Argentina: Waves from the past

TIME Domestic
March 27, 1995 Volume 145, No. 13

A former naval officer confesses
to throwing prisoners into the ocean
during the dirty war


Adolfo Scilingo
"They were unconscious. we stripped them, and when the flight commander gave the order, we opened the door and threw them out, naked, one by one. That is the story, and nobody can deny it." With these words, former Argentine navy Captain Adolfo Francisco Scilingo, 48, spilled one of the dirtiest secrets of the "dirty war" that raged in his country from the mid-1970s through the early '80s. Human-rights workers and relatives of at least 9,000 Argentines who "disappeared" under military rule have long contended that the missing were systematically murdered by troops acting on orders from the ruling generals. But Scilingo is the first ex-officer to echo these charges in public.

The Flight (book cover)

Even Argentines inured to the perfidies of the dictatorial period were shocked by the confession that first appeared in El Vuelo (The Flight), a book based on a series of taped conversations with investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky. Over the past two weeks, Scilingo has repeated his story in newspaper and television interviews. As a 28-year-old lieutenant, he was stationed in Buenos Aires at the Naval School of Mechanics in 1977; Scilingo says his post, already a notorious detention center for those rounded up on charges of disloyalty, soon became a way station to death.

For the next two years, he remembers, some 15 to 20 prisoners were trucked every Wednesday to the Buenos Aires airport, put on a military plane, and then dropped, drugged but alive, from a height of about 13,000 ft. into the Atlantic Ocean.

Scilingo estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 people "disappeared" in this manner from his base alone. He admits responsibility for 30 of them. He says he was ordered to participate in two of the death flights in 1977, adding that his fellow officers drew the same sort of assignment: "It was to give everyone a turn, a kind of Communion." On his first flight, Scilingo helped strip and then throw 13 victims out of a coast guard Sky Van; on his second, he did the same to 17 more out of a navy Elektra.

"Personally, I could never get over the shock," he says now, even though he still feels the fight against "subversives" was for a righteous cause. His first death flight so disturbed Scilingo that he went to a navy chaplain: "He told me that it was a Christian death because they did not suffer, that it was necessary to eliminate them." The Roman Catholic Church, long criticized for tolerating the military, responded last week with a veiled mea culpa chastising priests who may have condoned the "dirty war." But human-rights activists still called upon the church to acknowledge openly its sins of omission.

Scilingo, who retired from the navy in 1986, was moved to speak out by more than a troubled conscience. Last December two former navy colleagues were denied promotion because they had taken part in the torture of prisoners during the "dirty war." Feeling abandoned by officers up the chain of command, the two admitted the charges against them. Outraged that once junior officers were being disgraced while their superiors, "who are now admirals, with the agreement of the honorable Senate," looked the other way - resentment widely shared by mid-ranking officers - Scilingo began his taping sessions with Verbitsky.

Human-rights groups hoped the revelations would spur more officers to speak out. But many Argentines see Scilingo's story as another setback in the struggle to put a terrible period behind them. President Carlos Saul Menem, who in 1990 issued a final pardon for all those convicted of "dirty war" crimes, called Scilingo a "crook" and revealed that in February the former officer was stripped of his rank as a retired commander because of a 1991 conviction for fraud. Revenge for this dismissal, Menem suggested, prompted the accusations. Verbitsky says the reverse is true; Scilingo was punished just as his charges were going to press.

The high-level attempts to discredit Scilingo personally underscore the fact that no one has claimed his story is false. Says Congressman Alfredo Bravo, who was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship: "The armed forces have denied nothing."

To the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who will hold their annual "day of remembering" this week in Buenos Aires, demanding, as they have for 18 years, information about their missing children, Scilingo's account is a bittersweet vindication. "Many people just didn't want to know; they closed their eyes and ears," says Maria Adela Antokoletz, 83. "But after this confession, they can no longer say that this is only the cry of a suffering mother."

Their cries are for truth and, however unlikely, justice. A petition has been sent to Menem demanding a list of all those executed between March 24, 1976, and Dec. 10, 1983 - the dates that bracket the military dictatorship. Argentina has plenty of concerns: high unemployment, low wages, corruption and presidential elections in May. But, says Ana Maria Careaga, who was taken prisoner in 1977 at age 16 and whose mother later disappeared, "like the sea, this is a story that always returns."

Reported by Carl Honore and Ian McCluskey/Buenos Aires

Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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