It happened on Wednesdays.
Every week, victims were selected for “transfer”. After being tortured and imprisoned for days, weeks or months, they were rounded up, given a sedative shot, and loaded into Navy airplanes at night. From the cargo bay, they were thrown alive into the River Plate.
Now known as the “death flights”, these grim voyages were the final destination of many of the people disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.
In 2010, Argentine journalist Miriam Lewin and Italian photographer Giancarlo Ceraudo located a Short Skyvan airplane used in those flights in Fort Lauderdale, US, as part of an investigation in which they found several death-flight airplanes, including four other Skyvans –two of which were destroyed in the Malvinas war– and three Electra models.
Now, the Argentine government is bringing the plane back to Buenos Aires, where it will stand as a reminder of these horrors.
Pilot and philanthropist Enrique Piñeyro, who also helped track them down and was a plaintiff in a case against death-flight pilots, definitively authenticated the plane at the Coolidge Municipal Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 8.
The search for the airplanes was originally conceived by Lewin and Ceraudo as a way of tracking down their pilots. But the planes themselves can provide more than information.
“This airplane was also a place where relatives of the disappeared, who have been throwing their symbolic offerings into the river, can go and lay flowers in what is probably the last place where their loved ones were alive,” Lewin told the Buenos Aires Herald.
For Lewin, the matter is close to her heart: she is a survivor of the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), one of the dictatorship’s most active clandestine centers of detention, torture and extermination.
Lewin was kept alive to perform white-collar tasks at the ESMA, together with other detained-disappeared who were used as forced labor. She was released in 1979, although the military continued to monitor her.
When navy officers used to return to ESMA after transferring prisoners, the detained-disappeared there would see them carrying the clothes of the same people they had taken away hours before. “They told us they had given them better ones, because they were sending them to Patagonia. And we chose to believe them. Some things are just too horrifying,” said Lewin in an interview with Página 12.
Once democracy was restored, she testified for the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep) created by President Raúl Alfonsin, which also received several anonymous testimonies from military officers describing the existence of death flights, which had been reported as early as 1977.
Lewin, who is now the country’s Press Ombudswoman, was also a witness in many of the trials that focused on ESMA torturers and murderers when trials were reopened in 2003, after Congress annulled the so-called “impunity laws” of Full Stop (which set a deadline to denounce disappearances) and Due Obedience (which prevented lower rank soldiers and marines from being charged) that were enforced back in the 1980s as a result of military pressure.
This particular Skyvan flew on the night of December 14, 1977, carrying in its cargo bay Mothers of Plaza de Mayo founder Azucena Villaflor and several other desaparecidos —including French nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, who had been kidnapped at the Church of the Holy Cross (‘Iglesia de la Santa Cruz’) in Buenos Aires and brought to the ESMA. The other passengers were the military men who would push them to their deaths.
A few days later, five bodies washed up on the shore and were buried in anonymous graves. The remains of Villaflor, Duquet and three others were identified among them in 2005 by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team.
“In the Argentine context, where denialist speeches are emerging, this plane –particularly since this is the one that the group of founders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the French nuns were thrown from– is undeniable evidence of the extremes that state terrorism reached,” said Lewin.
“We now have new generations of young people who will vote, and they are being captivated by a supposedly libertarian discourse that is actually extremely authoritarian and vindicates the actions of the military back then.”
In 2017, two pilots of that particular flight, Mario Daniel Arrú and Alejandro Domingo D’Agostino, were sentenced to life in prison as part of the case known as “ESMA III”. The third pilot, Enrique José De Saint Georges, died while on trial months before the sentence.
The last flight
The airplane has been bought by the Economy Ministry, led by Sergio Massa, and will be flown from the US. Its flight plan has yet to be disclosed, but it will take around five days and make several stopovers due to the airplane’s short flight range, according to ministry sources. It is expected to land in an Argentine airport in April, at which point the Argentine state will officially take possession of the aircraft.
On board the plane will be original parts including a sign that used to be next to the door lever, indicating it should never be opened without authorization from the flight’s commander. The sign, together with the airplane’s manuals, were used at the trial against the pilot to refute the claim that they were not aware of what happened outside their cabin during the flights.
Sources in the Economy ministry told the Buenos Aires Herald that the process of acquiring the plane was not easy, since it was not originally on sale, and it took several rounds of negotiation until the owner agreed to the purchase on December 7 last year.
The Skyvan will fly to Argentina in its current state — it has been modified from its original version with updated electronic instruments, new engines, a weather radar, and a new automated system to open the formerly-manual cargo door. Once here, it will be stationed at a hangar provided by the Defense Ministry, where it will be arranged for transportation –including the temporary removal of its wings– to its final destination: the former ESMA property, which has been transformed into the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.
The full ESMA complex was sprawled across 17 hectares in a residential neighborhood of Buenos Aires, but the state-sponsored torture took place in one of the many buildings: the Casino de Oficiales, or Officers’ Quarters. The building later became the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory, which is currently nominated for the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Sources at the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory specified that the airplane will be on display inside the complex –which is now known as the Space for Memory and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights– but not in the museum itself.
Wherever in the complex it is displayed, the airplane is set to be an emotional lightning rod.
“Personally, being close to the plane for the first time was a shock to me,” said Lewin, who flew to Fort Lauderdale in 2014 to see it in person for the first time. “I couldn’t stop thinking about the bodies of the people I cared about inside that thing. People I had known, people I had worked with as an activist and with whom I was a prisoner.”
“I couldn’t stop thinking I myself could have been a passenger in one of those flights.”