Trigger warning: this article contains descriptions of torture.
Over 30,000 Argentinians were killed and disappeared during the US-backed dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla between 1976 and 1981. Taking his cues from Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Videla’s preferred method of disappearing opponents was through death flights: cargo planes and helicopters were loaded with the packaged and weighted bodies of detainees and dropped into the ocean. In many cases, the victims were tortured and heavily sedated yet still alive when they were thrown to their horrific marine deaths. The US was well aware of the practice, as declassified documents illustrate.
Now one of the planes that performed this torturous function, the Skyvan PA-51, will be repatriated to Argentina where it will be housed at the Navy School of the Mechanics (ESMA), which was the main detention, torture, and extermination center of the Argentinian military dictatorship.
The Skyvan’s return to Argentina is an illustrative symbol of the macabre disappearances of the country’s history and its role in Operation Condor which claimed 30,000 lives in Argentina alone. The return of this vehicle of torture is raising deep and mixed emotions among the survivors of the brutality.
Details of the death flights were made publicly accessible when former Argentinian Naval Captain Adolfo Scilingo became the first military officer to publicly disclose the disappearances committed during the Videla dictatorship: “They were unconscious: we stripped them naked and when the flight commander gave the order, we opened the door and dumped them, naked, one by one. This is the true story, no one can deny it,” he said in an interview with journalist Horacio Verbitsky. Scilingo, who was based at ESMA, stated that all his colleagues participated in the death flights at some point. “It was to give everyone a turn, a kind of Communion.”
The conversations between Scilingo and Verbitsky were compiled in a book titled El Vuelo (The Flight). Following the publication, Scilingo wrote his own account of the death flights, describing the process and mentioning the aircraft models used for the disappearances of Argentina’s detainees. Along with 99 other officials, Scilingo was indicted in 1999 by the Spanish court for his participation in the death flights, which included the disappearances of Spanish nationals. He was sentenced to 640 years in prison in 2005, and his sentence was increased to 1,084 years, after being found guilty of other dictatorship-era crimes.
Objects of the Dictatorship
For Argentinian journalist and former ESMA detainee Miriam Lewin and Italian photojournalist Giancarlo Ceraudo — whose meticulous research into Argentina’s collective memory produced the bilingual book Destino Final (Schilt Publishing, 2017) — the aircraft models provided the first clue for locating the current whereabouts of the planes.
Ceraudo’s interest in locating the aircraft was ignited when he came across old newspapers from the dictatorship era concealed in a refrigerator at El Olimpo detention and torture center, prompting him to question the whereabouts of objects related to the dictatorship. Scilingo’s book provided Ceraudo with the first clues about the aircrafts used for the death flights.
A few days after the death flight, five bodies washed up on the beach.
The Irish-manufactured Skyvan PA-51 was located in the US at Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 2010. Its number had been changed and it was being used by the courier company GB Airlink Inc. to transport clothes from Miami to the Bahamas. The plane is still in use today and is currently operated by Win Aviation under a new registration number.
When Lewin and Ceraudo first located the plane in Florida in 2010, they made the link between the plane and concrete proof of the death flights when the new owner disclosed that he also possessed the Skyvan’s log sheets detailing all the flights made during the Videla dictatorship.
Pilot, medical doctor,film director, and aviation expert Enrique Pineyro analyzed the log sheets and noticed one particularly irregular record pertaining to a flight that took place on Dec. 14, 1977. Pineyro’s analysis led Argentinian judges and prosecutors tasked with the dictatorship-era crimes against humanity to open judicial investigations into the case. From the log sheets, Pineyro knew the pilots associated with that particular flight in December: Enrique de Saint Georges, Mario Arru, and Alejandro Agostino but the arrest warrants were delayed despite the evidence. At a seminar on human rights, prosecutor Miguel Angel Osorio announced the identification of the death flight pilots which took place in December 1977. In April 2011, Arru turned himself in, while de Saint Georges and Agostino were arrested in May of the same year.
The Skyvan’s 1977 Death Flight
In 1976, the Videla dictatorship passed Edict 19, which prohibited the dissemination of news about the detention, torture, murder and disappearances of Argentinian civilians. Outlets complicit with the dictatorship published the state’s narrative that framed the deaths as the result of confrontations, while Argentinian embassies were tasked with countering reports from abroad about the extermination and disappearances happening at ESMA.
In 1977, the well-known organization of mothers of the disappeared, Abuelas Plaza de Mayo was formed, with the intention of locating their missing children and grandchildren. Meetings were held at the Church of the Holy Cross in Buenos Aires and infiltrated by Alfredo Astiz, who was a military commander and naval commando based at ESMA. Astiz assumed a fake identity as “Gustavo Nino” and claimed to have a disappeared brother, so he could infiltrate the organization and gather intelligence. Under his assumed name, Astiz accompanied the activists during their activities with a young woman who he introduced as his sister, but who was later identified as Silvia Labayu, who was detained, sexually abused, and tortured at ESMA.
From Dec. 8 to Dec. 10, 1977, ESMA groups kidnapped and detained 12 activists associated with Abuelas Plaza de Mayo, including two French nuns Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, while they were on the streets fundraising for a newspaper announcement that would mention all the disappeared to date by name. To deflect the international spotlight on the French nuns’ disappearance, the Argentinian military put out the narrative that Domon and Duquet were kidnapped by the Montoneros — a left-wing Peronist guerrilla organization — and substantiated their claim by publishing a photo of the nuns in front of a staged flag of the organization.
The hostages of the Holy Cross, as the group came to be called, were last seen at ESMA on Dec. 14, hours before the death flight took place. No flight other than that of the Skyvan PA-51 was logged on the day, linking the aircraft to the 12 detainees’ extermination and disappearance.
A few days after the death flight, five bodies washed up on the beach of General Lavalle, identified in 2005 as Leonie Duquet, Angela Aud, the founder of Abuelas Plaza de Mayo Azucena Villaflor, Mary Ponce de Bianco, and Esther Ballestrino de Careaga. Astiz was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by the French judicial authorities for his role in the disappearance of Domon and Duquet.
It took until 2011 for Arru, Agostino, and de Saint Georges to face charges for their role in the death flights and the disappearances of hundreds of Argentinian detainees, including the hostages of the Holy Cross victims. In the trial known as ESMA III, in which hundreds of former military personnel were accused of crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship, Arru and Agostino were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for their participation in the death flights. De Saint Georges, who had denied the charges against him in 2013, died before sentencing.
Upon a request by Argentina’s Minister of Economy, Pineyro was tasked with checking that the Skyvan PA-51, now located in Arizona, was indeed the same one used for the death flights.
The return of the aircraft to ESMA completes a brutal yet necessary part of Argentina’s collective memory of the dictatorship. The physical proof of the long-denied pain of the survivors is key to collective grief and healing.