Last week, Argentina began trying 68 people from the infamous Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy School of Mechanics, ESMA) who are charged with torture, murder, and “disappearances” (including via the so-called “death flights”) during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. It turns out, without some key evidence in Florida, the trial may not have taken place:
A plane discovered in 2009 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, allegedly used by Argentina’s military dictatorship to drop suspected leftists to their death into the Rio de la Plata, is now providing key evidence in the country’s biggest human rights case ever.
The trial – which began last week – is the third involving the Naval Mechanics School, or ESMA, the era’s largest clandestine prison. Former officials are being charged in hundreds of instances of kidnapping, torture, and murder, and proceedings are expected to last two years, with as many as 900 witnesses testifying.
Along with the plane, crucial documents revealing the airplane’s whereabouts during Argentina’s bloody Dirty War, which took place from 1976 to 1983, were also recovered. Two other planes used by the military of the same model – a boxy Irish-built aircraft called a Skyvan – were found in Luxembourg and Great Britain.
An investigation by Argentine journalist Miriam Lewin led to the discovery of the plane, which is currently being used to transport goods from south Florida to the Bahamas, the current owner said in a report broadcast on Argentine television. It is unclear whether the owner was aware of the plane’s history prior to being interviewed by Ms. Lewin.
“[The investigation] allowed us to find not only the planes but documents that identify the pilots that participated in those flights,” Lewin said in radio comments.
The path to trials for those who committed human rights violations during military dictatorships have often been winding and unique, but this particular case stands out. Scholars and rights organizations often embark upon methodical and time-consuming efforts to detail and report the methods of torture and repression used against people; sites of torture often become the scenes of important social debates over the importance of commemorating or forgetting the past; yet we rarely consider the fate of the actual instruments of torture themselves. Yet as this case reminds us, those mechanisms of repression, be they airplanes, weapons, or other instruments, also have a life that lasts beyond the military regimes that employ them, and in this case at least, those instruments of repression have found not only a second, post-military life, but a third life as powerful tools to help pursue prosecutions of human rights violators.