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The Whole Truth About The Death Flights | Special Investigation

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“Sol Prendido”for Borderland Beat

The Secretary of Defense authorized the State operation to assassinate hundreds of guerrillas and then throw them into the sea.

More than 20 years ago, on orders from President Vicente Fox, the Mexican Army began an investigation into crimes committed by the State during the Dirty War years.

The unusual happened: the Army investigated itself and two Mexican generals sat on the benches of the accused. They were accused of murder and drug trafficking. The death flights were part of that file. Documents and testimonies were collected.

But time passed and the Army locked the investigation under every possible key. It buried it for two decades. Fábrica de Periodismo has had access to the essential part of it.

The hitherto unknown truth is that the operation to assassinate and throw the bodies of hundreds of dissidents into the sea was authorized by the highest military commander: Secretary General Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz.

There is also documentary evidence of what was the atrocious modus operandi of the execution and how many funeral flights left Military Air Base #7, based in Pie de la Cuesta, Guerrero. Here we tell you about those dark hours in Mexico.

* * *

They give him two blank sheets of paper and then he begins to draw. A line here, a line there. He writes a few words. Margarito Monroy Candia is already 67 years old, but the decades that have passed since the events he is being asked about occurred have not had much impact on his memory.

A military and aviation mechanic, Margarito Monroy begins to draw pictures and letters that try to give shape to the scenario that was well engraved in those years: the facilities of Military Air Base #7, in Pie de la Cuesta, Guerrero.

One of the lines leads to a point in a rectangle and in small letters Margarito Monroy writes: “Puerta por donde sacaban a los detenidos” (Door through which the detainees were taken out).

From that door, which looks more like a squashed fly, a hesitant line starts, representing the way to another point enclosed in a circle, crossed with another diagonal line, with the following description: “Lugar de ejecución” (Place of execution).

There are no more details, but there are those three words: “Place of execution”.

Near that point, Margarito draws a cargo truck seen from a bird’s eye view and then the shape of an airplane with another diagonal line pointing to it and describing: “Arava Mat. 2004″.

This is the mental sketch that Margarito Monroy has not forgotten since those years at the end of the 1970s when superior orders were, as they still are today, unquestionable and were only obeyed.

The sketches he has just handed over to the military prosecutors show the places where the tortures and extrajudicial executions took place, the modus operandi used before he and a couple of Mexican Air Force pilots started the engines of the Arava plane and flew into the Pacific Ocean to throw the bodies of women and men executed minutes before into the sea.

Once the sketches were finalized, this process was concluded. Retired Captain Margarito Monroy Candia has just told investigators about the preparations and execution of the death flights. And he has done so in great detail.


It is time to take off

Margarito Monroy Candia was commissioned at the air base in two different periods of his military career. The first time in 1958 and 1959. It was a long time before he returned to Guerrero towards the end of 1974, when the counterinsurgency strategy of the Mexican State entered its cruellest stage.

Monroy Candia witnessed one of the darkest periods of the federal government’s offensive against dissident political movements and armed organizations. Then President Luis Echeverría Álvarez and his Secretary of National Defense, General Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz, were driven by one mission: “to defend our democracy from any internal aggression”. The ghosts of communism haunted their minds.

That is why, as a privileged witness of what happened at the air base, the mechanic came to answer the questions of the public prosecutors.

It was June 20, 2001 and, unusually, a year before, an investigation had begun to clarify the crimes committed by the military high command in charge of putting an end to the guerrilla groups that had emerged in the country after the student massacre of 1968.

To begin with, the mechanic, who was assigned to the Santa Lucia air base in the state of Mexico, said that from the beginning they were clearly informed of the tasks they would perform as of September 1974, when he was commissioned to the Pie de la Cuesta air base: “Our job was to transport the guerrillas that were detained and killed by the personnel under General Quiros Hermosillo to be dumped in the sea”.

And although on paper the authority of the air base rested with the commander of the air base and the commander of the military zone, those who in reality made and unmade anything were Generals Francisco Quirós Hermosillo and Arturo Acosta Chaparro and, in second place, Major Francisco Javier Barquín, in addition to the military police personnel under the command of the three of them.

Both generals directed the operations of the White Brigade, the group of security forces whose sole objective was to eliminate at all costs the guerrilla outbreaks that were emerging in the country and, in particular, in Guerrero.

