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A plane with a dark past is returning from the U.S. to Argentina

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, A 1970s-era turboprop plane is making a slow and steady 6,000-mile flight from the U.S. to Argentina. The plane has a dark past. It was used to dispose of political prisoners during Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s. Human rights activists and one tenacious survivor, who spent years searching for the plane, hope its return will help thousands of victims find closure. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Miriam Lewin was abducted by Argentine security forces in May 1977. Like thousands of others, she was taken to the sprawling naval school grounds in Buenos Aires, where she was kept for a year.

MIRIAM LEWIN: I was 19 years old. I was a student activist. I was a desaparecida - a missing person. Nobody knew where I was.

KAHN: Lewin says the torture was brutal, and survival was tough, especially after learning detainees were being tossed alive from planes into the Atlantic.

LEWIN: It was too hard to keep on living, surviving after you knew that your final destination was going to be being thrown into the ocean from a plane.

KAHN: Lewin survived. And after years in exile, she returned to Argentina, becoming an award-winning investigative journalist. An Italian photographer asked her why she never used her skills to search for those infamous planes.

LEWIN: But what for? I mean, what - they're just objects. It's useless.

KAHN: It took some convincing. But three decades after she walked out of the Navy school alive, she began the search. After years poring over military databases and consulting aviation experts, she found one of those bulky, short-haul turboprop sky vans in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The new owner even had the original flight logs. One flight, December 14, 1977, stuck out. The plane left Buenos Aires Airport, flew for several hours over the Atlantic, then came right back. Cecilia De Vincenti's mom was on that flight.

CECILIA DE VINCENTI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "She was held at the naval school, tortured and then thrown on that death flight," says 61-year-old De Vincenti.

DE VINCENTI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "They robbed me of a mother and a grandmother to my children," she says. Her mother's remains washed ashore and were later identified by anthropologists searching for the thousands disappeared during the dictatorship. Using those records together with the flight logs found in Florida, prosecutors in 2017 were able to convict two pilots from that death flight.

DE VINCENTI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "With all this proof, they can't continue saying these horrible acts never happened," says De Vincenti. Some politicians, including a leading candidate for this year's presidential elections, have been downplaying the crimes of the dictatorship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting, inaudible).

KAHN: Not all objections to the plane returning to Argentina come from the right, however. Seventy-year-old Adriana Leiva comes to hear the names of victims read by the mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared every Thursday in Buenos Aires. She believes her sister disappeared in 1977, was thrown from a death flight, and she doesn't want the plane displayed at the former detention site, now a museum.

ADRIANA LEIVA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She loathes when events are held there too. But museum officials say most do favor the plane's return anticipated by week's end. At a recent commemoration of the plane's discovery, Mabel Careaga said its return is vital. Her mother was also killed on that December 14 death flight.

MABEL CAREAGA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says - "the planes couldn't keep flying as if nothing ever happened. It must come back and stand as proof of the brutalities of the past," she says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Buenos Aires. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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