BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- From the stately gates, which are as close as most civilians can approach, the colonnaded buildings of the Navy Mechanics School here offer little hint of the atrocities that took place inside during the military dictatorship that ended 15 years ago.
And if the government of President Carlos Saul Menem has its way, Argentines will never get so much as a glimpse inside the school, once a notorious interrogation center where an estimated 4,000 political prisoners were killed as part of the military's "dirty war" of repression against leftist guerrillas.
Menem, a Peronist who has encouraged his countrymen to leave the past behind, announced plans last week to demolish the navy campus, which is on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and to build an "open green space and monument to national unity" in its stead.
But human rights groups, opposition political leaders, survivors of the detention center and relatives of people who perished there have strongly opposed razing the school and are calling for the buildings to be preserved as a museum.
"It should be turned into a museum of horrors to show the world what happened there," said Nora de Cortinas, head of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, a group of women whose children were killed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Emilio Mignone, head of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a leading human rights group, said, "You can't call for national unity, a sort of pacification, in a place where at least 4,000 Argentines have been murdered and tortured by the navy."
In the past week, thousands of people, including relatives of victims and other outraged Argentines, have marched outside the school, demanding to be allowed inside.
"Cowards! Cowards!" yelled one, Esmeralda Garcia, a nurse whose brother was detained by the military in 1979 and never seen again. "Let us inside to claim what's left of our loved ones."
The debate over whether the school should be destroyed or maintained has reopened one of Argentina's deepest wounds, its "dirty war" in which at least 14,000 people, according to government statistics, were killed or disappeared in the military's purge of its critics.
Human rights groups estimate that about 30,000 Argentines disappeared or died at the hands of the military junta.
Many of the victims were not guerrillas but rather people who either associated with or were believed to be linked with the leftist insurgency.
The Navy Mechanics School, which provides basic and specialized training for cadets, was the junta's clandestine torture and interrogation center where most people suspected of having leftist sympathies were taken.
Those who survived the detention center say they witnessed all manner of torture and killing, including electric shock, beatings, severing of fingers and toes and morbid experiments, often supervised by military doctors.
People who were released from the center said that few survived the sessions and that bodies were taken away each night.
Pub Date: 1/18/98