The flights of death in Mexico: 50 years of impunity and oblivion


A criminal alliance between the Army and the police undertook the same macabre dirty war practice in Argentina or Chile in the 1970s. EL PAÍS reconstructs the dark episode with official reports and voices of victims

In the early 1970s, Apolinar Ceballos was a young apprentice pilot who had just arrived at the Pie de la Cuesta military airbase, on the Guerrero coast. One afternoon, a teacher accompanied him home and told him that he had been chosen for a very delicate mission. He warned him that he would see strange things, but not to ask and just follow orders, that in time he would understand. And most importantly: forbidden to tell anyone anything. Not his family.

His first mission was at dawn. He runs the plane and his teacher acts as a co-pilot. Before taking off from the base he listens from the cockpit for steps in the back. He also hears some voices: “This package is heavy”, “this one is light”. After a half-hour of flight, they order you to slow down, descend as much as possible over the sea and wait for instructions. Ceballos hears this time how they drag the packages and open one of the doors. Then someone yells at him: “Done.” The mission was over.

Those packages, those packages that Ceballos heard being dragged in the back of the plane, were the corpses of peasants, teachers, activists, students, or doctors. Bodies that had just been executed by the criminal alliance of the Mexican police and Army and whose final destination was the anonymous tomb of the Pacific Sea. Victims of one of the darkest and little-known episodes of the dirty war in Mexico, which this year marks five decades.

In March 1971, the so-called Spider Web Plan started. “The main mission will be the location and capture or neutralization, where appropriate, of the groups of criminals, which will be achieved through the constant search for information,” reads the secret report, already declassified, which has been access THE COUNTRY. The document is signed by the highest representative of the Army, the secretary (minister) of National Defense, Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz, and is addressed to the military forces of the State of Guerrero.

General Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz during a report.
General Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz during a report. COURTESY

The shadow of repression had already loomed over the military since the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, but the Plan Telaraña marks the beginning of the systematic and murderous persecution against the guerrillas or any dissident as part of a State policy implemented by the governments of iron of the PRI until, at least, the end of the eighties. The Mexican guerrilla, which unlike other experiences such as the Cuban one, was starred and led by the poorest and most forgotten, also illustrates the contradictions of the particular PRI regime: while it opened its arms to political refugees from the Chilean or Argentine dictatorships, in his own home silently annihilated any attempt at social protest.

A trauma not yet overcome in Mexico, which has not met the minimum international standards of so-called transitional justice, dedicated to responding to widespread human rights violations through initiatives of recognition, memory, and reparation by the State. An unclosed wound that has also been hidden by the current crisis caused by drug trafficking. There is not even an official number of disappeared due to political violence. The precarious Guerrero Truth Commission estimated the number of disappeared at 788 in 2014. But more recent records point to more than 900. There are still more gaps in relation to the victims of death flights, a phenomenon that is still surrounded by opacity and inaccuracies. The testimonies range from a hundred missing to more than a thousand.

In the center of the black hole appears the figure of the sinister general Arturo Acosta Chaparro, promoted to the chief of the Guerrero police, the epicenter of the dirty war. In 2002, he was charged by a military court with murdering and throwing at least 143 people into the ocean. He was never firmly condemned. He retired with honors and spent his last days amid charges, this time for drug trafficking. Until in 2012, two hitmen on a motorcycle unleashed three shots to the head in broad daylight. He was 70 years old.

Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro during the court martial that tried him in October 2002 for his involvement with drug trafficking.
Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro during the court martial that tried him in October 2002 for his involvement with drug trafficking. OSWALDO RAMÍREZ / CUARTOSCURO

The testimony of the pilot’s apprentice Ceballos and other soldiers who worked under his orders belong to the summary of that trial. Chaparro was not only the mastermind of the repression. He was in the habit of executing his victims himself. Always in the same way. A 380 caliber revolver was shot to the back of the neck. After the execution, a nylon bag tied around their necks was placed over their heads to avoid traces of blood. The corpses were then put into canvas sacks along with some stones. They were then sewn and transported by wheelbarrow to the plane. Chaparro always used the same pistol for executions, baptized as The Justic Sword.

