Centro Prodh and SITU release "The Death Flights," a visual investigation documenting a clandestine program of enforced disappearances carried out by the Mexican military during the so-called "Dirty War" of the 1970s and 80s

March 25th 2024

Today, SITU Research and the Mexican human rights organization, Centro Prodh, release a new visual investigation recounting one of the most clandestine programs of the so-called "Dirty War" era.

Based on a 2002 military investigation as well as the analysis of recently released documents, media assets and declassified satellite imagery, "The Death Flights" video is launched within the context of the International Right to Truth Day and the Mexican government's recently established Mechanism for Truth and Historical Clarification. The Mechanism seeks to remove military opacity in its pursuit of full access to the totality of the nation’s military archives.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – Mexico City, Monday, March 25, 2024 – Aiming to visualize one of the cruelest extra-legal practices of State violence during the era known as the "Dirty War", the visual investigations practice, SITU Research (New York City, USA) and the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh, CDMX) visually reconstructed the “Death Flights” program, which was carried out by military authorities in one of the darkest periods of the recent past.

The 14-minute video analysis is available with English and Spanish subtitles.

The project, which was presented as part of the International Day for the Right to the Truth, uses visual research technologies to digitally reconstruct, for the first time, how the “Death Flights” took place and the manner in which members of the Army, who were initially under the orders and direct participation of Generals Acosta Chaparro and Quirós Hermosillo, transported people considered political dissidents to the Pie de la Cuesta Military Air Base in Acapulco, Guerrero. There, the victims were extra-judicially executed and their bodies thrown into the sea, thus seeking to disappear all traces of them. This practice was carried out systematically for at least six years during the 1970s.

The video reconstruction was based on declassified documents from a 2002 military investigation that did not go to trial. It includes numerous written testimonies from military personnel who described their active involvement in the involuntary disappearances. In addition, the video reconstruction draws from files obtained over the years by victims and academics; unknown satellite images from the period and information from multiple journalistic reports that have been made public over the years. This painful story previously found in archives, survivors' testimonies and journalistic chronicles was synthesized into a concise visual investigation.

The project by SITU Research and Centro Prodh shows how spatial research can offer innovative ways to recount fragments of recent history and investigate human rights violations, providing a pathway towards memory and truth claims. Following the journey of Alicia de los Ríos, a young militant who was forcibly disappeared in 1978, the video demonstrates the different phases of the practice: from the transfer of the victims to the Pie de la Cuesta Military Air Base, the place of detention and the practice of extra-judicial executions, to the “Death Flights”, which are visualized using a 3D model of the plane.

The video also highlights that the Mexican Army has refused to acknowledge this practice and has also denied access to its archives, including key documents mentioned by witnesses, such as a possible record of the names of the victims and possible recordings of two of the flights. This evidence, if recovered, could include information about the identity and the ultimate whereabouts of the flight’s victims.

To date, the total number of "Death Flights" is unknown, as well as the number of victims and their identities. Likewise, these crimes, like others that took place during the so-called "Dirty War", remain unpunished.

The Mechanism for Access to Truth and Historical Clarification, created in 2021 by presidential decree to investigate and document the crimes and those responsible for the "Dirty War", has denounced the military opacity, including the lack of access and the denial of the existence of records – like the register of victims of the "Death Flights" – by the Army and other institutions. These forms of obstruction are also evidenced in other cases of serious human rights violations – among them the Ayotzinapa case. Therefore, these efforts seek to contribute to the call made by the Mechanism and the victims that "Without Archives There Is No Truth".

In the framework of the International Day for the Right to the Truth, this project recalls the debt that the Mexican State owes to the victims, their families and Mexican society. We continue to demand that the Army open its archives and stop obstructing the work of the Mechanism for Access to Truth and Historical Clarification, as a first step towards truth, justice and reversing impunity.

Watch the full video with English subtitles

Watch the full video with Spanish subtitles

About SITU Research

SITU Research develops new forms of fact-finding to cut through digital noise and amplify truth. Working together as a group of designers, urbanists, computer scientists, and analysts, the team synthesizes disparate forms of digital evidence to provide exhaustive, factual accounts of contested events. SITU Research’s work supports activists, advocates, and lawyers, bridging the gap between digital evidence and the communities that can best deploy them towards justice and accountability. For more on SITU Research, please visit: https://situ.nyc/research

About Centro Prodh

Centro Prodh is a leading human rights organization in Mexico that has promoted and defended the human rights of persons and groups in situations of vulnerability for over 35 years. We work hand-in-hand with victims of some of Mexico’s most emblematic cases of human rights abuses in their quest for truth and justice. With the support of Centro Prodh's integral legal defense and advocacy strategies, victims and collectives have exposed human rights abuses, fought impunity, and held perpetrators accountable at the national and international level. For more on Centro Prodh, please visit: https://centroprodh.org.mx/

For more information, please contact:

In Mexico City for Centro Prodh, contact Naim Camacho at +52 1 55 8531 2218 (Spanish) or comunicacion@centroprodh.org.mx (Spanish/English) for questions regarding the “Death Flights” program, the so-called “Dirty War,” and ongoing military opacity. Twitter: @CentroProdh

In New York for SITU Research, contact Candice Strongwater (English) at Cstrongwater@situ.nyc or (7‌18) 237-5795 (main) for questions regarding the video analysis. Twitter: @situ_research