survivors of repression summarised this feeling, stating that the ‘view of the other as an enemy was altered based on his daily proximity, which humanised him, and for that reason it enabled the relativisation of the power of the abductor’. 

Another instance in which the line between prisoner and torturer became unclear was when prisoners took on the role of quebrado, or collaborator. The duties of collaboration included reporting subversives to military officers and cleaning up blood in between interrogation sessions. Villani, for instance, described a collaborator he lived with at the El Banco camp by the name of Lucía. She worked in the Department of Intelligence, determining who would be detained next, at which time it should be done, and which people the suspect was connected to who could be used as leverage against them. In the eyes of non-collaborator prisoners, collaborators were not traitors. Five of the women survivors of ESMA, including Actis, acknowledged that resistance under torture became much more difficult after the official start of the military dictatorship, once the fear surrounding ‘disappearance’ became disseminated. The five women expressed sympathy for collaborators in their conversations, published in That Inferno in 2006: ‘It seems to me that, from the standpoint of the deterioration, it was one thing to fall in 1976, another thing in 1978, and quite another in 1980.’ 

 A political prisoner under the pseudonym of Daniel interviewed by author Rebekah Park argued that it was important to understand the situation of the collaborators. Daniel himself was nineteen years old, with neither children nor a spouse, thus it was easier for him to resist collaboration. In contrast, he said, a prisoner whose parents or family were being threatened by the military did not have this luxury of choice. It is evident that the non-collaborator prisoners did not hold any grudges towards collaborators, reflecting the solidarity of the desaparecidos as a whole. In the present, however, there are often more complicated discussions as to which kinds of survivors deserve a place in memorialised spaces and within official staff roles at memorial museums. 

A final example of the ways in which the lives of prisoners and guards crossed paths was through ‘romantic’ relations – I use this term extremely dubiously, as any relationship between guard and prisoner cannot be considered consensual and is inherently unequal. According to Villani, the prisoner Lucía married a torturer known as Cat, ‘the inventor of Carolina, an instrument of electric torture’. Villani did not know whether Cat had ever tortured Lucía, however he was certain that Cat had been present during interrogations because ‘he came often to check in on Carolina’. Regardless of their married status, the conditions in which Lucía and Cat met must be seriously taken into consideration. Further, female survivors of ESMA recall being taken on ‘pseudo-dates’ by guards to hotels or restaurants against their will. In her testimony published in 2007, Marta Álvarez commented on the duality of the men who were involved in these actions: ‘It was crazy, right? Because the same one who tortured you, that same one… was the same who seduced you.’  

Sexual contact between guards and female desaparecidas will only briefly be mentioned as to avoid addressing sensitive material. ESMA detainee Graciela García stated that she felt compelled to engage in sexual contact with a top officer, known as Tigre Acosta, as a means of survival. Other women expressed similar opinions in their testimonies. Eduardo Pavlosky’s Paso de dos (A Dance of Death), a play first performed in 1990, portrays a ‘love story’ between torturer and victim during the Dirty Wars, aiming to portray a female experience comparable to those recorded in testimonies. Although the writers of Paso de dos termed the play ‘feminist’, the problematic amount of violence present in each scene can be argued to have taken away from its main point, which was that the mind of the female prisoner never gave in to her captor. The Argentine human rights organisation Madres de Plaza de Mayo condemned the play for this very reason. It seems clear that, in many of the camps, the boundary between female prisoners and guards was blurred. However, for the women victims, this was simply a means of survival.  

Thus, evidence of Argentine torture camps being a type of ‘borderland’ has been outlined through three examples: (1) the communication between torturers and tortured in between interrogation sessions, during which guards would sometimes play cards and talk with their prisoners; (2) the relationship between collaborators and guards, and collaborators with non-collaborators; and (3) the ‘romantic’ pursuit of female prisoners by their captors. Another interesting point that has not been mentioned is that there were cases in which, once pregnant prisoners had given birth, their babies would be taken away from them and adopted by ‘proper couples’ from the military or police. For example, the officer Covani, who was in charge of the transfer of prisoners at the Olympus camp, kidnapped a pair of twin boys from an unknown desaparecida. He was later granted legal custody of the children. The relationship between torturers and tortured, therefore, was ambiguous in most cases and varied considerably across Argentina’s secret camps. The unpredictable nature of the intelligence officers, coupled with ‘the constant threat of death’, created an atmosphere of perpetual terror for the prisoners. As Villani said, ‘the sensation you have is that the outside world has disappeared’. Indeed, the desaparecidos were no longer supposed to exist, so their world no longer existed either. In the camps, the officers were in control of what happened to them–they were God. With this in mind, perhaps the camp was also a borderland between life and death.  


Crenzel, Emilio. “The Narrative of the Disappearances in Argentina: The Nunca Más Report.” Bulletin of Latin American research 32, no. s1 (2013): 174–192. 

Feitlowitz, Marguerite. “A Dance of Death: Eduardo Pavlovsky’s ‘Paso de Dos.’” Drama review 35, no. 2 (1991): 60–73. 

Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror : Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Park, Rebekah. The Reappeared : Argentine Former Political Prisoners. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014. 

Sutton, Barbara. Surviving State Terror : Women’s Testimonies of Repression and Resistance in Argentina. New York: New York University Press, 2018. 

Taylor, Diana. Disappearing Acts : Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s “Dirty War”. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. 

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