The military mechanic Monroy Candía declared in the trial that he participated in 15 trips, carrying a total of 120 corpses. Chaparro was on board and he was the one who gave the orders. One of them was to remove the right-side door of the plane to facilitate maneuvers. Monroy also stated that on occasion the bodies inside the sacks were still moving. They were thrown alive into the sea. Captain Roberto Hicochera also acknowledged his participation. According to the transcript of his statement, since he arrived “he did not want to ask or interfere in anything, because there were rumors that the Arava plane was used to throw people into the sea.” He only said he knew that they made early morning flights, out to sea, and that at a certain point they slowed down and then returned.

Luxury and blood in Acapulco

Acapulco had become the playground of the Hollywood jet-set since the 1950s. On its beaches, it was common to see Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth or Cary Grant. Two decades later, they were still traveling for their Frank Sinatra or John Wayne margaritas, who came to buy his own hotel. One of the terraces of the Flamingos, elevated between the cliffs, has a long view that reaches the bay of Pie de la Cuesta and its military area base. Less than half an hour’s drive from John Wayne’s Golden Haven was the place where General Chaparro and his henchmen committed their atrocities.

The Pie de la Cuesta military base was one of the detention and torture centers, as well as the shuttle for the death planes. “It’s the place where we lose track of my mom. That is why we believe that he could disappear on the flights ”, says Alicia de los Ríos, daughter of a guerrilla leader at the time. With the same name as her daughter, De los Ríos was arrested in January 1978 in the former Federal District by the White Brigade, one of the special counterinsurgent groups made up of the military and members of the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), the political police. of the PRI.

A small plane painted outside the Pie de la Cuesta military air base, on the coast of Guerrero, on May 6, 2021.
A plane painted outside the Pie de la Cuesta military air base, on the Guerrero coast, on May 6, 2021. TERESA DE MIGUEL

His daughter, who has been litigating against the Mexican State for almost 20 years, knows the last whereabouts of her mother from the statements of another detainee, Alfredo Medina Vizcaíno, captured in Ciudad Juárez the same year. The document, to which EL PAÍS has had access, confirms how the detainees from different parts of the country were taken to the Pie de la Cuesta military base, “which is located on the seashore.”

Vizcaíno recounts the pattern of torture – immersions in water, electric shocks, blows with iron bars – and adds that they were put “in a bathroom where they remained until the next day.” As they left they met De los Ríos. It was May 1978, I was 25 years old and from then on nobody knows anything else. The dates coincide with the period in which the flights were made, according to one of the few official reports: 30 flights in total between 1975 and 1979. The same time in which dictatorships in the south of the continent systematically followed the same practice.

“My mother went through a very frequent process of radicalization at the time. She came from a peasant family, she started with activism but ended up in the armed struggle influenced by the Cuban or Sandinista experience, ”explains her daughter. In 1960, Guerrero was the poorest state in Mexico. More than three-quarters of the population worked in the fields and 60% were illiterate.

The germ of the guerrillas in Mexico was political action through institutional channels under the banner of agrarian reform and access to education, ideals of the 50-year-old revolution kidnapped by the authoritarian PRI regime. Professor Genaro Vázquez, one of the guerrilla leaders, came to appear in the 1962 elections, blocked without a solution by the single Mexican party. In 1968, the humble Guerrero professors took up arms against “the PRI oligarchy, which was a judge and a party in the electoral acts,” according to their own statements contained in declassified documents from the DFS.

Panoramic view of the Pie de la Cuesta military air base, on the coast of Guerrero, on May 6, 2021.
Panoramic view of the Pie de la Cuesta military air base, on the coast of Guerrero, on May 6, 2021. TERESA DE MIGUEL

The 1974 kidnapping of the PRI candidate for governor of Guerrero Ruben Figueroa by Lucio Cabañas and his Partido de los Pobres, another group of armed teachers, further intensified the repression. Besieged in the mountains, Cabañas dies shortly after. And now with Figueroa as governor and Chaparro as his right hand, the creation of another squad of police and military is precipitated: the Blood Group. Among its objectives were “to avenge insults to the governor, people who have had problems with the Army or drug traffickers,” according to a report from the Truth Commission. The offensive included, according to another military report, a helicopter device that unloaded ammunition on the communities: “Reconnaissance preceded by mortar fire on ravines and streams continues.”

