Verdict in Argentina Death Flights Trial
For the past five years, prosecutors have worked on Argentina’s largest trial in history, to convict 54 former military officials in the deaths or forced disappearances of 789 people. It is estimated that there have been over 800 witness testimonies.
On Wednesday, the case finally came to a close; 29 of the 54 were sentenced to life in prison, 19 were given sentences ranging from eight to 25 years, and six were acquitted.
During the Argentine Dirty War, the former military officials in question partook in “death flights,”frequent practices in which civilians were thrown from airplanes into the South Atlantic Ocean. Typically, victims were seized and drugged before being loaded into an aircraft, where they were stripped and dropped into the freezing waters below. Many officials in the trial were part of Argentina’s Naval Mechanics School (ESMA), the notorious naval school in Buenos Aires, which is responsible for the disappearances of 5,000 people via death flights.
Marcos Queipo, a mechanic who worked in the different islands of the Parana Delta in the late 1970’s recalled: “I remember seeing these military planes throwing these strange packages over the area. I did not know what they were… But I then saw these packages floating on the river banks. When I opened them I was aghast. The packages were dead bodies.”
While the “death flights” are incredibly disturbing in and of themselves, they make up an even more troubling narrative. Throughout the nine years of the Argentine Dirty War, human rights groups approximate the number of disappeared to exceed 30,000.
In 2009, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that the actions of the dictatorship between the years of 1976 and 1983 were to be considered “crimes against humanity within the framework of [a] genocide.” However, many government officials still stand by the actions of their predecessors, claiming that they were punishing those who defied the government: “they were not young idealists, they were terrorists.”
Nevertheless, families of the disappeared continue their decades-long search through grassroots organizations such as Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Emanuel Dezorzi, whose father was proved to have been illegally arrested, and forced half-naked into a vehicle in 1976, states: “there are many families in Argentina destroyed by this, just like us. We have gone through 37 years of not knowing. To have a relative disappeared is a wound that does not close until the person appears again.”
Victor Basterra, now 73 years old, was a former political prisoner held at ESMA. Though he acknowledges the sadness and darkness surrounding the trial, he celebrates the verdict by expressing: “This is a happy moment in the long fight for justice that has been going on for decades.”