The Scilingo Effect

First, this was announced in VOA on March 19, 2005:

Argentina's military bishop has been removed from his position after saying the public health minister should be "thrown in the sea" for favoring the legalization of abortion.  President Nestor Kirchner withdrew his support for Bishop Antonio Baseotto on Friday, canceling both his salary and government funds for his military diocese.  The decision puts Mr. Kirchner in a difficult position with Roman Catholic leaders at the Vatican who insisted the bishop be installed in 2002 despite government objections.

But the Vatican is not accepting Kirchner's decision, as reported in the follow-up report in VOA:

The Vatican is warning that Argentina's decision to remove a bishop from his military post could be a violation of religious freedom.

What is the fuss about?  According to the Buenos Aires Herald editorial (March 20, 2005):

For the first time in 50 years (during Juan Perón’s fatal clash with the Church), the government is asking the Vatican to remove a "turbulent priest" (as the English King Henry II described St. Thomas à Becket). But army chaplain Antonio Baseotto is no Becket — his repudiation of Health Minister Ginés González García’s proposal to legalize abortion might seem in line with mainstream Catholic Church thinking but it was not so much what he said as how he said it. Baseotto might indeed have quoted St. Luke but the image of dropping people with millstones around their necks into the sea is highly inappropriate in a country still haunted by memories of the death flights dumping dissidents into the River Plate three decades ago. The text ("Suffer little children to come unto me and if anybody does aught against the least of my brothers, it were better for him that a millstone etc.") is also a boomerang because it so clearly refers to the abuse of small children rather than the protection of unborn life — an abuse prompting hundreds of charges against Catholic clergymen around the world.

In fact, the first VOA report cited above made the point of devoting the second half of the story to an elaboration about what Baseotto said:

Argentine officials assert that the bishop's remarks are inflammatory and reminiscent of protocols used during the country's last military dictatorship from 1976 - 1983.  Bishop Baseotto's comments last month were especially controversial because Argentina's security forces literally dumped political prisoners alive into the sea from military aircraft during the dictatorship.

Is it possible that Bishop Baseotto was unaware of the symbolic meaning of 'throwing people into the sea' in Argentina?  Yes, it is entirely possible that Baseotto had spent the last ten years living in a cave in the middle of nowhere and was therefore immunized from the Scilingo Effect.  Chapter 6 of Marguerite Feitlowitz's A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture is titled "The Scilingo Effect" and here is how the Scilingo affair got started:

Beginning on March 2, 1995, when Retired Navy Captain Aldolfo Scilingo publicly confessed to participating in two of the weekly "death flights" that were a hallmark of the Dirty War, the Argentine media gained a harrowing new, though small, cast of characters.  Testifying that death-flight duty was rotated to virtually all naval officers, Scilingo is the first military man to sue his superiors for lying about their leadership in the atrocity.  In Scilingo's wake, a half-dozen other ex-military men directly involved in kidnapping, torture, and murder in the secret camps came forward and were featured, day after day, on radio and television, in newspapers and magazines  They included a down-at-the-heels former sergeant at once sympathetic to the victims and awed by his superiors' license to kill, the ex-director of La Perla currently freelancing for Federal Intelligence, the unrepentant Julián the Turk, and "Dr. Death," an obstetrician/gynecologist who tortured and sold babies as a member of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police.  Not on to be kept from the limelight, Massera loudly blamed the victims who, he insisted, "knew the risks."  For months, porteños starting their day with the radio were stunned to consciousness by the voices of these men in their bedrooms, in their kitchens, in their cars.  "The past is a predator," goes an Argentine adage, and for many it is literally true.


