Death flights (Spanish: vuelos de la muerte) are a form of extrajudicial killing practiced by military forces in possession of aircraft: victims are dropped to their death from airplanes or helicopters into oceans, large rivers or even mountains. Death flights have been carried out in a number of internal conflicts, including the 1957 Battle of Algiers and by the junta dictatorship during the Argentine Dirty War between 1976 and 1983.
Dirty War in Argentina
During the 1976-1983 Argentine Dirty War, many thousands of people disappeared, clandestinely kidnapped by groups acting for the dictatorship. Human rights groups in Argentina often cite a figure of 30,000 disappeared; Amnesty International estimates 20,000. Many were killed in death flights, a practice initiated by Admiral Luis María Mendía, usually after detention and torture. Typically they were drugged into a stupor, loaded into aircraft, stripped, and dropped into the Río de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the testimony of Adolfo Scilingo, a former Argentine naval officer convicted in Spain in 2005 for crimes against humanity under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, there were 180–200 death flights during 1977 and 1978. Scilingo confessed to participating in two such flights, during which 13 and 17 people were killed, respectively. Scilingo estimated that the Argentine Navy conducted the flights every Wednesday for two years, 1977 and 1978, killing 1,500 to 2,000 people.
Victims were sometimes made to dance for joy in celebration of the freedom they were told awaited them. In an earlier 1996 interview, 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." At the time, Scilingo said that the Argentine Navy was "still hiding what happened during the Dirty War".
In May 2010, Spain extradited pilot Julio Alberto Poch to Argentina. Born in 1952, Poch had been arrested in Valencia, Spain, on September 23, 2009 and was wanted in Argentina for his alleged participation as a pilot on the death flights. At his trial in February 2013, Poch denied that he had participated in the death flights, claiming everything he knew about them came from what he had read.
In April 2015, further arrests were made. It was reported that the death flights had started before 1976, and continued until 1983. To carry out the flights, an military unit, Batallón de Aviación del Ejército 601 (Army Air Battalion 601), was set up, with a commander, sub-commander, chief of staff, and officers from five companies. Soldiers who refused to take part, as well as others who acted as airfield guards and runway cleaners, testified they had seen live people and corpses loaded onto aircraft; after taking off, the planes returned empty.
On 12 March 2016, Interpol, through the National Police of Colombia, arrested Juan Carlos Francisco Bossi in the city of Medellín. Also known as El doctor, Bossi is credited with activating the death flights during the Dirty War and wanted by Argentine authorities for taking part in death flights and forced disappearances of over 30,000 people. After his arrest, Bossi confessed to the Colombian authorities of being responsible for the deaths of 6,000 individuals.
A five-year trial (nicknamed the "ESMA mega-trial" or "Death Flights trial") of 54 former Argentine officials accused of running death flights and other crimes against humanity (lesa humanidad) heard 830 witnesses and investigated the death of 789 victims. A verdict was reached on on 29 November 2017: 29 defendants were sentenced to life in prison, six were acquitted, and the nineteen remaining defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to 25 years.
Chile under Augusto Pinochet
Flights were also used to make bodies of already murdered dissidents disappear. One person's testimony described the procedure: corpses were put in gunny sacks; each sack was attached to a piece of rail using wire, and a second gunny sack put around both. The sacks were carried by pickup truck to helicopters that flew them to the coast of the Valparaíso region, where the bodies were thrown into the ocean. Secret police agent Osvaldo Romo confessed in a 1995 interview to having participated in death flights. Showing no remorse, he added, "Now, would it not be better throwing bodies into a volcano?"
Death flights were used during the Algerian War by French paratroopers of the 10th Parachute Division under Jacques Massu during the Battle of Algiers. After it was discovered that corpses sometimes resurfaced after being disposed in this manner, the executioners began attaching concrete blocks to their victims' feet. These victims came to be known as "Bigeard's shrimp" (crevettes Bigeard), after one of the paratrooper commanders, Marcel Bigeard.
Scholars have compared the practicalities of the Argentine death flights to the US-led procedure of extraordinary rendition during the War on Terror, noting in particular how the two practices converge in many of their material and technological resources.
In popular culture
- In The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), soldiers threaten to throw two captured guerrillas out of a helicopter if they do not reveal information. The first guerrilla is pushed out blindfolded and quickly confesses in panic, not realizing the helicopter had already landed and that he has been tricked.
- In the opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) by director Christopher Nolan, FBI agent Bill Wilson threatens to execute and dispose of a captive by throwing him out of a plane.
- In the TV series Narcos (2015–2017), Search Bloc agent Colonel Carillo throws two of Pablo Escobar's sicarios out of a military helicopter when they withhold information that could lead to the capture of the infamous drug kingpin.
- Some alt-right commenters use the phrase "free helicopter rides" to euphemistically refer to killing left-wingers and other political opponents, particularly opponents of President Donald Trump, notably in reference to Pinochet.
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