Argentine dictatorship: Four Argentine ex-soldiers sentenced to life imprisonment for the ‘death flights’

Aerial view of Campo de Mayo in 2020.
Aerial view of Campo de Mayo in 2020.Maxar Technologies (Reuters)

During the last Argentine dictatorship, the Army used airplanes to throw kidnapped people into the water from great heights. In a ruling of great importance, a court considered proven the existence of death flights that departed from the military garrison of Campo de Mayo, the largest in Argentina, located on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The Federal Oral Court 2 of San Martín sentenced four ex-soldiers to life imprisonment for the crimes of illegal deprivation of liberty, torture and homicide against four victims.

Those convicted were the former commander of the Military Institutes Santiago Omar Riveros, the former commander of the Aviation Battalion 601 Luis del Valle Arce and two other officers of that battalion, Delsis Malacalza and Eduardo Lance. With the conviction of this Monday, Riveros, supervisor of what happened in Campo de Mayo, already accumulates 16 life sentences.

The judges requested that medical studies be carried out to determine if the three members of the Battalion can serve their sentence in a common jail. They are currently under house arrest. In addition, the court asked to deepen the investigation into who acted as pilots and co-pilots of the death flights that took place in Campo de Mayo.

General Santiago Omar Riveros, in an archive photograph from April 2001.
General Santiago Omar Riveros, in an archive photograph from April 2001.AP

The verdict issued this Monday is the first in which the Justice recognizes the death flights as an extermination mechanism of the Army during the dictatorship. In 2017, it had already considered its use proven by the Navy with the conviction of two pilots of the flights that departed from the Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy (ESMA), the largest clandestine detention center of the military regime. The convictions were then part of the verdict of the largest trial in the history of Argentina, the so-called ESMA mega-cause, with 54 accused for the crimes committed against 789 victims.

In the ruling issued this Monday, the mechanics of the death flights were judged exclusively. With them it is suspected that the Army disappeared a large part of the 4,000 detainees who passed through there, but the trial focused on four cases whose remains were found on the shore, where they arrived pushed by the tide. They are Juan Carlos Rosace, Adrián Accrescinbeni, Roberto Arancibia and Rosa Eugenia Novillo Corvalán. They were kidnapped between 1976 and 1977 and transferred to the El Campito clandestine detention center that operated in Campo de Mayo. There they were subjected to torture and then drugged, put on planes and thrown from great heights into the sea or the Río de la Plata.

The trial began in 2020 and its process has been very complex not only because of the pandemic but also because of the facts judged. Since no one survived the death flights, there are no direct witnesses and almost no military personnel, except Adolfo Scilingo and Víctor Ibáñez, have ever confessed that they knew of their existence or participated in them.

The main source to reconstruct what happened were the ex-conscripts, that is, young people who performed compulsory military service in Campo de Mayo between 1976 and 1977. According to their testimonies, quoted by the newspaper Page 12the common destination of the flights was Punta Indio, almost 150 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, at the mouth of the Río de la Plata.

Some former conscripts reported finding detainee belongings near the runway from which the planes took off, while others also found vials of Ketalar, the drug used to numb them before transfer. As a rule there was at least one death flight a week.

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