Scilinga, haunted by conscience, became the first officer to confess to atrocities committed by Argentina military government in the 1970s, though they had been documented in tribunals. He was one of several officers who followed orders to dump prisoners over the Atlantic from an airplane.
At first, the journalist ignored the stranger in cheap clothes who promised a big story. "I was at ESMA," Adolfo Francisco Scilingo insisted. "I want to talk to you." As every Argentine knows, ESMA is the acronym for the Navy School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires - long a symbol of the "dirty war" waged by the country's military junta against suspected political enemies after its 1976 coup. Thousands of civilians were kidnapped, tortured at ESMA and never seen again. Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina's premier investigative journalists, mistook Scilingo for one of its wounded survivors. In fact, he had been on the other side and had a hideous, 18-year-old secret to tell: on orders from his ESMA superiors, he murdered 30 political prisoners, throwing them alive from an airplane into the ocean. "Everybody wants to erase this," the former navy lieutenant commander told Verbitsky. "I can't."
Their conversations form the basis of "The Flight," a new and chilling book that has reopened the most painful chapter of Argentina's modern history. Between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians were" disappeared" by the military government during its seven-year reign. Although the dirty war's horrors were well documented by a government commission and in trials of the junta leaders in the 1980s, no soldier or officer has ever confessed publicly and in such wrenching detail about his participation in torture and murder. Haunted by his past, Scilingo says he needs drugs and alcohol to get through most nights. His nightmare has reignited the nation's anger - and disquieted the military, the government and the Roman Catholic Church. "A big part of society rejected all this because people couldn't face the horror," s human-rights lawyer Horacio Mendez Carreras. "Now nobody can say these things didn't happen."
Scilingo is a complicated man. Now a businessman, he was convicted in 1991 of fraud and car theft and was recently stripped of his officer rank. Retelling his story, he is full of contradictions, one moment defending his behavior as justified at the time by the junta's war against urban guerrillas; the next, condemning himself as a murderer of innocent human beings. For years he managed his guilt, retiring from the navy in 1986 after his career stalled. But his resentment grew as he felt that he and other midlevel officers had been abandoned by their seniors. Now, say sources close to the military, Scilingo's former superiors see him as a traitor out to make money by betraying his friends.
No one, however, has challenged his essentials facts. In mid-1977, he says, his first turn came up to take "the flight," the routine duty scheduled every Wednesday for two years and that all ESMA officers were required to accept. Seventeen prisoners were told they had been transferred to another prison for which they first needed a "vaccination." As soothing recorded music played in the room, a doctor injected them instead with a sedative that Scilingo said turned them into stumbling "zombies." Driven in a van to Buenos Aires's downtown airport, they were helped onto a plane and stripped of their clothes. After the aircraft turned over the Atlantic, Scilingo pushed them out the door. "No one was aware he was going to die," he said. In a second flight, Scilingo dumped an additional 13 prisoners. None were guerrilla leaders.
`Against God': Scilingo estimates that as many as 2,000 of ESMA's prisoners died this way - a credible number given the frequency of the flights. The ESMA officers never discussed the flights among themselves, he says, but they all were involved in one way or another. Many of those officers are still on active duty, protected from prosecution by a series of government decisions and pardons since the mid-1980s aimed at smoothing relations between civilian leaders and the military. "The Flight" also implicates the Catholic Church. Scilingo alleges that church officials approved the murders "as a Christian form of death." Last week church leaders denied the charges. But in a curious postscript, they added that if any clergy were involved, they sinned "against God, humanity and his conscience."
Many Argentines, including President Carlos Saul Menem - who did prison time as a dissident during the dictatorship - would prefer to bury the past. It was a civil war that happened 19 years ago," says a retired senior army officer. "It's stupid to continue reopening old wounds." But others, especially in the human-rights community, refuse to let the matter rest. "This wound won't heal because it's infected," warns Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose members lost their children in the dirty war. As she and others point out, the military has never issued a list of the dead, much less brought their murderers to justice.