“They are disappeared, they are gone, they have no identity, they are not dead or alive, they are disappeared,” said Jorge Rafael Videla, the President of the Military Junta in 1979.
Over thirty years later those words continue to be repeated as an example of the atrocities committed in Argentina in the 1970’s and 80’s, when a right-wing dictatorship fought against left-wing guerrillas and political opponents, disappearing thousands of them.
The methods used to disappear people were many, but one of them started to be judged on Wednesday. They were known as the death flights: Political opponents were tossed into airplanes, stripped naked and drugged to later be thrown alive to the river or ocean to drown.
The investigation into this type of killing is part of the third trial over what happened in one of Argentina’s largest clandestine detention centers, the Navy Mechanical School also called ESMA.
People were tortured and killed there.
Carlos Munoz was detained in the ESMA for over a year. He was tortured but later forced to collaborate with the military.
He told me had to forge documents and passports so the members of the security services could move around the countries that were part of the well-known Condor Plan, a systematic strategy to exterminate the left all around Latin America, with the backing of the United States.
“I remember I saw a book about the effect that the sea water had in corpses, at another time I remember to have seen a room filled with vomit. I later found out that those who were going to be killed in the death flights were drugged and that those drugs made them throw up,” he said.
“At one point many of my cell mates disappeared and we were told they were moved somewhere else. We now know they were thrown in the water.”
The faces of those on trial are the same ones that we have seen over and over again, including Alfredo Astiz, also known as the White Angel.
Most of them are already serving prison sentences but they were involved in so many crimes that they continue to be tried. Their excuse is that they were fighting against guerrillas that wanted to turn Argentina into Cuba. Only a few have spoken about what happened back then or where are the remains of those killed.
Some remains have been located over the years but there are thousands still missing that are probably never going to be found. There are also still missing children whose mothers were killed and were born in captivity. They were given up for adoption and there are no records of where some of them are. In every trial the relatives of those killed are always hoping that those accused say something that will help them know what happened to their loved ones.
“We waited for more than 30 for these trials and they are symbol not only for Argentina but for the world. We feel that even though the trials are slow as years go by the amount of people in prison increases and the conscience of society increases as well,” told me Alejandro Giampa’s whose father was killed during the dictatorship.
For many these trials are unique because there is no special tribunal like in South Africa or Nuremberg. They are happening in the regular justice system. That’s why it is a big challenge.
That’s also one of the reasons why they will continue for a long time because of the amount of victims, people accused and witnesses involved.
Cristina Kirchner’s Government is particularly committed to having those involved in abuses judged. It was her husband, Nestor Kirchner, who cancelled the amnesty laws protecting the security forces. That’s why, I’ve been told, that she wants most of the trials to be over before her term is over in 2015. That is, of course, is she doesn’t run for reelection.
Some here say that it’s useless to continue to revise history and to judge something that happened over 30 years ago. But others believe that these trials are important so that history never repeats itself.