This saga began on evening television on March 2, 1995, when Horacio Verbitsky, Argentina's premier investigative journalist, was a guest on Hora Clave ("Critical Hour"), the most influential news show in the country.  In a rigorous, carefully framed delivery, Verbitsky played tape recordings from nearly a year's worth of closely guarded interviews with Scilingo.  The following day, in Página 12, the morning paper for which he works, Verbitsky published "The Final Solution," the first part of a series based on Scilingo's tortuous confessions.  (Verbitsky also gathered this work into a book, El Vuela ("The Flight"), which became an immediate best-seller.)  The following Thursday, March 9, Scilingo himself appeared on Hora Clave, ratifying Verbitsky's tapes and filling out some of the details of his horrific story.  The man who admitted to throwing thirty living individuals out of airplanes into the sea was impeccably groomed, wearing a suit by Christian Dior, and highly articulate.  Dark hair combed back off his forehead, a neatly trimmed moustache, the body language of a man who is educated and socially adept.

        Adolfo Scilingo

In 1976, Scilingo was a junior officer in his late twenties, clearly destined for an elite career.  He requested to be sent to the ESMA, "to serve with the saviors of the Nation."  At the time, "[he] believe what [they] repeated everyday, 'that the only good guerrilla was a dead guerrilla.'"  Before receiving his chosen assignment, Scilingo was stationed at the Puerto Belgrano base in Bahía Blanca.  As he tells it, "Vice Admiral Luis María Mendía [then Chief of Naval Operations] got us together in the cinema at the base and explained that, given the circumstances, certain instruments to be used against the enemy would be out of the ordinary.  Since colonial times, he said, armies had distinguished themselves by their uniforms, but that had changed.  Now we too would go without uniforms, so as to mask our presence among the civilians . With regard to the subversives who had been condemned to death, Mendía told us they 'would fly' and that the ecclesiastic authorities had assured him that this was a Christian, basically nonviolent form of death."  If anyone had problems with this he could be assigned elsewhere, allowed the Chief of Naval Operations.

"I," said Scilingo, "had no argument.  I imagined that they had studied everything very carefully.  We were all convinced that it was more humane."  The group's questions and discomfort derived from the prospect of dressing as civilians; being out of uniform didn't feel right . But they would adjust; this was, after all, an unprecedented struggle.  Scilingo's understanding was at this point abstract; he had no idea what, concretely, the struggle entailed.  A few days after arriving at the ESMA (where he was in charge of the auto shop), Scilingo went upstairs to repair a ventilator and accidentally ended up in capucha, an area in which he was no allowed.  "I opened a door and out came a young woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, dressed in a nightgown, slippers, and robe.  She stopped in front of me, looked at me with sad eyes, then continued on to the bathroom  There were other pregnant women in that room ... it was unnerving to see future mothers in these circumstances, in spite of the hatred I felt for the subversives ... This was the war I had asked to fight, but did it have to be like this? ... It was a scene out of the Middle Ages ... There were prisoners of various ages ... most of them were pestilent ... trembling.  You could hear moaning.  Some of the them were praying ... The air was suffocating ... You could feel their terror, as they tried to adjust their leg irons, so they wouldn't rub against the open wounds on their ankles."

Scilingo declared that virtually every officer took part in the flights, which were considered "a form of communion," "a supreme act we did for the country."  High-ranking officers and "special invitees" accompanied the flights to lend cachet and give encouragement.  He calculated that during this two years at the ESMA (1976-1977), "a hundred Wednesdays, between 1500 and 2000 people" were thrown into the sea.

