The Death Flights of Argentina's Dirty War

Imagine the scene. Men and women are drugged, stripped naked and then dragged aboard aeroplanes, before being pushed out into the ocean and plunging to their deaths in the cold waters of the Atlantic. In an added twist of horrific cruelty, some of the victims are falsely told that they are in fact being released from their imprisonment and that they should dance in joy and celebration of their imminent release. This is the horrifying truth of what happened during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in Argentina, where it is alleged that around 200 of these ‘death flights’ took place between 1977 and 1978.

The Dirty War was a period of state terrorism in Argentina from 1976 until 1983.Victims of the violence included several thousand left-wing activists and militants, including trade unionists, students, journalists, Marxists, Peronist guerrillas and alleged sympathizers. Some 10,000 of the disappeared were guerrillas of the Montoneros (MPM), and the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). Estimates for the number of people who were killed or “disappeared” range from 9,089 to over 30,000; the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons estimates that around 13,000 disappeared. However, these figures must be considered inadequate as declassified documents and internal reporting by Argentine military intelligence itself confirm at least 22,000 killed or “disappeared” between late-1975 (several months prior to the March 1976 coup) and mid-July 1978, which is incomplete as it excludes killings and “disappearances” that occurred after July of 1978 In total, hundreds of people are thought to have died on ‘Death Flights’, most of them being political activists and militants.

The shocking revelations of what happened were uncovered by Adolfo Scilingo, who was convicted in Spain in 2005 for crimes against humanity. Speaking in an interview in 1996, Scilingo said “They were played lively music and made to dance for joy, because they were going to be transferred to the south… After that, they were told they had to be vaccinated due to the transfer, and they were injected with Pentothal. And shortly after, they became really drowsy, and from there we loaded them onto trucks and headed off for the airfield.”

argentinan-death-flights-protestProtests against ‘Death Flights’ in Argentina

Scilingo is just one of several people who have been detained in relation to being involved in the crimes. In September 2009, Juan Alberto Poch was arrested whilst at the controls of a holiday jet at Valencia Airport. In May 2011, three former policemen called Enrique Jose De Saint Georges, Mario Daniel Arru and Alejandro Domingo D’Agostino were arrested after being accused of forming the crew of a death flight in 1977 in which two members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group were killed. In total, the official tally of people killed during the dirty war stands at around 13,000 people, but many believe that the actual figure is probably closer to 30,000.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.