RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: ‘Death Flights’ Also Over the Parana River
BUENOS AIRES, Mar 31 2004 (IPS) – Local residents of the Paraná river delta north of the Argentine capital said they saw people thrown into the river from military planes and helicopters during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.
The testimony was the first to come from civilian witnesses of the ”death flights”, 28 years after the Mar. 24 coup d’etat that ushered in the ”dirty war” in which 30,000 young leftists and activists became the victims of forced disappearance, according to human rights groups.
”Green helicopters would fly over…and throw big bundles into the water,” Uberfil Regalini, who lived at the time on an estate along the bank of the Paraná river in eastern Argentina, told a local reporter.
Regalini said there were as many as ”five flights a week” during the 1978 World Football Cup in Argentina – a period in which the repression was stepped up to make sure the human rights abuses by the security forces did not leak out.
Another witness, Ramón Tejera, said it was common to see bodies floating in the Paraná river ”with their hands and feet bound together with wire”.
Workers with the Galofre motorboat service, which linked San Fernando, to the north of Buenos Aires, with the city of Gualeguaychú in the eastern province of Entre Ríos, also said they frequently saw corpses in the river.
The reports were published last Sunday by the newspaper El Argentino and broadcast by Radio Máxima, two local media outlets in Gualeguaychú, after another local resident, whose identity was kept secret, testified in even greater detail before a local judge.
In the mid-1990s, former Navy captain Adolfo Scilingo shocked the world when he confirmed earlier rumours, confessing that he himself had participated in the ”death flights”, in which political prisoners were thrown alive into the Río de la Plata (River Plate) and Atlantic Ocean.
His detailed account was published by journalist and activist Horacio Verbitsky in the book ”The Flight”.
”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,” said Scilingo.
The former navy captain, who is now under arrest in Spain in connection with human rights crimes committed against Spanish nationals during the Argentine dictatorship, admitted that he once almost fell out of the plane when a detainee struggled to avoid being thrown into the sea.
Scilingo explained that most of them were still alive, but heavily sedated.
His testimony, which was later backed up by former army sergeant Víctor Ibañez, was the first admission of the human rights crimes that activists had been denouncing for years, even during the dictatorship.
Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation created by women whose sons and daughters were ”disappeared”, told IPS that they first reported bodies washed up on the shores of Santa Teresita, a resort town located 350 kms south of Buenos Aires, in 1979.
Bodies also turned up later in the Paraná river, Lake San Roque, the central province of Córdoba, and on Atlantic Ocean beaches. In neighbouring Uruguay, the official version was that the bodies washing up on shore were Korean fishermen who had drowned.
It was not possible to confirm the reports, however. ”The country began to believe it only when Scilingo spoke out. But we had been saying it all along. We even knew that when they had problems with the bodies floating, they started putting them in drums, with cement, and that they sedated them with pentothal,” said de Bonafini, two of whose children disappeared.
Another technique reportedly used was to slit the bellies open to make sure the corpses sank or were eaten by sharks.
The reporter in Gualeguaychú who investigated the Paraná delta death flights was Fabián Magnotta with Radio Máxima, whose report was published Sunday in the local daily El Argentino.
His journalistic investigation was prompted by the testimony given in court by the witness whose identity was concealed.
The deputy governor of the province of Entre Ríos, Guillermo Guastavino, promised Tuesday that the provincial government would be ”at the head of the investigation” to find out the truth about the reports of bodies thrown into the delta, a vast area of 1.5 million hectares where the Paraná river splits into various sections before running into the Río de la Plata.
Magnotta told IPS that after he interviewed the first witness, more local residents began to come forward, calling the radio or the newspaper to provide new information.
”People probably feel that there is a different context now for saying things that they kept silent for 25 years,” said Magnotta, alluding to the proactive human rights stance taken by the government of centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, who took office in May 2003.
But Magnotta said the witnesses he had interviewed had not yet been summoned to testify by the federal judge investigating the case, Guillermo Quadrini.
The original legal complaint was filed in December before a judge in Gualeguaychú, who after a few weeks of studying the case referred it to the federal judge in the nearby city of Concepción del Uruguay, in the same province.
The witness who had testified in court, who spoke with Magnotta on condition of anonymity, said that between 1977 and 1979, unmarked helicopters and Fokker and Hercules military planes flew over the delta and dumped ”large bundles” into the river and the nearby forests.
He said one of the bodies washed up on the riverbank, fastened into a 200-litre tank with cement, with only the head sticking out, and that local residents buried the corpse. He also said he saw the cargo hatch of Hercules planes open wide and drop ”as many as 20 bundles at once.”
Magnotta then interviewed other local residents, like Regalini and Tejera.
One witness said he remembered seeing downward-pointing machine guns attached next to the doors on the helicopters through which the bodies were thrown out.
Employees of the Galofre motorboat company told the journalist that they had turned to the authorities in charge of security on the river to report the frequent appearance of bodies, but that the only response they received was that they should go somewhere else with their problems.
Magnotta also stated in his report that unidentified bodies were occasionally buried in cemeteries near the delta, like Villa Paranacito or Campana, and that the judge should investigate whether they belonged to the ”disappeared.”