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Episode 34

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The Photographer

Victor Basterra was in a clandestine government prison when he was given a choice: work or die. He chose to work, and decided that one day he’d have his revenge.

You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode, it’s useful if you’re learning the language with this podcast.

Or you can also read this English translation: We want you to fully understand our podcast.

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Transcript

[Guy Raz, host Wow in the World]: Hi, I’m Guy Raz!

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[Mindy Thomas]: The NPR Podcast for curious kids and adults.

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[Víctor Basterra]: Revenge is a dish best served cold. Does that make sense? I mean that you have to be very patient, serene, not all heated –and at any moment I was going to take my revenge.

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: This is Víctor Basterra, a 69 year old Argentine man. His revenge, that cold revenge he’s referring to, would come in 1984 and it would be felt throughout the country.

But his story starts long before that, in the late 70s when Víctor was kidnapped by the military government and as a prisoner, one day they gave him a choice:

Víctor: They took me down and there was a man who said to me: “You work or you die”.

[Daniel]: And Víctor decided to work.

Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.

Today, the photographer, the story of a kidnapping, an unexpected job and a survivor.

A warning to new listeners: this story includes some graphic descriptions of torture.

Our producers are Clara Ibarra and Alexandra Hall. Here’s Clara.  

[Clara Ibarra, reporter]: It’s 1979, in a dark attic in downtown Buenos Aires, Víctor Basterra, age 34, has been beaten and has a hood placed over his face, and is being tortured.

Víctor: With electrical shocks. Here it’s called the cattle prod or the machine. They nearly killed me. That’s the truth, because my heart stopped twice while I was there, in those incredibly intense torture sessions.

[Clara]: It was the Cold War. General Jorge Rafael Videla was the president of a military dictatorship that hoped to eradicate any kind of political dissidence in Argentina.

Years of service in a Peronist military unit and his work as a labor union activist made Víctor a perfect candidate for torture by members of the navy, the prefecture, the federal police and the federal penitentiary service. One after another.

[Víctor]: Because they would get tired. So they would leave and the other team would come in. They would say “We have all the time in the world.” “Oh the things we’re going to bring to light with this son of a bitch,” they would say.

[Clara]: Before he was kidnapped, Víctor worked as a graphics worker at a company that printed bank notes. There he was a labor activist. He was always calling for better working conditions for his fellow workers. He invested his spare time in improving his neighborhood and in Laura, his partner, who two months earlier had given birth to his first daughter, Maria Eva.

Víctor knew that his name was on management’s black list and in order to keep them from firing him, he decided to have an operation on a hernia. And it was then, during his recovery, that one day…

[Víctor]: They knocked on our door at 8, 8:30 in the morning. My partner and I looked out and saw a man with a leather bag. He had brown-blond hair. So finally, Laura opened the window to the bedroom a little and said: “What do you want?”. “I’m with Créditos Lanus. We’ve come… to…” “No, no, no thank you, no.” So I say: “Who’s this son of a bitch.”

[Clara]: As Laura closed the window, Víctor saw how the man was carefully inspecting the lock on the gate. For a minute, Laura and Víctor thought about grabbing the essentials and leaving the house all together. Several of their activist friends had disappeared under strange circumstances.  They talked about the situation, and to relax a little, Víctor went out on the patio…

[Víctor]: I go and I see five guys pointing guns at me like this and I’m like…ooof. And I looked around like this and I was about 3 meters more or less from the house, where my partner and my daughter were. She was breast-feeding my daughter at the time. “Stay there” I said. “Stay there, don’t move, don’t move.” “What’s going on?”, I ask them. “Don’t move. Don’t move.” I already knew things were going south. Then and there they put me in hand-cuffs and that’s where it all started.

[Clara]: The men ordered Laura to change her clothes and get the carrier and other things for the baby ready. They got in a car and took them away. They beat Víctor for a long while and then they put his pajamas on him and put him in another car.

In the middle of all car ride, they made a stop on a deserted street to put a hood on him and put him in the back seat. His destination, he would later find out, would be the Navy Petty-Officers School of Mechanics or ESMA, by its Spanish initials.

[Víctor]: I bumped into some steps and I immediately heard someone to the side of me say: “This one’s going to the Egg Carton.”

[Clara]: The so-called “Egg Carton” (huevera) was one of ESMA’s main torture chambers. A hermetic room with walls covered in egg cartons to stifle the sound of screams. That was where the torture started and where Víctor suffered the two heart attacks that nearly killed him.

[Víctor]: They would tie your ankles and wrists to the ends of bed with cords. There was an iron sheet over a sleeping pad. And they would place a cable from your toe to the iron bed.

You feel your whole body arching up, you arch up. Your muscles react independently of your brain.

