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 airplanes or helicopters into large bodies of water (e.g. the ocean). 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 by the junta dictatorship during the Argentine 1974–1983 "Dirty War".

The Dirty War in Argentina[edit]

During the Argentine Dirty War, from 1976 to 1983 an estimated 10,000 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.

According to the testimony of Adolfo Scilingo, a former Argentine naval officer convicted in Spain in 2005 of crimes against humanity under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, 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] He estimated that the navy conducted the flights every Wednesday for two years, 1977 and 1978, and that 1,500 to 2,000 people were killed.[2]

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."[3] Scilingo said that the Argentine Navy was "still hiding what happened during the dirty war".[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

In April 2015 further arrests were made.[7] 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, as well as others who acted as airfield guards and runway cleaners, testified that they had seen live people and corpses loaded onto aircraft; after taking off, the planes 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.[8]

On 12 March 2016 Interpol, through the National Police of Colombia, arrested Juan Carlos Francisco Bossi in the city of Medellín.[9] Also known as El doctor, Bossi is credited for activating the death flights during the Dirty War and is wanted by the Argentine authorities for taking part in death flights and forced disappearance of over 30,000 people.[10] After his arrest, Bossi confessed to the Colombian authorities of being responsible in the deaths of 6,000 individuals.[11]

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.[12] [13][14]

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.[15]

Zaïre, 1965–1997[edit]

During the Mobutu era, an unknown number of persons have been extrajudicially executed by being dropped from helicopter into the Zaire River, the Kinsuka Rapids or Lake Kapolowe (in the Shaba region).[16]

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.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Spain tries Argentine ex-officer". BBC News. January 20, 2005. Retrieved January 2, 2010. 
  2. ^ Calvin Sims. "Argentine Tells of Dumping 'Dirty War' Captives Into Sea". The New York Times. 
  3. ^ "Macabre new details emerge about Argentina's 'dirty war'". CNN. 
  4. ^ "'Death flight' captain says Argentine navy is hiding horrors.". The Scotsman. Edinburgh. January 19, 2005. Archived from the original on May 17, 2007. 
  5. ^ Pilots charged with Argentina dirty war 'death flights'. CNN. October 5, 2009.
  6. ^ Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos (ex ESMA) – Poch: "I have nothing to repent", 18 February 2013 (in Spanish)
  7. ^ LaRed21 (Uruguay): Four officers who took part in "death flights" arrested in Argentina, 28 April 2015 (in Spanish)
  8. ^ starMedia: Trial for crimes against humanity in Argentina reaching its close, 7 July 2015 (in Spanish)
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Film testimony by Paul Teitgen, Jacques Duquesne and Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc on the INA archive website.
  13. ^ Des guerres d’Indochine et d’Algérie aux dictatures d’Amérique latine, interview with Marie-Monique Robin by the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH, Human Rights League), January 10, 2007
  14. ^ Prise de tête Marcel Bigeard, un soldat propre ?, L'Humanité, June 24, 2000 (in French)
  15. ^ Jean Fremigacci, "La vérité sur la grande révolte de Madagascar", L'Histoire, n° 318, March 2007
  16. ^ ""Chronologie de la République démocratique du Congo / Zaïre (1960–1997) – Sciences Po Encyclopédie des violences de masse"". 2010-02-24. Retrieved 2016-07-21. 
  17. ^ Austin, Jonathan Luke., 2015. "We have never been civilized: Torture and the Materiality of World Political Binaries." European Journal of International Relations, doi:10.1177/1354066115616466

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