Margarito Monroy had the rank of second lieutenant at the time and was part of a crew composed of pilot Captain David Gonzalez Gomez and co-pilot Lieutenant Jorge Violante Fonseca. The three belonged to the 308th Air Squadron, based in Santa Lucia, and were responsible for flying an Arava aircraft, registration 204, manufactured in Israel, a country from which several units had just been purchased.

In early September 1974, Margarito Monroy and the pilots were informed the same day that their mission was about to begin. It was a special occasion. Since it was the first flight, both generals were present, as well as a second lieutenant and another element of the Army.

It was September 6, 1974, according to the flight logs in Fábrica de Periodismo’s possession, almost at dawn, between 6:00 and 6:50 in the morning.

They were drinking coffee, according to the mechanic’s account to the military prosecutors, until General Quirós Hermosillo said: “Well, I think it’s time to take off; before the day catches us”.

While he was getting the aircraft ready to make the first flight, Margarito explained, he heard a gunshot and was surprised. “At first I was frightened, but then I reacted and, as I was on a ladder preparing the plane, I looked over and saw that about 30 or 40 meters away some people had an individual seated and then someone approached him from behind and shot him in the back of the head; then they took him away, while others were carrying another person and did the same thing, seated him and shot him in the back of the head”.

The executions had a rhythm, they were not left to chance. One execution after another and then another and so on until they ran out of people in custody. “The shootings occurred with the interval in which they removed the person they killed and (while) they took another one to do the same to him. The place was outside in the open air and in the following executions even the bullets buzzed when they left the face of the executed and went towards the sea”.

The plane was about to take off. On the floor of the plane “there were eight dead people, dressed in civilian clothes. They were humble civilians, townspeople. All of them had blood on their heads. The mechanic did not know at that moment if they were the people that minutes before had been executed. He was surprised and tried to tell him something, but the captain stopped him: “This is going to be our job”.

Margarito, according to what he told during the interrogation, was nervous about what had just happened. Generals Acosta Chaparro and Quirós Hermosillo were present, as well as two other elements, all dressed in civilian clothes, and when the first one realized that the mechanic “was not happy and that because of his nerves he was smoking a lot, he said to him, annoyed: “You’re such a coward!

“It was my turn to notice on the first occasion when General Quirós Hermosillo shot several people. I remember well because my general was wearing a white shirt and after the executions I saw him with his shirt stained with blood. That’s why I called him El Verdugo (The Executioner) and the pistol they used to kill people, an Uzi 9 millimeter, I called it La espada vengadora (The Avenging Sword), which as far as I know they had brought from Israel”.

* * *

The unusual Sedena investigation

There is no known history of an investigation by the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) into the illegal actions of its own commanders during the so-called Dirty War against political dissidence, whether armed or peaceful, in Mexico.

The investigation of the so-called “flights of death”, which took place between 1974 and 1981, was unusual and extraordinary.

Carried out for aggravated homicide against Major General Francisco Quiros Hermosillo, Brigadier General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Major Francisco Javier Barquin Alonso, the investigation folder SC/034/2000/IV/IE-BIS is contained in 32 volumes with 4,352 pages.

In charge of the First Investigating Agency of the Military Public Prosecutor’s Office, the cover page of the investigation makes its objective explicit: “Due to the events that occurred in the 1970s in the state of Guerrero related to the guerrilla movement that took place on those dates and in which military personnel were involved”.

Some of the letters with which the summons were communicated to pilots, mechanics and other military personnel who were assigned to the Military Air Base #7 of Pie de la Cuesta were signed by General Clemente Gerardo Vega García, then Secretary of National Defense.

In order to integrate the investigation, more than a dozen witnesses of the executions and direct operators of the flights were interrogated, the air base and its facilities in Pie de la Cuesta were thoroughly inspected, the ministerial inspection of the Arava plane, registration number 3005 (it had previously had the registration numbers 2004 and 2005) was carried out, and the flight logs were recovered.

Everything is contained in the 32 volumes of the investigation that began on July 10, 2000 and concluded on September 16, 2002.

Fábrica de Periodismo had access to volume II, integrated by more than 240 pages in which the central elements of the investigation are included: testimonies, inspection visits, expert reports and flight logs.

Sex in exchange for life; they were killed anyway

After the first flight, after that first dawn, the flights continued for many months and years, with a certain regularity. The criminal protocol was repeated and the people in the hands of the military police, blindfolded and tied at the wrists, passed by the stool, were shot in the back of the head and taken to the plane with plastic wrapped around their heads to try to stop the blood from dripping.