[Clara]: They asked Víctor all kinds of questions: where was the money, if he knew about certain places, when the next meeting would be…

[Víctor]: And they ask you about anyone. For example they asked about someone called Petrus. They really worked the machine on me over Petrus. Petrus: “Who’s Petrus?”, “Where’s Petrus?” And I had no idea…

[Clara]: Víctor eventually met that Petrus almost a year later inside ESMA.

[Víctor]: And later I found out who he was. He had nothing to do with my organization. He was part of different organization.

[Clara]: And even though the military did everything possible to extract information from him with that cattle-prod, Víctor resisted. It wasn’t easy.

[Víctor]: The uncertainty of not knowing what the hell was going to happen next can make someone very upset. And well, on top of that, you don’t know what’s happening to your body or even in your head, but you try to stay calm. You try not to fall into despair, that’s essential, because that’s what they want.

[Clara]: After three days in the Egg Carton, they took him up to what they call the Hood.

[Víctor]: The Hood was in the attic of a very large building, with iron beams holding up the tiled roof and between the beams there were prisoners. I mean, it’s this dark dank holding cell. It’s cold in winter, terribly cold, and sweltering in the summer because it’s attached to the roof.

[Clara]: In the Hood as its name suggests there were many prisoners in hoods. They were all separated by wooden planks and their heads were forced to always face the hallway, in the direction of the guard post. He was here for three days, physically and mentally exhausted, until they took him down the Egg Carton. He thinks they’re going to torture him again, but he’s surprised to see Laura, his partner.

[Víctor]: And then she says: “They’re letting me go. They’re going to let me go.” There was no one there, they left us alone. So I told her: “Come here. Tell everyone we know, everyone you can, not to do anything, not to file reports or anything. It’s all about awareness and being alert.” And of course she did. That was the only time I saw her in there.

[Clara]: Now more at ease knowing that his partner and daughter were alright, he went back to the darkness of the Hood. Days went by, then weeks, then months.

[Víctor]: I was locked up for three months in shackles. I was thrown on the ground on a filthy sleeping pad, always in the same clothes, bathing only when it occurred to the guys…

We heard the sound of the train. We heard planes overhead and sometimes we heard the cheers from the soccer field. And it was the field for River Plate which was nearby. Then we heard those guys’ voices. I said “Life. That’s life. Goddammit. And we’re here.”

So I looked for something that would make my life the slightest bit better. I saw a little sunbeam that came through a chimney that was there. And I would see that little sunbeam and I could see the whole sun or I would listen to a thrush, a bird, really early in the morning at 4 or 5 in the morning. And I listened to it with joy. It was beautiful. And it’s the most routine song. But I loved it. It’s a beautiful memory from a dark time.

[Clara]: From August 1979 to January 1980, Víctor was there, in the Hood, with nothing to do. Until one day…

[Víctor]: They brought me down and there was a man who said to me: “You work or you die.” And well, I worked.

[Clara]: Víctor and some of the others had the job of making fake documents. That is to say, they used real people’s personal information but with new pictures. The military used these new documents to launder stolen cars, to legitimate the fraudulent sale of goods and do a lot of other illegal things.

[Víctor]: Where was it done? At the Navy Petty-Officer School of Mechanics. At ESMA. Who did it? The prisoners. The prisoners did the job like slave labor. I was a slave just doing that work.

But also the person who did this didn’t just have to handle the printing side of things, but they also had to deal with photography, so I became a photographer.

[Clara]: So, Víctor photographed a soldier, cut the negative, developed it, took it and made copies for all of the documents they needed.

[Víctor]: In mean, the guy would have an ID card, a national identification card, a driver’s license and a police credential. The guy would need 4 documents.

[Clara]: For Víctor, just the act of working, leaving the Hood every day, was an important change. He wasn’t spending the whole day on a mat, hooded and shackled. Now…

[Víctor]: I had my place, a gigantic lab where I would close myself off and separate myself from what was going on outside. Don’t forget, outside of the lab there were torture chambers.

[Clara]: After having worked as slave in the document lab, one day the soldiers told him:

[Víctor]: “Tomorrow, you’re going to go see your family.”  And I was like this.

“Yes, you’re going to go see your family.”

[Clara]: Víctor couldn’t believe his ears. But it was true. The next day they took him to Laura’s sister’s house, where after almost six months, he could see his mother, Laura and his daughter María Eva.

In order to protect them Víctor had to lie and say that everything was alright inside ESMA. One of his captors was present for almost the entire visit, though he did let Laura and Víctor have a moment alone in the other room.

[Víctor]: And well, in her sister’s house, on January 17th, 1980, that’s where Laura got pregnant.

[Clara]: Nine month later, Víctor and Laura’s second daughter would be born.