The Comverdad report maintains that the authorities had “practically unlimited” powers in order to exterminate the guerrillas. “Among the detainees, there were even minors, and some of them remained there only because they were relatives of guerrilla leaders or supposed sympathizers.” The torture procedures were also extreme, as highlighted by numerous reports from the Human Rights Commission and confirms the statement of Medina Vizcaíno to which EL PAÍS has had access: the detainees “were tied to a board and submerged in the terrible “Pocito” (basin full of sewage) leaving some of them bled dead. Or in the simplest way, which was to shoot them in the head ”. Again, The righteous sword of General Chaparro.

Pending accounts

“I thought he was going to shoot me in the neck too,” recalls by phone from Acapulco Rogelio Ortega, a 65-year-old professor at the Autonomous University of Guerrero who, as a young man, also crossed paths with the sinister general. In 1977, he was kidnapped as he was leaving his mother’s house. Hooded and bound hand and foot, he was taken to one of the clandestine prisons. In a tiny cell, in which he could not lie down, with the light on 24 hours a day and the noise of a radio at full volume, he spent 15 days. Chaparro directed the interrogations. “My cell was the second after the torture room. The smell of blood came to me ”.

Rogelio Ortega at his office in Acapulco (Guerrero), on May 6, 2021.
Rogelio Ortega at his office in Acapulco (Guerrero), on May 6, 2021. TERESA DE MIGUEL

He was 25 years old and had been a member of the guerrillas, but by then he had already abandoned the armed struggle. Thanks to pressure from his mother, another historical teacher from Guerrero, he managed to get him released. “They waited a few days for the bruises to go down, they took me out and put me in a truck.” When they were going along the coastal highway, Ortega thought they were taking him to Pie de la Cuesta. And when they got him out of the car, still hooded and tied up, he thought they were going to shoot him. Before releasing him, Chaparro warned him: “You are going free because there is a lot of noise outside, but if you are from the guerrillas, I will find out and I will come back for you.”

Chaparro carried out his threat. Less than a year later, he returned for Ortega, who managed to escape through the roof of the safe house where he was sheltered. He fled the country: Nicaragua, Paris. Until in the nineties, he was able to return to Guerrero: “It was a kind of pact by which they told me that they would rather have me in the university well located than in hiding.”

The case of Ortega, who in 2014 was appointed interim governor of the state for a few months, illustrates Mexico’s pending accounts with the victims of the dirty war. “There is no serious policy of clarification of that period. There is no sentence against those responsible and the State has not made a single public acknowledgment that the Army participated in all that, ”says lawyer Santiago Aguirre, director of the Prodh Center, one of the organizations that has been promoting complaints of the victims.

Rogelio Ortega (center) in the aftermath of his arrest and torture in a clandestine prison in Acapulco.
Rogelio Ortega (center) in the aftermath of his arrest and torture in a clandestine prison in Acapulco. ALFREDO CASTRO

Aguirre gives as an example the cases of Argentina, Uruguay, or Guatemala, which purged their past with rigorous Truth Commissions. While defining as failures initiatives such as the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Social and Political Movements of the Past, born after the democratic opening of 2000, or the Community of Guerrero. Both were torpedoed by other powers of the State – Army, Prosecutor’s Office – and forced to leave their work halfway.

The lawyer also points out another Mexican peculiarity. “The new context of drug violence ended up diluting that the disappeared are things of the past. Mexico needs extraordinary measures to face a human rights crisis that has its roots in the dirty war and has not stopped since. Something unparalleled on the continent ”.

Presence of the Mexican Army in the mountains of Guerrero.
Presence of the Mexican Army in the mountains of Guerrero. DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS / AP

That line of continuity is also embodied in Rogelio Ortega. Before escaping abroad, he took refuge for a few months in the rural school in Ayotzinapa. The same school from which the 43 students disappeared in 2014 came from, supposedly in the hands of an alliance of criminals and cursed policemen. The disappearance of the poor boys, who came from a forgotten and politicized rural world and which led precisely to the fleeting appointment of Ortega as governor, is considered one of the events that has emotionally affected Mexico in the last few years. that today still does not have a clear answer.


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