On one occasion, when they were about to throw bodies on the usual course, a boat was sighted in the ocean and from then on it was decided to fly more than an hour out to sea and since, in addition, it was said that corpses had appeared on the coast of Oaxaca, someone ordered the bodies to be put in ixtle sacks – “like scouring pads, the kind used for coconut copra”- and stones were placed inside them to prevent them from floating.

The flights to throw suspected guerrillas into the sea took place at dawn, said Margarito Monroy Candia. To facilitate the launches, the mechanic himself removed, on instructions from above, a right side door from the Arava plane, which remained on the runway at Pie de la Cuesta.

Sometimes he was also asked to dismount the door in mid-flight, for which he was provided with ropes from which the door was fastened, which facilitated the operation.

Eventually, “Major Barquín obtained a tarpaulin to place on the floor to prevent the blood that came out of the bodies from seeping into the base of the plane, because in the heat it gave off an unbearable stench”. The tarpaulin was washed and replaced on each flight. But this did not even remove the penetrating smell of blood.

The testimonies gathered coincide in that the people detained and later murdered belonged to the September 23rd Communist League and other guerrilla organizations in Guerrero and throughout the country, but not exclusively.

“There were all kinds, people from the town, from the city, of good economic situation, engineers, doctors, graduates, of all kinds”. Some were transferred from Mexico City.

The victims were not only civilians, but also members of the Army who for unspoken reasons had decided not to carry out their counterinsurgency tasks.

Margarito Monroy recalled in his testimony that he sometimes saw military personnel being detained and executed. “It was said that they had gone over to the side of the September 23 League; they were chiefs, officers and troop personnel, but I did not learn their names; I remember the case of a paratrooper who had switched sides, was arrested and said that he already knew that we were going to kill him, which in fact happened.

When they were women -very few by the way-, Monroy Candia narrates, “the military police personnel under the orders of Major Barquín went so far that, despite knowing that they were going to be executed, they offered them that if they had sex with them, when they arrived in Guerrero they would release them and, if necessary, their husbands if they were also imprisoned. Sometimes the women accepted, but never, as far as I saw, were they released”.

People were arriving at the air base who were not going to make it out alive. They were not going to be detained nor were they going to be prosecuted. If they entered it, it was almost certain that their final destination would be the sea.

They arrived and were taken to a small building where they were held temporarily. Margarito Monroy described it to prosecutors as follows: “It was located inside the air base, attached to a small roof, in front of the offices of the base commanding general, which was about four or five meters wide by about 15 meters deep.

“They called it a bungalow and at the back there was a small office and a small living room; further inside, some bathrooms and showers; and at the back, a small cellar about one meter wide by seven meters deep, where the detainees were put”.

Sometimes they would interrogate them for a while, for which they would take them to the bathroom or the small office and keep them in those places for several days.

As far as I know,” said Margarito, “all the detainees were tied and blindfolded and then they were deprived of life. As the small room was close to the beach, they were taken out that way and about 20 meters away was the little bench where they were executed.

“I know from the comments of the personnel who helped in the executions that they deceived the detainees, telling them that they were going to let them go, that they were just going to take a photograph, but instead they sat them on the bench and shot them with an Uzi pistol. Just like that.

Although the detainees were often taken to the air base by military police in civilian clothes in private cars of different models, there were also other routes for the prelude to a tragic end.

“We would bring detainees (to Mexico City) and by coincidence we would take other detainees from here to be executed there, in Guerrero; although it was not often, it did happen on about six occasions, even taking women and even married couples to be executed there. I knew this because later, when we would take them to the sea, I would see them already dead or I would see when they were killed.

* * *

Death flight bonus

On September 6, 1974, the first death flight on record was made, according to the aircraft logs to which Fábrica de Periodismo has had access.

A few days earlier, administrative arrangements were being made to support the work that was about to begin. Given the nature of the commissions, the proceedings were not left in the hands of just any military officer.

The documents that would leave a trace over time were authorized and signed by the two highest officials of the Mexican Army at the time: the Secretary of National Defense and the commander of the Mexican Air Force.

On August 28, 1974, barely a week after the beginning of the cycle of death flights, General Secretary Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz placed his signature in black ink above the place where his name appeared and a brief legend: “APPROVED”.


The operation to throw the bodies of those who were extrajudicially executed into the sea had the knowledge and authorization of the highest Mexican military leadership and the participation of the crews involved was compensated with a bonus.