[Víctor]: She named her Soledad [lit. “Solitude”] because she lived through that time with a terrible anguish because of how lonely she was, the absence.

[Clara]: Time went on and many of the other people who worked with him at the forgery lab were freed, little by little. Others were assassinated. Víctor, for his part, ended up being useful for that soldiers. He was good at his job and didn’t pose a threat, always isolated in a dark room.

[Víctor]: If I had been different they could have suspected something but they didn’t. They thought I was sort of a moron. I was half-pretending to be: a good worker but one who didn’t reason very well.

[Clara]: However…

[Víctor]: Revenge is the daughter of silence. Revenge is a dish best served cold. You know what I mean? I mean that you have to be very patient, serene, not all heated. No, at any moment I was going to take my revenge.

[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.

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[Matt Holzman, host The Document]: Documentarians record hundreds of hours of material and in The Document we mine those recordings for great stories. It’s like if radio and documentaries had a baby…an inspiring and illuminating baby. Find it on KCRW.com/thedocument or whereever you listen to podcasts.

[Daniel]: Alright. So, from his dark room in ESMA, Víctor was beginning to plan his revenge. Clara will continue the story…

[Víctor]: So a lot the time they would bring in real passports and then I realized that I could get information. Because by chance I managed to see who the hell this son of a bitch who was hiding behind the name ‘Fafa’ was. From then on I knew his name was Claudio Pittana. Because of his real passport.

[Clara]: Little by little, Víctor was forming in his mind an image of the soldiers’ real identities and his revenge was beginning to take shape. But he performed his first really audacious act one day when a soldier whose last name was Beltrán came in to get fake documents.

[Víctor]: I took the photo. I developed it. They were asking me for 4 documents, I made 5 photos. The fifth one: where do I put it, where do I hide it.

[Clara]: He hid that fifth copy in a piece of photosensitive paper, the only place the soldiers wouldn’t check, because if they did, it would damage the paper. He did that with several soldiers, 3 or 4 at first. And to avoid raising suspicion, when he handed over the documents, he would also give them the negatives of the photos.

[Víctor]: So it was a show of trust. He had the negative but I had made a copy and I would hide the copy.

[Clara]: By that point, Víctor had been locked in ESMA for more than a year and a half. His outings had become a kind of routine. At first it was once every 2 months, then it was every 15 days and then it was once a week. And so…

[Víctor]: A horizon was opening up that was a little more beneficial to me in terms of my freedom, but there was also chance to see how I could get things out. Where do I hide them?

[Clara]: For several months, Víctor had been thinking about what he could do with the extra photos of the soldiers that he had managed to collect. He wanted to take them but he didn’t know how. Until one day on one of his excursions, he dared to do it.

[Víctor]: I put them in my underwear. They checked me like this, they looked in my pockets…and I left.

[Clara]: Once he got home, Víctor hid the photos in a black box in a hole that opened up in a closet. And Laura, from then on, became his only accomplice.

The success of this first attempt motivated Víctor to continue collecting things when he could. Not just the copies of photos and some documents, but also information he overheard.

[Víctor]: When they were in the dining room or the basement –I heard them. I kept a log of everything in my head so that there could be no confusion. That was an exercise I had done, like a blind person who develops their hearing. So, you could say my memory was my refuge.

[Clara]: They started relaxing the rules fortunately for Víctor toward the end of the war with UK over las Malvinas, or the Falkland Islands.  

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Lieutenant Galtieri]: The battle over the Argentine port has ended. Our soldiers fought with the utmost vigor for the dignity of the nation.

[Clara]: It was 1982 and the soldiers had not only lost the war over las Malvinas, but also the little credibility they had left. Their priorities had changed: they had to prepare to withdraw from power.

[Víctor]: So leaders who had been the masters of life and death started getting ready for that retreat. So they had to call for elections, they had to prepare the whole architecture to allow them to negotiate and withdraw at the lowest possible cost.

[Clara]: In April of 1983, the last military president who held the dictatorship, Reynaldo Bignone, gave an order:  

[Víctor]: To destroy all of the materials they have, anything that might be compromising to the possibility of peace. To destroy anything that could link them to the people who were missing, like anything that had been produced in places we’ve been talking about.

[Clara]: All of the material that was going to be destroyed was starting to be gathered at ESMA.

[Víctor]: At a certain point, they grabbed all of the negatives that were at intelligence and put them in bag to be burned. So by chance, I find out and I look and I see myself.

[Clara]: That is to say, Víctor found some pictures that the soldiers had taken of him and the others in the Hood in 1979, early on, 20 days before being kidnapped.

[Víctor]: So, that’s where I save the batch of the prisoner’s negatives, the ones of me and the others.

