Operation Condor plane must be preserved, Uruguay judge orders

A technical report could reveal whether the plane, which transported the Asunción Five, was used by dictatorship to traffick other political dissidents

The Operation Condor plane at Montevideo's Melilla Airport. Photo: provided

A plane used to transport state terrorism victims from Paraguay to Argentina during Operation Condor in 1977 must be preserved, a Uruguayan judge has ordered. 

The plane, which originally belonged to the Argentine Army, has been abandoned at an airport in Uruguay for the past 15 years, and was discovered in September 2022 by a local illustrator who was looking for reference images on Google.

Judge María Helena Mainard García also asked the Uruguayan Air Force to carry out a report to determine its original identification number and certify its current condition. This aims to confirm that the plane at the airport is indeed the Operation Condor aircraft.

The plane, a Hawker Siddeley HS-125 model 400B jet, was abandoned at Ángel Adami (Melilla) Airport in Montevideo in 2008, after being sold by the Argentine Navy in 1987.

The plane was used in the case known as “Five in Asunción”, when five political exiles — three Argentines and two Uruguayans — were forced onto a flight from the Paraguayan capital to Buenos Aires in May 1977.

Witness testimony places one of them at “El Atlético” clandestine detention center, in Buenos Aires, on May 25 1977. But the Asunción Five were never seen again. 

It was discovered in September 2022, when Uruguayan artist Sebastián Santana Camargo was working on illustrations commissioned for a research project on human rights violations in South America in the 1970s, led by Francesca Lessa, a Latin American Studies and Development lecturer at Oxford University.

You may also be interested in: How this artist accidentally found an Operation Condor plane on Google

Judge Mainard García issued a precautionary measure on July 6, although the team following the case were not notified until last week, after Uruguay’s judicial recess. Her decision comes after Argentine judge Sebastián Casanello made a request on June 15 for the Uruguayan government to preserve the aircraft in its current state. It came after the artist testified before the Argentine authorities about his findings. “I think it’s quite a quick resolution,” Lessa said.

The plane has been cordoned off at the airport under the Uruguayan judge’s orders.

“We think it’s very important to preserve the plane, especially because it’s already been abandoned for a number of years,” said Lessa, who leads the project PlanCondor.org. “It’s really important that the plane is no longer left to itself and is being looked after, so that hopefully any more damage or modifications to the plane can no longer happen.”

During Operation Condor, the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay collaborated to persecute political exiles across borders. The repression was harshest between 1976 and late 1978, following the signing of an agreement in November 1975, although regimes had cooperated informally since the 1960s. 

It was backed by the government of the United States.

Lessa hopes the technical report will reveal more about the history of the plane, possibly indicating whether it was also used to transport other victims of political persecution around the region.

The research team now expects Argentine judge Casanello to request access to the flight log or, potentially, the return of the plane to Argentina.

Santana Camargo, Lessa and the rest of their team received pictures of the plane cordoned off in the airport on Saturday. “It was very emotional and symbolically important to see [that], because it’s a concrete step that things are happening now,” she said.

That was the first step in “making sure that any information that can be recovered from it can be used for the purpose of seeking truth and justice about the case of the five victims that were clandestinely renditioned through that plane, and any other potential ones that we are still to find out,” Lessa added.

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