ESMA “Death Flights”: 29 Former Naval Officers Sentenced to Life in Prison in Argentina’s Largest Human Rights Trial

On Wednesday, November 29, judges overseeing the biggest human rights trial in Argentinian history handed down 48 lengthy prison sentences sentencing 29 former naval officials to life in prison, marking the first judgement against participants in the notorious “death flights”, during which opponents of Argentina’s military regime were thrown from aircraft into the South Atlantic Ocean in an attempt to hide the murders. 19 other defendants received prison sentences ranging between eight and twenty-five years, and the remaining 6 were acquitted, including a couple of pilots.

As the four-hour sentencing hearing concluded, the defendants avoided looking at former political prisoners and relatives of those who were killed, who were standing in the back of the courtroom.

The verdict capped the most ambitious effort to date to hold former military leaders accountable for abuses committed between 1976 and 1983, when several Latin American countries were ruled by brutal right-wing military juntas.

The case involved the deaths or forced disappearances of 789 victims held at a clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires’ Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy — commonly known as the ESMA, its Spanish acronym. The scope of the crimes under investigation was immense: 484 cases corresponded to persons who were either murdered or made to “disappear” at the ESMA; the remaining 305 cases involved survivors of kidnapping and torture as well as children born in captivity at the camp.

The Federal Oral Court (TOF) in Buenos Aires found that former coastguard pilots Mario Daniel Arrú and Alejandro Domingo D’Agostino had piloted the Skyvan PA-51 plane’s three-hour flight, from which Esther Careaga, 2 French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, and 9 other people were thrown to their deaths into the Rio de la Plata on the night of December 14, 1977. Careaga was seized by the military after denouncing the disappearance of her pregnant 16-year-old daughter Ana María. She was a close friend of Jorge Bergoglio, who decades later became Pope Francis.

Careaga’s body, along with those of Duquet and two other mothers, Azucena Villaflor and María Bianco, washed ashore on Argentina’s Atlantic coast six days later and were buried in a common grave. Their remains were only identified via DNA testing in 2003. Domon’s remains were never recovered.

A total of 830 witnesses gave evidence, including Pope Francis, who testified in 2010 over the disappearance of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics. “At that time any priest who worked among the poor was the target of suspicion from some sectors,” he stated then. “It was very common, if someone went to work with the poor they were considered a lefty.”

Arrú and D’Agostino’s participation in the death flights was discovered by Argentinian journalist and ESMA survivor Miriam Lewin, who in 2011 managed to track down the Skyvan PA-51 aeroplane to its new owner in Miami, Florida.

Incredibly, the original 1977 flight logs of the plane were intact and named the crew on the night of Careaga’s death. A third crew-member, Enrique José de Saint George, died during the trial.

The pilots were among the 54 defendants tried by prosecutors in the massive five-year trial that shone a spotlight on the systematic torture and killing of around 5,000 civilians between 1976 and 1983.

Naval intelligence operatives infiltrated activists groups – such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights organization, which consisted of mothers of missing persons such as Careaga, Villaflor, and Bianco, who were drawing international media attention to the human rights abuses in Argentina.

Victims included Montonero guerrillas, labor union leaders, students, leftist sympathizers, human rights activists, and in some instances the friends and relatives of people who had already been “disappeared” by the military.

High-profile defendants who received life sentences included former naval officers Alfredo Astiz (pictured, second from left), known as the “Blond Angel of Death,” Jorge Acosta, (pictured, far left), nicknamed “The Tiger,” and Ricardo Cavallo, who were already serving life prison sentences for previous convictions.

Among other crimes, Astiz and Acosto were indicted for the 1977 disappearance of Swedish citizen Dagmar Hagelin, who was only 17 years old.

Some 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and killed in what became known as Argentina’s “Dirty War,” according to human rights organizations.

In a series of hearings, witnesses recounted in chilling detail how civilians were drugged, loaded onto aircraft, and unceremoniously dumped into the freezing waters off the coast of Buenos Aires. While the practice has long been known, prosecutors managed to cross-reference testimony and documents to detail how one of the most egregious tactics of Argentina’s dictatorship was carried out.

The trial also brought to light the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the junta’s crimes. No member of the clergy was accused in the trial, but prosecutors alleged that church officials were complicit in hiding detainees from international human rights inspectors.

“We are very satisfied with the verdict,” said Abel Córdoba, a prosecutor. “We think this is a fair decision that proved the methodology of death flights as a way of extermination.”

The verdict comes as Argentine human rights organizations are questioning President Mauricio Macri’s commitment to the legal reckoning of the human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, an effort that was championed by his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Activists say his administration has sent mixed signals by dismantling human rights departments in ministries; by questioning whether the often-cited estimate of victims from that era has been overstated; and by emphasizing the need for Argentina to turn the page on that dark chapter of its history.

Mr. Córdoba said he was hopeful the country’s shifting politics would not stymie the pursuit of justice in scores of pending human rights cases. “We think it’s important for the courts to continue sending a message regarding crimes against humanity,” he said Wednesday night.

Argentina has done more than any of its neighbors to punish people for crimes committed during the era of military rule. As of last month, 818 people have been convicted and 754 defendants were on trial in Argentine court cases, according to the attorney general’s office.

Argentina’s junta has long been regarded as the most ruthless of the era, having detained, tortured, and killed as many as 30,000 people it deemed “subversive.” In addition to killing people suspected of being dissidents, military officials kidnapped hundreds of babies who were then reared by families loyal to the government.