The letter, a copy of which was given to 24 commanders and heads of different areas of the Army, was sent by Wing General Roberto Salido Beltran, commander of the Mexican Air Force.

In the document, he requested that a couple of crews be stationed as of that date at Military Air Base #7, based in Pie de la Cuesta, in order to perform “ARAVA aircraft relays”.

He informed General Cuenca Diaz that the crews “were highly qualified in this kind of flight material”, and that in view of the need for “operations currently performed by Arava aircraft in the jurisdiction of the 27th. Military Zone”, with headquarters precisely in Pie de la Cuesta, he requests that he be authorized to issue “instructions so that the crews would be paid their normal salary and a bonus”.

And it also discloses the members of the crews:

- CREW ONE

Capt. David Carlos González Gómez

Capt. Roberto Bernardo Huicochea Alonso

Sub Lt. Margarito Monroy Candia

- CREW TWO

Capt. Angel Salazar Trejo

Capt. Edgar Javier Sarabia Alanís

Sub Lt. Juan Manuel Diaz Osorio

Eventually, there would be replacements of pilots and co-pilots, but these crews started operations.

“You would see weird, very delicate things.”

One of the pilots who later joined the tasks at Pie de la Cuesta was Lieutenant Colonel Apolinar Ceballos Espinoza, who testified in 2001 before the agents of the military public prosecutor’s office who were investigating the facts.

When he was commissioned in February 1979 as part of the crew of the Aravá, the “transfers”, as they called the flights to throw people into the sea, had already been carried out for more than four years. Those who had been there for a while, like Captain Jorge Violante Fonseca, saw things with a certain normality.

Apolinar Ceballos told how, when he had just been assigned to the Pie de la Cuesta air base, Captain Violante, the Arava’s chief pilot, congratulated him on his appointment.

He informed him that at Pie de la Cuesta “there was a 50 percent bonus” and that “we were going to be on a very delicate commission ordered by the superiority”.

For this reason, he gave Ceballos some advice: “That I should only limit myself to obey orders, that I was going to see strange things; that I should not ask questions, since with time I would understand and he would explain it to me, reiterating that they were very delicate things and that what I saw or heard I should not discuss it with anyone, not even with my family, due to the sensitivity of the mission, but that as military men we had to comply with the mission; that we were going to fly the ship and he would be in charge of qualifying me in the plane, since I was beginning my training as co-pilot.”

He also told Apolinar that he no longer had to report to Squadron 208, based in Santa Lucia, but that he was to report to him every day and then only on Mondays and Fridays, or when he was required to fly the aircraft.

On the first occasion that they flew to Pie de la Cuesta, there were several people in civilian clothes, but Apolinar realized that they were military because of what they were talking about. And, in fact, he later confirmed that they belonged to the Military Police and the Military Judicial Police.

He recalled that once El Amistad, as they called the mechanic Monroy Candia, “told me that if I didn’t want to get in trouble, not to try to know what was going on and not to go to the bumbum; he was referring to a palapa that was on the beach”.

Despite the warning, he was won over by the desire to know. “At a time when I was at the base, I got curious, I went to see and I realized that the palapa was about four or five meters wide by the same length and there was a kind of trunk, like a bench to sit on; Without being told, that made me imagine that that was where they killed the people we were going to dump, although there were no traces of blood or anything like that, later I found out that the personnel on the ground when we went on the flights to drop corpses cleaned everything; even after we arrived they washed the canvas and the floor of the plane well, stained by the blood that came out of the bodies”.



Upgrades, rewards for making the flights

Only three months after the death flights began, during which it made at least 10 “transfers” to the sea, the first crew of the Arava, registration 204, was rewarded with a promotion by direct agreement of General Secretary Hermenegildo Cuenca Diaz.

The high military leadership then argued that the promotion was linked to the tasks that Captain Gonzalez Gomez, Lieutenant Violante Fonseca and Second Lieutenant Monroy Candia performed at the Pie de la Cuesta air base.

Roberto Salido Beltran, commander of the Mexican Air Force, signed official letter 209, dated December 5, 1974, in which he made explicit the reasons why, with the authorization of the Secretary of Defense, they were promoted to the next higher rank, with the consequent increase in salaries, benefits and allowances:

“For the exceptionally meritorious acts they have performed during military activities against criminals in the state of Guerrero, according to the investigations and the corresponding opinion.”

That was the reason and for the military high command, headed by the General Secretary of National Defense, it was more than enough.

