One of the largest trials in the history of Argentina concluded this week with very tough, and very belated, sentences on dozens of human rights abusers. The focus of the trial was the “flights of death” conducted by the secret police of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. From its central prison and torture center at the Escuela Superior Mecánica de la Armada (Superior Mechanical School of the Army, known as ESMA), political prisoners who had been “disappeared” by the authorities, then horribly tortured for weeks or months, were drugged, loaded onto military planes, and dropped into a river or the ocean so that their bodies would never be found. The court found all but six of the 54 defendants (many of whom were already imprisoned or on house arrest) guilty and sentenced 29 of them to life imprisonment.
That the judgment was announced during the administration of president Mauricio Macri might appear surprising. Macri has never made the prosecution of human rights abusers one of his priorities. Indeed, he has been criticized by several human rights organizations for downplaying the number of disappeared. But the sense was that trials against former military officers would continue with unchanged momentum after Macri came to power two years ago. The trial, which lasted more than five years, is a focal point of an effort demanded by human rights organizations in Argentina and around the world, which has been only intermittently supported by the national government.
The first Argentine president after the return to democracy in 1983 was Raúl Alfonsín, who endeavored to bring the leaders of the military junta to justice. In 1985, the “Junta Trial” found a number of high-ranking military officers, headed by General Jorge Videla, guilty of human rights abuses. Alfonsín’s successor Carlos Menem, however, pardoned the convicted officers and declared amnesty for all those involved in violent conflicts during the years of military rule. The stated reason for this move was to achieve peace and reconciliation, but the issue became increasingly politicized. The governments of Nestor Kirchner, and then his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2003-2015), reopened prosecutions and were directly responsible for the events that led to this latest trial.
It had long been known that ESMA had been the site of some of the most horrific crimes imaginable. Prisoners were mutilated, tortured (Argentina’s military were pioneers in the use of electric shock as a form of torture), raped (ESMA’s female prisoners became pregnant so often that the prison had its own maternity ward), and murdered. Some 5,000 prisoners are believed to have been housed there. Very few survived.
But it was a book called “El Vuelo” (“The Flight”), by the legendary investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky, that brought the flights of death to the public’s attention. In conversations with Adolfo Scilingo, one of the first former military officers to testify on the human rights abuses committed by the regime, Verbitsky uncovered the nefarious program to dispose of the prisoners without leaving traces. Thousands of men and women were boarded onto planes, often drugged and with bags over their heads, then thrown alive off onto the enormous River Plate basin. When the river currents washed some bodies back to shore, the flights flew out onto the ocean. There, as one observer put it, “the orcas would do their job.”
The ESMA trial will not be the last word on the darkest period in Argentina’s history. It is, all the same, a moment of great importance for many in the country. It gives the families of the victims, and the country as a whole, an accurate description of events that should never be forgotten, as well as some degree of closure.