Death flights

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Death flights (Spanish: vuelos de la muerte) are a form of extrajudicial killing practised by military forces in possession of aircraft: victims are dropped to their death from fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters into large bodies of water. Death flights have been carried out in a number of internal conflicts, including the 1957 Battle of Algiers. Most notably a great many victims were killed this way during the Argentine 1974-1983 "Dirty War".

The Dirty War in Argentina[edit]

During the Argentine Dirty War many people were "disappeared", kidnapped clandestinely by groups acting for the dictatorship. 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 to drown.

According to the testimony of Adolfo Scilingo, convicted in Spain of crimes against humanity under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction in 2005, there were 180-200 death flights in the years 1977 and 1978; Scilingo confessed to participating in two such flights, with 13 and 17 people killed respectively.[1]

Victims were sometimes made to dance for joy in celebration of the freedom that they were told awaited them. In an earlier 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."[2] Scilingo said that the Argentine Navy was "still hiding what happened during the dirty war".[3]

In May 2010 Spain extradited pilot Julio Alberto Poch to Argentina. Poch, born in 1952, 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.[4] At his trial in February 2013 Poch not only denied that he had participated, but claimed that all he knew about death flights was from what he had read.[5]

In April 2015 further arrests were made.[6] It was reported that flights had started even before 1976, and continued until 1983. An organised military structure was in place to carry out these flights, Batallón de Aviación del Ejército 601 (Army Air Battalion 601), with a commander, sub-commander, chief of staff, and officers of five companies making up the unit. Soldiers who refused to take part, and others who acted as airfield guards and runway cleaners testified that they saw living people and dead bodies loaded onto aircraft which then took off, and returned empty.

A major trial, nicknamed "the ESMA mega-trial", of 63 people accused of crimes against humanity (lesa humanidad) during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, including those involved in death flights, was reaching its close in July 2015. 830 witnesses and 789 victims were heard.[7]

Algerian War[edit]

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 the corpses sometimes resurfaced, the executioners began to attach concrete blocks to their victims' feet. These victims came to be known as "Bigeard's shrimps" ("crevettes Bigeard"), after one of the paratrooper commanders, Marcel Bigeard.[8] [9][10]

Malagasy Uprising[edit]

During the Malagasy Uprising of 1947, in Mananjary hundreds of Malagasy were killed, among them 18 women and a group of prisoners thrown from aircraft.[11]

Extraordinary Rendition[edit]

Scholars have compared the practicalities of the Argentine death flights to the US-led procedure of extraordinary rendition during the War on Terror. [12]

See also[edit]


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