(Buenos Aires) He is now one of the most chilling witnesses to the Argentine dictatorship (1976-83): a small graceless twin-engine, used for the “Flights of Death” throwing prisoners into the sea, has just been repatriated after several decades abroad, for a last trip. That of memory.
“It’s a very difficult moment, because on the one hand, we want the plane to be there, and on the other hand, we say to ourselves: what will my emotion be when I tell myself that it’s from there that they threw away my mum…? It’s very strong “.
More than 45 years later, Cecilia de Vicenti and Mabel Careaga, sixty-year-old daughters of people who disappeared during the dictatorship, measure for AFP the mixed feelings at the time of the plane’s return. He landed in Tucuman on Friday before heading to Buenos Aires. Between the relief, the “chance” even, dares Cecilia, to be able to “close the story” more, and the “horror” of imagining her mother, drugged, in this zinc.
The Skyvan PA51 is a small, pot-bellied transport plane born in the 1960s, with unattractive lines, but which we guess are practical. “Flying shoe box”, as it was nicknamed in aeronautics, for its rectangular fuselage. Praised for its short takeoffs and landings, its capacity (19 passengers), and therefore… its wide rear ramp.
This Skyvan was used for several “death flights”, including the night of December 14, 1977, when twelve people were thrown off the immense La Plata estuary. Among them, the mothers of Cecilia and Mabel, some “Mothers of the Place de Mai”, but also two French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet.
Patient stalking the plane
Of these twelve, five were among the rare victims of the “Robbers” whose bodies were recovered – the goal was precisely that they disappear forever. This time, contrary sea winds brought remains to the coast, hastily buried under “NN” (unnamed).
It was not until much later – 2005 – that exhumations and genetic tests led to identifications. The others, probably thousands (the number was never proven, but there were hundreds of thefts), were never found after being “transferred”.
The expression meant a dropping at sea: the detainees were told that they were going to be “transferred” to a distant detention center in the south of the country, but that they had to be put to sleep for the trip.
With cynicism, they nicknamed these flights “Pento-naval” (for the use of the anesthetic Pentothal), is moved for AFP Enrique Piñeyro, an ex-pilot turned director, who helped track down the plane.
Because the return of the Skyvan is the result of a patient quest. From Cecilia, Mabel, but also from a survivor of detention centers, Miriam Lewin, and an Italian photographer, Giancarlo Ceraudo. The latter, doing a report on “the flights”, asked Miriam: “Have you thought where these planes could be? Because who says plane says… trace of the pilots”. The trials of the dictatorship, after a controversial phase of amnesty, had resumed, and reopened prospects.
First it was necessary to locate the aircraft, through aviation registers, but also sites of “fanatics” or ” spotters whose hobby is tracking planes wherever they go in the world.
Memory or the “show”?
Six planes – there were others – were identified as having taken part in the “Flights of Death”. Some were destroyed during the Falklands War (1982), one sold to Luxembourg, another to Great Britain, another to Florida, where it carried out mail thefts.
What the aircraft “trackers” did not know was that the “history” of an aircraft, flight plans, names of pilots, remains recorded even if the aircraft changes hands. Once these registers were recovered, they were helped by pilots to decrypt the data and identified “between 10 and 15 suspicious flights” at night.
Justice was on the move again, with in particular a river trial which would lead in 2017 to 48 convictions – including those of three pilots for participation in “Flights of death”.
The last location of the Skyvan (in Arizona, where it was used for recreational skydiving) and the idea of repatriating it did not come until 2022. The owners approved the idea, and the government gave its active support.
Leaving the United States at the beginning of June, the Skyvan, after several stopovers, arrived on Friday. And should eventually be exhibited in Buenos Aires near the Museum of Memory that has become the former ESMA, “the School of Mechanics of the Navy”, the most famous detention center of the dictatorship.
If, at least, he overcomes the protests of a dissonant wing of the “Mothers of the Place de Mai”, which denounces an attempt to “make death a show” and wants the metal of the plane to be melted down, to a sculpture in homage to mothers and the deceased.