Junta's opponents thrown live into sea

In the first of two articles, Phil Davison examines new evidence of the fate of the thousands who disappeared in Argentina's dirty war of the 1970s
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The Independent Online
"The prisoners were told we were taking them south and that they had to be vaccinated. They were sedated and fell asleep. At the airfield, we loaded them onto the plane as if they were zombies. They had no idea they were going to die.

"On board, they were given a second dose, a strong tranquilliser, which knocked them out completely. We stripped them while they were unconscious and when the pilot said we were over the [Atlantic] ocean beyond Punta Indio, we opened the plane door and bundled them out, naked, one at a time."

The description came from retired Argentine naval captain, Adolfo Scilingo, who said up to 2,000 political prisoners were tossed, alive but drugged, from military aircraft on regular weekly "death flights" over a two-year period in 1977-78. He said he took part in two flights, in which he helped throw out 30 people, but that the duty was rotated among most naval officers.

The daily newspaper Pagina 12, which carried Captain Scilingo's story, compared the long-suspected but never-admitted practice by Argentina's former military rulers to the Holocaust. Now, the revelations have turned the term "Dirty War" - the name given to the disappearance of left-wingers or suspected sympathisers during the military governments of 1976-83 - into an outright euphemism and embarrassed President Carlos Menem in the run-up to his re-election bid in May.

Argentines have long been convinced that the military disposed of its opponents at sea - hundreds of unidentifiable bodies were washed up on the nearby Uruguayan coast - but Captain Scilingo's confession was the first to break a code of silence among officers. He has been stripped of his rank by Mr Menem, who is Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, threatened and offered money to shut up. But he is continuing to call on other officers, including the Navy Chief of Staff, Admiral Enrique Molina Pico, to admit what he says they all did.

An official report concluded that 4,000 people were killed during the Dirty War and 9,000 disappeared. Human rights groups say a more accurate figure is that 30,000 "were disappeared" - Argentines prefer that term since the victims did not simply vanish. They were taken away and never seen again. Argentines believe the "death flight" idea was aimed at avoiding the discovery of mass graves, with the salt water and fish of the Atlantic and the mouth of the Plata river destroying the evidence.

The story has taken on an additional dimension with reports that the Roman Catholic church knew of or even suggested the "death flights". According to Captain Scilingo, churchmen supported the practice as "a non-violent Christian way to die. Chaplains comforted the officers involved [in the flights] with parables from the Bible about the necessity of separating the wheat from the chaff," he said.

Captain Scilingo said he had decided to reveal his experiences because he could not forget them. He had nightmares, had taken to sleeping pills and drink in an attempt to blot out the horror of his memories. He has told his story in a book called El Vuelo (The Flight), by Pagina 12 journalist, Horacio Verbitsky.

Captain Scilingo told the newspaper. "Once, I almost fell and was headed out into empty space. I slipped but they grabbed me and pulled me back. Most naval officers made at least one flight. The idea was to rotate people. It was a kind of communion."

Captain Scilingo said he did not question the practice because he was under orders and considered the detainees "subversives". "We all thought they were traitors. The firing squad is also immoral. Who suffers more: the one who knows they're going to shoot him or the one who died by this method?"

Mr Menem, who was imprisoned for five years under military rule, in 1990 granted a controversial pardon to all officers convicted of Dirty War crimes, citing a need to prevent the kind of discontent that had led to three military rebellions during civilian rule. He has stood by the pardon since Captain Scilingo's revelations, stripping him of his rank and describing him as a "crook". That was a reference to Captain Scilingo's conviction for fraud in 1991, after his retirement, for being in possession of a stolen car. He said he bought it in good faith.

Most Roman Catholic clergymen avoided comment on Captain Scilingo's allegations. Pagina 12 reported this week, however, that the Church had in 1979 sold an island in the Parana river to the Navy to allow it to set up a secret detention centre for "subversives".

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are named after the square in Buenos Aires where they demonstrate every Thursday to demand news of sons and daughters who went missing. Their spokeswoman said: "The behaviour of the chaplains of all the armed forces shame humanity." They called for publication of a list of all those secretly murdered.

"What happened in those years is comparable only with the Nazi crematoriums," said Emilio Mignone, a human rights activist whose 19-year-old daughter Monica disappeared in 1976.

Tomorrow: Will the fall-out from Mexico's crisis affect President Menem's re-election chances?