On top of that I save some other things. I was able to save a bunch of books.  Since I had that agreement with the lower level officials, I brought out a bag and said: “Can I take these books? You’re going to burn them and I’d like to read them.” “Sure, take them.” I took the books, but inside there were other things. Papers, this and that. Even photos.

[Clara]: And the photos, more than anything else, were key.

Víctor was set free in 1983, but of course, his story doesn’t end there. Even with a new democratic government, the shadow of the dictatorship remained and intelligence forces warned Víctor that they would be watching him.

[Víctor]: “You’re leaving, but don’t do anything stupid because governments come and go but the information community is always there.” Every 10 or 15 days an official from the navy or the prefecture came to check in on me. “And how are things going? Is everything ok? Everything alright? Are you alright? How about your mom? How’s she…?” “Your bother…?”

[Clara]: One agent went to Víctor’s house so often he had to tell his daughters that he was a friend from work.

[Víctor]: How do you explain to a little girl this is torturing son of bitch, that he’s one of the people who makes people disappear?

[Clara]: During those months, with the help of a friend, Víctor prepared a kind of dossier where he put the photos and the negatives of the pictures of the soldiers and wrote the story behind each picture. In May of 1984 he decided to take them to the National Commission on the Disappearance of Personsor CONADEP by its Spanish initials, an institution that had been recently founded by President Raúl Alfonsín’s democratic government to investigate the multiple reports of disappeared persons.

[Víctor]: And I said to them: “Here I have some material that will be of interest to you, but you have to treat it with the extreme caution because I’m being monitored.” And the guys were like this… Of course, it was the first time something like this had come to them. “And you can’t divulge this under any circumstances because if you do I’m a dead man.”

[Clara]: The investigators at CONADEP helped to move his family to a secure location in Neuquén, a province in the south west, in Patagonia. In the end, by August 1984, they decided to report everything with the help of lawyers from the Center for Legal and Social Studies, or CELS. The trouble that was to follow was intense.

[Víctor]: First I spoke before a court, the 30th Circuit Court. “Here I have a file with…” and I gave a testimony there in the court and then there was a press conference with CELS.

[Clara]: The only media outlet that was there, a left-leaning Peronist newspaper, put out two editions in one day. Víctor took it out and showed it to us.

[Víctor]: This is the newspaper, the front page of La Voz on August 30th, 1984 and it says: “ESMA, exclusive photos. The faces of 73 oppressors inside an illegal naval camp operating up to 1984.” And here are the photos of the basement and my picture which was taken at the time. And photos are on the inside.

[Clara]: He shows us the faces of executioners and victims, people he knew, other prisoners and friends.

[Víctor]: Here’s another person. This is the sub-officer from the federal police. This is an official from the federal police. These are two members of the prefecture. But there’s everything, most of the photos that I had at the time. “Repression in ESMA,” it says.

I was a captive with him. I knew her from the party. Him, no. Him, yes. Her, yes. Her, yes.

[Clara]: Pictures from the torture and detention sectors in ESMA. Pictures of the soldiers. Negatives of images of the prisoners in the Hood. Written orders requesting fake documents. Fake identification cards for stolen cars. Folders with information and personal histories from the people who were kidnapped and fake IDs for the police. They were convincing evidence for an accusation that the soldiers had always denied: that ESMA had falsified identities and assassinated political dissidents.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Víctor]: The three color photos on this page…were taken by me at the facility one night in sector 4. Here in the first picture there’s a picture of the door to the Egg Carton, that’s where it was.

[Clara]: This is Víctor in 1985, testifying in court against the military junta that governed his country for more than a decade. Víctor’s files, those documents and photos that he managed to get out of ESMA served as evidence for some of the most nefarious crimes committed by the Argentine dictatorship. It has been calculated that nearly 5,000 Argentinians have gone through ESMA, being tortured, and that at least 4,000 died in those facilities. During the trial, Víctor, the accidental photographer, was able to recall some of them.

(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)

[Víctor]: These photographs are of a girl name Nora, Elsa Martinez and Enrique Ardeti. Puki and Anteojito. Their last names are Barbos, Garciela Alberti and this is Lespíscopo. Pablo Lepíscopo.

[Daniel]: There are more, of course, many more.

The search for justice in Argentina continues up to the present. Of the 54 soldiers that are still being prosecuted at least 18 appear in Víctor Basterra’s photos.

Clara Ibarra works for Democracy Now and lives in New York. Alexandra Hall is a reporter with Wisconsin public radio and with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

This story was edited by Camila Segura and me, and mixed by the two of us with help from Andrés Azpiri.  

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas and Silvia Viñas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carlina Guerrero is our CEO

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón, thanks for listening.

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He decided that one day he’d have his revenge.

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