Alleged Death Flight Pilot Fights Charges with Legal Tools Denied to Victims of Argentina’s Dirty War

Julio Alberto Poch, whose career progressed from death flights to commercial flights. (Photo: El País)

by Kurt Fernández

BUENOS AIRES—Julio Alberto Poch, the former Argentine naval pilot being held on charges that he flew hundreds of “vuelos de la muerte” or death flights during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, appeared relaxed as he walked into federal court in Buenos Aires on May 20.

Poch was recently extradited from Spain in a sequence of events that began after alarmed colleagues at the Dutch airline testified to an Argentine federal judge that Poch, an airline employee, had bragged about such feats as having piloted planes that disposed of leftist terrorists during Argentina’s “Guerra Sucia,” or Dirty War.

In an affirmation of the rule of law—and in stark contrast to the conditions in which many victims of the Dirty War were “brought to justice”—Poch was neither hooded nor in leg irons nor naked nor drugged as he stepped from the fourth floor elevator at the federal judicial building in Buenos Aires’ Retiro neighborhood.

He wore a green plaid shirt, black chinos, and black suede athletic shoes with extremely large white soles. He also wore a wrist watch but no belt. Except for his cuffed hands, in front as if in prayer, and armed police escort, Poch looked fairly normal.

Steps away from federal judge Sergio Gabriel Torres’ hearing chamber, where Poch had asked for a second chance to testify to his innocence, Poch and his attorney traded the customary Argentine male peck on the right cheek.

It was 11:22, one hour and 22 minutes later than the scheduled start of the hearing due to unexplained “demoras,” or delays. Poch would not emerge from the hearing until 4:07, except for a single bathroom break for which he was not permitted to use the lavatory next to the hearing room and was instead escorted to another floor, probably for security reasons.

Although staff declined to talk to me about Poch’s testimony, it undoubtedly consisted of denying Argentina’s allegations that he participated in 950 human rights violations at the notorious Escuela Mecánica de la Armada, the ESMA Navy Mechanics School, piloting airplanes from which live political detainees were pushed to their deaths in the Río de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean.

The ESMA, now a kind of national shrine to the memory of victims of human rights abuses, has the distinction of being the location where about 5,000 of an estimated 30,000 Argentine desaparecidos were taken to be tortured and often murdered in the military junta’s lawless crusade against communism and other perceived threats to god and country. Judge Torres has the unenviable job of overseeing all the so-called ESMA cases.

Unlike Poch, ESMA detainees were never charged or given a semblance of a hearing. They were simply locked up and tortured and then either dumped back into society or murdered.

A routine disappearance started with a kidnapping, as guides who now give tours of ESMA explain. The victim would be tied up and thrown in the trunk of a Ford Falcon, driven to the ESMA facility in the north of the city, and marched into the officers’ quarters. There victims were hooded and stripped naked, and alternately forced to lie silent on a cot in an attic and to endure beatings and electric shocks during interrogation. Many of the harshest interrogation techniques were shared with Argentina by French and U.S. officials, ESMA guides tell on their sobering, hours-long tours.

A particularly gut-wrenching detail of institutional procedures is that pregnant ESMA detainees were allowed to give birth so that their children could be “adopted” by families that would bring them up with the proper religious and cultural values. The 1985 film La Historia Oficial, which won the Academy Award for best foreign film, explores this sick manifestation of the Dirty War.

Not content with going after what it considered to be dangerous or unsavory elements of society using traditional law enforcement methods, the military regime built a surreal machine of torture and death certainly no less horrifying on an individual level than Abu Ghraib or Auschwitz.

I had sought permission to attend Poch’s hearing but was told that only his lawyer was allowed in the room as the case is still in the investigative stage.

After Poch was escorted away at the end of the hearing a court official told me that the judge has 10 working days to decide whether there is merit to the charges against Poch, in which case he will remain incarcerated, or whether he should go free. That would make the deadline Monday, June 7, as there are two intervening federal holidays that do not count as working days.

Even if Poch, who is being held in a maximum security prison, is ultimately sentenced and imprisoned for human rights abuses—a fate that has already been meted out to some of the larger figures of the Argentine dictatorship—he will never know what it is like to be pushed to his death from an airplane by a regime that made its own rules for dealing with opponents. But at 57, he will have plenty of time to contemplate having done it to others.

And if Poch (pronounced like “roach”) is ultimately set free, he will probably have learned the value of keeping his mouth shut.

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