A copy of this document was also copied to at least 24 headquarters, departments and commanders of the Ministry of National Defense, among them Hermenegildo Cuenca’s private secretary, the director general of Military Justice and the head of the Presidential General Staff.

The “photo of remembrance” and the shot in the back of the head

Two tiny figures barely occupy a small space at the bottom left of the sheet. One of them, seated, and in the back another standing with his right hand pointing to his head. Seen in profile, the drawings look more like Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In just these two figures in profile, drawings without volume, it is summarized what would be the last moment of life of the dozens of murdered with a shot in the back of the head to then, already lifeless and bagged in sacks, be taken to the belly of the Arava, which in these traces appears, according to the indications of the plan, 50 meters away from the representation of the human figures.

At 50 meters, following the indications, is also the bungalow. Some hesitant lines meander: “the beach”. And in the background all the rest of the buildings: the control tower, the sleeping area, the military command offices.

These are the traces of the mason sub-lieutenant Epifanio Sanchez, of the Air Force Combat Engineer Battalion, who on June 22, 2001, before the Military Public Prosecutor’s Office, tells the story of his life at the base of Pie de la Cuesta, where he arrived in October 1973.

He recalls that Military Police personnel operating in civilian clothes, with long hair, mustaches and beards, entered the base on board private cars of different colors and makes, “introducing into them people who were supposed to be guerrillas”; they were blindfolded and tied by the hands and were taken to the bungalow facilities, guarded by the Military Police itself.

It was Epifanio’s job to guard the base at night. That is why he was awake and attentive.

“Between one and three o’clock in the morning gunshots were heard with a very muffled sound, as if a silencer was being used, coming from about 50 meters from the bungalow… Some two or three hours later, between three-thirty and four in the morning, a plowed (sic) plane would leave with lights off, the runway being illuminated with artificial balls (sic) made with diesel, tow and canister. By this means the araba plane was guided to take off and land. One hour after leaving, it arrived at the facilities, not knowing its activity”.

In spite of that, he did not report the gunfire for one reason: “We were ordered not to say anything, not to see anything, not to know anything, not to hear anything”.

However, he tells those who interrogated him that he heard from elements of the Military Police that “the presumed guerrillas were previously seated on a bench fifty meters from the bungalow and they told them that they were going to take a souvenir photo and then they shot them with a gun at the nape of the neck”.

Subsequently, “they would put them under the mattress and put stones in them and they were transferred to the araba plane that was parked (sic) on the platform about 50 meters away, and they would put them in the araba on top of the canvas and then they would throw them out to sea about an hour away and this form of execution was common”.


Miguel Barrón Alemán, a retired bricklayer second lieutenant, also witnessed what his colleague Epifanio told. Both were summoned to testify on the same day. And given that they performed the same surveillance tasks and occupied the same work spaces, he also realized that they brought blindfolded and bound people to the bungalow.

“They would keep them sometimes for one to two days,” until between two and three in the morning they would take them about 50 meters away. “As it was dark, I could only see the silhouettes of the person who was leading another, who was blindfolded, and who was carrying them by the arm, subduing them”.

Miguel Barrón could see the scene from a distance because he slept on the second floor of the base and looked through the blinds. From there he could make out what was happening:

“They would sit her in a chair and at those moments they would turn on a tape recorder at full volume with music and wait for the sea wave to fall so that it would make noise and then a slight detonation would be heard.”

But it wasn’t just one gunshot on those nights. “Seven to eight people were led to the chair and seven to eight gunshots were also heard.”

To those nights, Miguel’s testimony closes, the military under the command of Major Barquín referred when they said in code that “there was going to be a party” so as not to say in all its letters that they were going to execute the detainees.

* * *

“It was an open secret”

Margarito Monroy’s appearance before the military prosecutors comes to an end. The questions have been answered and the captain of Military Justice Ángel Rosas Gómez says: “There being no more questions to ask, the floor is given to the person appearing in case he has anything else to add”.

And Margarito has something to add: “I just want to say that the gunshots, executions and the transfer of the corpses to the sea to throw them away, it was an open secret, everyone knew about it: the commander of the zone, the commander of the Military Air Base of Pie de la Cuesta and the personnel that worked there”.

Military Air Base #7
Pie de la Cuesta, Guerrero


Aristegui Noticias  Fábrica de Periodismo


Source: https://www.borderlandbeat.com/2023/11/the-whole-truth-about-death-flights.html


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