Stripped naked and drugged unconscious, 13 political prisoners lay in a row on the airplane floor. Before he threw them out into the dark sky over the South Atlantic, Adolfo Francisco Scilingo recalls, he thought of photographs from Nazi death camps.
And he still does. The freeze-frame image comes back to torment him again and again, he said in an interview. "The mental problem I have is there when they were piled up, I mean, when they were lined up, very similar to the World War II photos."
Scilingo, a former lieutenant commander in the Argentine navy, is making headlines here with detailed accounts of his participation in death flights that were used to eliminate suspected subversives under a harsh military regime. His confessions have rekindled searing memories of this country's "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when an estimated 9,000 to 30,000 people disappeared after being seized by security forces.
Like the horrors of the Holocaust, the atrocities of Argentina's dirty war never seem to stop shocking.
Although the death flights have been documented by previous evidence and testimony, never before had they been openly described by a military officer who had participated. Scilingo relates a chilling human drama from a new point of view--the killers'.
In 1977, he was in charge of the motor pool of the Navy Mechanics School, then a notorious center for the detention and torture of political prisoners in Buenos Aires. He said that up to 20 prisoners from the school were dropped into the ocean during flights every Wednesday over a period of about two years--and that most navy officers were assigned to participate in at least one flight.
He headed the extermination crew on two flights in June or July of 1977. Here is his account of the first one:
On a Wednesday afternoon, he reported to the basement of the school officers club, where 13 men and women prisoners had been selected for the flight. "They were told that they were going to be transferred to a prison in the south and for that they had to be vaccinated."
The "vaccine" was a sedative that made them groggy, barely able to walk. Many had to be helped up the stairs and into a waiting truck.
Scilingo knew that his mission was to kill the prisoners. "You ask what I felt. At that moment, I didn't feel anything. I mean, I didn't feel anything because I was doing a job. . . . I still wasn't conscious of the problem. I still hadn't accepted the reality."
The flight left from the restricted military zone of Aeroparque, Buenos Aires' in-town airport. A navy physician on board injected the prisoners with a second sedative, which put them to sleep. Then Scilingo and other crew members began undressing them in silence.
"It was a tense situation, a nervous situation," he said. His "first shock" came when a young noncommissioned officer, overcome with emotion, began to cry.
"I tried to explain to him the unexplainable. . . . I told him it was a mission required by the Fatherland, that that was the way things were, that we had to accept them. . . . For me, it was traumatic."
When all of the prisoners were stripped, Scilingo suddenly grasped the enormity of the scene. "There are all the bodies, all undressed, still alive, and I knew it was (in preparation) to throw them out in a little while--I can't get over that shock."
As chief of the extermination crew, Scilingo said, he helped carry the victims to the plane's open door one by one, and then, "I personally threw them out."
At one point, he slipped and almost fell out himself. To this day, when he is under stress, he often sees himself tumbling through the air, he said.
Scilingo's public confessions were first published by journalist Horacio Verbitsky in a book that became an instant bestseller when it came out early this month. Verbitsky, an authority on the dirty war, said in an interview that Scilingo's revelations about the death flights corroborate previous information.
For example, he said, forensic experts who examined numerous bodies taken from the South Atlantic in the late 1970s found multiple "polytraumatism" that indicated "impact from falling on the water" from a considerable height.
Thousands of bodies were incinerated, buried in mass graves or hidden in other ways during the dirty war, Verbitsky said, but the death flights over the ocean presented less risk of outside witnesses.
Injecting victims with sedatives and throwing them into the night sky may have made it easier for the military to kill, he said. "Because they put the prisoners to sleep, they didn't have to face them as people. It is almost an act of magic. They evaporate." The death plane killers never had to see the bodies of their victims after the bone-breaking impact of hitting the water at about 100 miles an hour.
Emilio Mignone, a lawyer and human rights activist who has written books on the dirty war, charged that the policy of secretly killing "subversives" was decided in meetings at the highest levels of the armed forces and that the death flights were part of that policy.
"They invented a system that they thought was a solution no one would find out about," he said. "They knew the ocean currents, and they threw them where the currents would carry them out to sea."
Mignone's own daughter, Monica, was abducted from the family's apartment in May, 1976. He found out later that she was taken to the Navy Mechanics School, but she was never found, and he believes she may have been killed in one of the school's many death flights.
"It was exactly the period when they started the flights," he said. After her disappearance, he talked to released political prisoners who told of others being taken away for plane trips. "And they said they gave them an injection and they transferred them. They were told they were being transferred to concentration camps."
But there were no reports of large concentration camps. "So I had the immediate impression that those flights, when they put them on planes, were to throw them out, because they took them sleeping. And I confirmed it, because corpses began to appear on the seashore."
When he heard about bodies washing up, he went to see them. "I saw 20, 30, 40 corpses of that kind. Corpses--they were just human remains, because from the salt, the water, maybe the fish, they were like pieces of corpses," he said.
Mignone estimated that up to 4,000 political prisoners were thrown into the sea, not only by the navy but by the air force and army as well. Perhaps only 50 or 60 bodies were found, he estimated.
The navy assigned officers to death flight duty by turns "to compromise everyone, so that later no one would tell because everyone was guilty in some way," he said.
Scilingo said that, as military men, he and others believed they were doing the right thing. "You can't forget what the subversives did," he said. "They set off bombs anywhere. . . . For me, they were enemies. That's why it didn't seem bad to kill them."
But at the same time, there was guilt, which no amount of rationalizing can relieve, he said. "With time, the hate goes away. Then the other keeps getting worse."
As a Roman Catholic, he confessed his crimes long ago, but it didn't ease his mind, he said. "It isn't that God hasn't pardoned me. I don't know. But since I haven't pardoned myself, I can't ask someone else to pardon me."
Scilingo, 48, had just come from the Federal Court in Buenos Aires, where he filed a complaint charging the current head of the navy with illegally covering up "the methods that superiors ordered used in the Navy Mechanics School for detaining, interrogating and eliminating the enemy during the war against subversion."
Scilingo argues that he and other military officers were following orders from above in the dirty war and that top officers should openly share the guilt that torments him.
"What sense is there now in hiding this?" he asked. Amnesties protect all officers from prosecution for dirty-war crimes; no top commander has ever acknowledged the systematic torture and killing of political prisoners.
Mignone says he puts personal feelings aside in assessing Scilingo's confessions: "At this moment, what do I feel? That what Scilingo says is enormously useful, because he has broken the barrier of silence. I believe he serves the struggle to bring out the truth about all this."