Mexico’s ‘death flights’: 50 years of impunity


During the so-called “Dirty War”, the Mexican police and army executed farmers, teachers, activists, and students, and dropped their bodies out of planes. Half a century on, these crimes continue to go unpunished.

In the early 1970s, Apolinar Ceballos was a trainee pilot who had just arrived on the military airbase of Pie de la Cuesta, on the coast of Guerrero state in Mexico. A teacher informed him one afternoon that he had been selected for a special mission – and he could tell no one about it. Ceballos would see some strange things, he was told, but he was to follow orders and not breathe a word.

His first mission began at dawn. He was in charge of the plane and his teacher was his co-pilot. Before taking off, he could hear footsteps and voices as he sat in the cockpit. “This package is heavy,” someone said. “This one is light.” After half an hour in the air, he was ordered to slow down, cruise as low as possible over the sea and wait for instructions. Ceballos heard them drag the packages over the edge and open one of the plane doors. “Ready!” someone shouted. The mission had been accomplished.

The bundles that Ceballos heard being dragged over the floor of the plane were corpses – the bodies of peasant farmers, teachers, activists, students and doctors executed by the Mexican police and army and sent to a watery grave in the Pacific. They were the victims of one of the darkest episodes of the Mexican Dirty War, which we are only beginning to understand five decades on.

In March 1971, “Plan Spiderweb” was launched by the Mexican military. “The main mission is to locate groups of thugs, then capture or neutralize them,” reads a now declassified secret report seen by EL PAÍS, which was signed by Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz, then defense minister and commander-in-chief of the army. The letter was addressed to the military forces of Guerrero.

The shadow of repression already hung over the military following the Tlatelolco massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in Mexico City in 1968, but Plan Spiderweb marked the point when the persecution of dissidents became systematic. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico for seven decades from 1929 onwards, and would perpetuate its tactics until at least the end of the 1980s.

Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz during a speech.
Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz during a speech.Cortesía

Mexican guerrillas in the 1970s were drawn from the poorest and most desperate sectors of society, unlike the more middle-class elements who led the revolution in Cuba. While the PRI regime welcomed political refugees from those fighting dictatorships in Argentina or Chile, any attempt to speak out about Mexican society and agitate for change was met with swift retribution.

The trauma of this era has barely been touched in Mexico. Transitional justice, which aims to respond to widespread human rights violations through the mechanisms of truth commissions, preserving evidence and witness testimony, and state reparations, has not met international standards. The open wound of this era has also bled into the new violence caused by drug trafficking cartels. As a result, figures for the number of dead targeted for political reasons are hard to come by. The Truth Commission of Guerrero, which has faced harassment and blocked access in attempts to investigate Dirty War-era crimes, put the number of disappeared at 788 in 2014. More recent records place that figure at 900 people. The evidence is even more patchy when it comes to counting the victims of death flights, with testimonies ranging from a hundred missing to more than a thousand.

At the center of this black hole of information is General Arturo Acosta Chaparro, a sinister figure who served as police chief in Guerrero, the epicenter of the Dirty War. In 2002, he was accused by a military tribunal of murdering and tossing at least 143 people into the ocean. He was never convicted. He retired with full honors and became embroiled in accusations of drug trafficking until 2012, when two hitmen drove by on a motorcycle and shot him three times in the head in broad daylight. He was 70 years old.

Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro at a trial in 2002, where he was judged for his involvement with drug trafficking.
Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro at a trial in 2002, where he was judged for his involvement with drug trafficking.Oswaldo Ramírez / Cuartoscuro

The testimonies of pilots such as Ceballos and other military personnel appeared in the summary of the 2002 trial. Chaparro not only planned the murders but preferred to kill his victims personally, always using the same method – a single shot in the back of the head with a .380-caliber revolver. Once executed, a nylon bag was placed over the head and tied around the neck of the victim to avoid leaving traces of blood. The corpses were then placed inside tarpaulin sacks filled with stones. The sack was then sewn shut and taken to the waiting plane. Chaparro always used the same pistol for the executions, which he baptized “la espada justiciera” or, “the righteous sword.”

Military mechanic Monroy Candía testified in the trial that he participated in 15 death flights, carrying a total of 120 corpses. Chaparro was on board and gave the orders. Monroy also stated that on some occasions the bodies inside the sacks were still moving and were thrown into the sea alive. Captain Roberto Hicochera was another who gave a statement: “He did not want to ask questions or interfere in anything, because there were rumors that the Arava plane was used to throw people into the sea.” He only said that he knew the flights took off at dawn, went offshore, and that at a certain point they would slow down and then return.

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