Scilingo was tapped twice, in April and June of 1977, by then Captain Adolfo Mario Arduino, who was later promoted to Vice Admiral and Chief of Naval Operations.  Prior to "transfer," Scilingo recounted, the prisoners selected "to fly" were called by their numbers, ordered to form a line and march -- shuffle, really -- in leg irons to the basement where, the brass explained, they were being flown to a recuperation camp in the south, and would now be getting "vaccinations."  Whereupon a physician administered the first dose of a tranquilizer (sodium pentothal) dubbed by the force as Pen-Naval.  "It made them drowsy," Scilingo recounted, "and we had to help them to the plane.  Once onboard, a physician administered a second shot to knock the prisoners out, then returned to their seats.  The doctors moved back to the back of the cabin so as not to violate their Hippocratic oath," Scilingo glossed without irony.  "Once the prisoners were asleep -- this is very morbid," he allowed, "we undressed them, and two of us would drag one prisoner down the aisle and then push him into the sky ... "  Scilingo shoved thirty individuals to their death: thirteen on the first flight, seventeen on the second.  Among them was a sixty-five-year-old man, a sixteen-year-old boy, and two pregnant women in their early twenties.  On his first flight, Scilingo slipped and nearly fell out of the plane with a prisoner who was struggling and would not let go.  He survived only because a comrade grabbed him and pulled back.  "It's a recurring nightmare," he testified, "one I'll have for the rest of my life."  He is still tormented by "the heavy scrape and jangle of [the prisoners'] chains and shackles ... the clothing left strewn on the floor of the plane after the 'cargo' was dropped."  On the return flight no one said a world; back at the ESMA, Scilingo drank himself into a long, deep sleep and then went to confession, where he was immediately absolved.  "It was a Christian form of death," the priest assured him and, bastardizing a parable from Matthew 13:24, explained that subversives were the weeds sown by the enemy among the wheat.  The tares had to be burned, so the wheat could be gathered into the barn.  "And that," said Scilingo, "is how we were taught to save Western, Christian civilization from the Red terror."

The excerpt illustrates the obvious weakness in the Catholic Church's position: Why is the Church so adamantly against the legalization of abortion today, but it was ever ready to issue instant absolutions to military officers throwing pregnant women out of planes?  Certainly, the Church has never issued a definitive statement that all those military officers who had participated in the killings are condemned to hell for all eternity, or expelled all the military priests who condoned and supported the killings.  For the Vatican to want to talk about religious freedom in the Baseotto affair indicates that they just don't get it, and their authority is eroded every time that they do this sort of thing.

And why was President Nestor Kirchner so riled up?  Here is a personal story about Kirchner from about this time last year ("Former Argentinian death camp to become museum" by Uki Goni in The Guardian, March 24, 2004):

In a bold step, President Nestor Kirchner today made a clear break with Argentina's bloody past, signing an order turning what was the largest death camp of the country's 1976-83 dictatorship into a museum of remembrance.  A poem smuggled out of the death camp, written by victim Ana Maria Ponce, was read during today's ceremony. 

The young woman, a personal friend of President Kirchner during the 70s, was never seen alive again.  She was probably taken to the nearby Aeroparque city airport (the Buenos Aires equivalent of Gatwick airport), from which the secret "death flights" carrying ESMA captives took off twice weekly.  The victims were injected with a strong tranquilliser and thrown alive into the freezing waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, often with their stomachs slit open to ensure they sank quickly and that their bodies did not wash up on Argentina's beaches, as happened in the early days of the dictatorship.

24 de MARZO

"Que no me mientan"
de Ana María Ponce

Que no me mientan,
detrás de mi,
Espera el fin.
Que no me mientan,
detrás de mi,
están los recuerdos,
la simple alegría de vivir libre
Detrás de mi,
quedo un mundo que ya no me pertenece
me miro los pies.
Están atados.
Me miro las manos,
están atadas,
me miro el cuerpo,
esta guardado entre paredes,
me miro el alma,
Esta presa
Me miro simplemente
me miro y a veces
no me reconozco ...
Entonces vuelvo a mirarme,
los pies,
y están atados;
las manos,
y están atadas;
el cuerpo,
y esta preso;
pero el alma,
ay, el alma, no puede
quedarse así,
la dejo ir, correr,
buscar lo que aun queda de mi misma
hacer un mundo con retazos,
y entonces río,
porque aun puedo
sentirme viva.

For comparison, here is the Body & Soul post on the same subject.