How this artist accidentally found an Operation Condor plane on Google

The finding in Uruguay could serve as evidence in ongoing trials of crimes against humanity

Sebastián Santana Camargo knew that the five activists forced to board the plane in Paraguay were never seen again.

The Uruguayan artist had been commissioned to illustrate a video of an Argentine navy airplane that the country’s dictatorship used to traffick political detainees across borders during the worst repression of Operation Condor. 

Archives from the time included details like its model and number. Its last recorded location was in Argentina in 1984. But its whereabouts were unknown. So, Santana did what any artist would. He Googled it — and got several pages of results.

At first, he was skeptical, but as he scrolled through Google Images, his suspicions grew. The aircraft that kept cropping up on planespotter blogs and aviation websites wasn’t just the same model. It was the same plane. 

“I looked at the screen and I couldn’t believe it,” he told the Herald. “It blew my mind.”

The plane in its early days, and the plane now. Sources: Argentine Navy and AFP

Once Santana realized what he was looking at, it took just a couple of hours to confirm. He compared pictures posted on the websites with the information he had on the plane. “It was relatively easy,” he said. “I had plenty of information that told me that it was the same plane from the documents.” 

The official Argentine Navy Facebook page even had pictures of it with its registration number written in the captions. The images showed that the aircraft had been painted over and its code had changed after being sold a couple of times.

On one of the pages was a Google Maps image with a pin on its current location: Montevideo’s Melilla airport. It was even visible on Google Street View. It had been sitting there, abandoned, at least since 2008. But no-one had connected it with the sinister information in archives and trial testimonies.

The airplane’s story is an example of the horrors that happened while South American dictatorships worked together to form the continent-wide network of political persecution, torture and murder known as Operation Condor in the 1970s. 

It also shows the solidarity of political activists and militants who worked together and put their lives on the line to help each other escape.

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You can see the plane for yourself on Google Maps

The Five in Asunción’s story

In 2021, Oxford University researcher Francesca Lessa commissioned Santana and his team to animate three videos about Operation Condor. One was about the “Five in Asunción” case, which showcases how this collaboration between dictatorships worked. 

The case involves Uruguayans Gustavo Inzaurralde and Nelson Santana Scotto and Argentines José Luis Nell, Alejandro Logoluso and Dora Marta Landi. 

Inzaurralde was one of the Uruguayans hiding in Buenos Aires who co-founded the Partido por la Victoria del Pueblo (PVP), a marxist-socialist and anti-capitalist group for political exiles, which exists today as a political party. Nelson Santana was also a member. Landi and Logoluso were in the Juventud Peronista (Peronist Youth).

José Luis Nell was 67 and not politically active. His wife had died of cancer and his son, a famous guerrilla leader also called José Luis, was disabled in the Ezeiza Massacre, a mass shooting that broke out when right-wing factions of Peronism ambushed its leftist rivals during a massive rally near Ezeiza Airport. The gathering was originally organized to welcome former president Juan Domingo Perón, who was returning to Argentina in 1973 after 18 years in exile. José Luis junior died by suicide in 1974 and his wife was disappeared by the military government two years later.

José Luis Nell junior

Blessed with a clean criminal record, Nell dedicated himself to receiving exiles in his home and helping them flee to Paraguay to get false passports. From there, they would travel to Brazil and then seek refuge in Europe.

“I have nothing left to lose in my life, so I decided to work with these people,” Nell said during interrogation in the Paraguayan capital, Asunción. His comments were recorded in Paraguay’s Terror Archives — a series of documents written during the 1954-1989 Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship, later found in 1992.

“The Five in Asunción were trying to get 90-100 fake passports for their comrades. It was an enormous rescue task,” Santana said.

The plan went sour because of money issues, and a worker at the Paraguayan civil registry reported them to the police. 

On March 29 1977, they were kidnapped by Paraguayan police and subjected to weeks of brutal interrogation. Argentine and Uruguayan torturers flew there specifically for that purpose. On May 16 they were forced onto a plane to Buenos Aires. The aircraft had been bought for the use of Argentine Navy Commander in Chief and Junta member, Emilio Eduardo Massera, who had flown in it just the day before.

Witness testimony places Inzaurralde at “El Atlético” clandestine detention center, in Buenos Aires, on May 25 1977. But the Asunción Five were never seen again. The illegal detention and the number of the plane were registered in the Terror Archives.

The political activists being escorted into the plane. Illustration by Sebastián Santana Camargo

What was Operation Condor?

The Five in Asunción are a prime example of Operation Condor, “a transnational criminal network that the regimes of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay set up in November 1975 to more effectively coordinate the persecution of political exiles beyond borders, both in South America and beyond,” Lessa told the Herald.

This organized brutality was harshest from early 1976 until late 1978, but it started with less formal collaborations in the 1960s. On November 25 1975, intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay met in Santiago de Chile and formally signed the start of Operation Condor.

“There was a long history of this type of collaboration throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. When the regimes realized how ‘successful’ they could be by working together, they decided to set up a more formal system, which was Operation Condor,” Lessa explained.

The agreement reflected dictatorships’ desires to silence opposition beyond their own borders, since many exiles “remained involved in political activism and denouncing what was going on back home,” Lessa said.

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“Some of the cases of Operation Condor are extreme human rights violations and crimes against humanity: disappearances, torture, sexual violence, and so on; but the rest of society was also affected through censorship, interventions in schools, universities, trade unions and political parties,” Lessa said. “Knowledge of the past is one of the instruments that truly enables us to hopefully never repeat this type of atrocities.”

The Five in Asunción plane midflight. Illustration by Sebastián Santana Camargo

After finding the plane, Santana told the Uruguayan and Argentine courts, so it could potentially serve as evidence for ongoing trials. The Argentine judiciary called him to testify on his findings to incorporate this information in related trials. On June 15, Judge Sebastián Casanello demanded the Uruguayan authorities preserve the plane. It’s not clear who the plane currently belongs to because the company that had last bought it no longer exists.

Santana is asking for the plane to be expropriated by the Uruguayan government and then taken to Argentina. 

“It’s important both as a symbolic object, and also as material evidence of these crimes,” he said.


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