The ‘flight of death’ of the Argentine dictatorship returns home to calculate history

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Flying from Florida to Buenos Aires usually takes about 10 hours, but Saturday’s turboprop landing in Argentina was no ordinary plane. It’s been on the road for 20 days, and many Argentinians are eager to refresh the flight-tracking software to track its progress.

Short SC.7 Skyvan does not carry important cargo nor VIP passengers. Instead, the plane will be another vehicle for Argentines to recount the brutal history of their country’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

The plane, discovered in the US, was the first to be proven in court to have been used by Argentine authorities to hurl political detainees from the sky, one of the most devastating acts of all. the coldest bloodshed of the bloody period.

The Argentine government will add the plane to the Museum of Memory, which was once the government’s most notorious secret detention center. Known as the ESMA, it housed many prisoners, who were later thrown alive from the “death flight” into the sea or river.

One of the victims involved in the return plane was Azucena Villaflor, whose son Néstor disappeared and was probably murdered during the early days of the dictatorship. After he went missing, she formed the group Mothers of Plaza de Mayo to request information about the missing children, and was captured and killed herself.

“For us, as family members, it is very important for the plane to be part of history, because the bodies as well as the plane tell exactly what happened. happened,” Cecilia De Vincenti, Villaflor’s daughter, told The Associated Press.

The return of the plane was triggered by Italian photographer Giancarlo Ceraudo, who spent years searching for “flight of death” planes. This one later delivered mail in Florida and recently carried skydivers in Arizona.

Throughout his search, Ceraudo said, countless people did not understand why he remained steadfastly focused on the search for the junta plane, especially when the bodies of so many victims of the regime were found. dictatorship has not yet been found.

“The planes had to be recovered because they were an important part, like the (Nazi) gas chambers, a terrible tool,” Ceraudo said in an interview.

Argentina’s military junta is considered by many to be the most dangerous of the military dictatorships that ruled much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. It detained, tortured, and killed people suspected of rebellion. regime. Human rights groups estimate 30,000 people have been killed, many of whom have disappeared without a trace.

Some of them have disappeared on “death flights”.

In an extended test 2012-2017, survivors testified that the flights took place at least weekly. According to eyewitnesses, prisoners were often told they were about to be released and were sometimes forced to dance to loud music to celebrate. Then they received a vaccine that was supposed to be a potent sedative. When the drug took effect, they were hooded, tied and taken to the plane.

The trial, in which 29 former officials were sentenced to life in prison, demonstrated that the dictatorship used death flights as a method of systematic destruction. It turns out that the Skyvan that had just returned to Buenos Aires was used to kill Villaflor and 11 other detainees.

Prosecutors said it was impossible to know in total how many people were arrested who were thrown from the plane. But at least 71 bodies suspected of being victims of the fatal flight have washed up on shores – 44 in Argentina and 27 in neighboring Uruguay, according to the Argentina Forensic Anthropology Group, a non-governmental group.

Between December 1977 and February 1978, the bodies of five women, including Villaflor, two other members of the Plaza de Mayo Mothers Foundation, and two French nuns were helping the women. Mothers looking for their loved ones are swept away. They were buried without identification and their bodies were not identified until 2005.

Ceraudo teamed up with Miriam Lewin, a journalist and ESMA survivor, to search for the planes.

The pilots of the flight that carried Villaflor to her death were convicted in part because of the flight logs that Ceraudo and Lewin were able to find after tracking the PA-51 Skyvan in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2010. .

Mercedes Soiza Reilly, prosecutor in the 2012-2017 trial, said: “The record led us to the pilots, and from those names we were able to locate them in the structures. repressive architecture works in the service of a systematic plan of destruction”. .

Through a painstaking search that included digging into the sites where hobbyists find aircraft tracking planes, Ceraudo and Lewin were able to locate the planes.

Of the five Skyvans known to have been used in death flights, two were destroyed during the 1982 war with Britain over the Falkland Islands. The remaining three were sold in 1994 to CAE Aviation, a company based in Luxemburg. One of those planes was sold to GB Airlink, which used it to provide private mail service to the Bahamas from Florida.

This year, after the Argentine government decided to buy the plane following a campaign by De Vincenti and other human rights activists, it was placed in a skydiving outfit in Phoenix.

“It’s an amazing story, isn’t it?” De Vincenti said. “Because they were thrown out without a parachute, and now they are using it for that purpose, to parachute.”

Recovering such an old plane is not easy. It was stranded in Jamaica for two weeks after its engine failed shortly after takeoff from the island. It was also stranded for several days in Bolivia due to inclement weather.

To seek justice for the victims of the military junta, Argentina has held 296 trials related to crimes against humanity during the dictatorship since 2006, after the amnesty law was repealed. . Of those, 1,115 were convicted, according to the Prosecutor’s Office.

Activists say displaying the plane will help Argentines understand the reality of the dictatorship.

“That’s very important, because there are generations that were born and lived in democracy and didn’t have to endure the horrors of those years,” Lewin said.


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