Operation Condor: Heroes or Villains?

On 28 September 1966 an Aerolíneas Argentinas flight was taken over by 18 heavily armed Argentine nationalists and diverted to the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) with the aim of claiming Argentine sovereignty over the islands. Alejandra Gentil analyses ‘Operation Condor’ and its duality as both an act of purported heroism and an act of terror.

The Kelpers, as the Falkland (Malvinas) islanders are known, awoke to an unusual sound on the morning of 28 September 1966. The roar of DC-4 engines circling the islands’ capital of Port Stanley as they attempted to land in crossing winds and poor visibility sparked the curiosity of many in the sleepy capital of this South Atlantic archipelago. To the astonished gaze of bystanders, an Aerolíneas Argentinas aircraft swerved and landed on a racecourse, its tyres becoming deeply entrenched in mud. It was flight AR648, which had taken off from Buenos Aires bound for the southern city of Río Gallegos. It was diverted to the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) by a group of 18 young Argentine nationalists, members of the ‘Movimiento Nueva Argentina’ (MNA), a proscribed Peronist right-wing group.

AR648 immobilised at Port Stanley
AR648 immobilised at Port Stanley

‘Operation Condor’, as it was baptised, was masterminded by Dardo Cabo, a trade union leader and founder of MNA, and his girlfriend, Cristina Verrier, a journalist and playwright. Soon they were joined by other enthusiastic militants – mostly students or trade unionists, all Peronists and members of MNA – who sought to make the question of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) the top priority of the country’s military dictatorship, while at the same time pulling off a publicity stunt that would undermine the regime. Taking over the islands was the final objective; the reasoning behind it being that the ‘heroic’ feat would spur a nationalist wave in Argentina that would force the hand of the president, General Juan Carlos Onganía, into ordering an invasion. Establishing and reclaiming sovereignty over the archipelago was crucial and would play a major part in the operation.

The Falkland Islands (Malvinas) are at the centre of an ongoing sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina. While both hold seemingly legitimate claims to them, the reality is that the archipelago is currently a British overseas territory – a reality which doesn’t sit well with a significant percentage of the Argentine population. Back in the 1960s, however, and up to the 1982 Falklands war, the Kelpers kept a close relationship with Argentina, maintaining trade liaisons, travelling for shopping and tourism, and sending their children to schools in the Argentine region of Patagonia. The issue of their sovereignty only – arguably – became a hot topic in Argentina upon the UN’s ‘Declaration on Decolonisation’ of 1960 and the establishment of the ‘Special Committee on Decolonisation’, which included the question of the status of these islands in 1964.
At the height of the frenzy that this caused in Argentina, a lone aviator, Miguel Fitzgerald, decided to fly a Cessna to Port Stanley, where he landed on the same race track that AR648 would later wallow in, went on to pin an Argentine flag on its fence and hand over a proclamation on the sovereignty of Argentina over the archipelago to a curious observer, after which he took off and flew back to the Argentine city of Río Gallegos. Without a doubt this outlandish incident influenced the young nationalists and helped forge ‘Operation Condor’.

Some of the hijackers of AR648
Some of the hijackers of AR648

“Scroll One-Zero-Five”

Flight AR648 took off from Buenos Aires at 00.34 on 28 September 1966. The estimated flight time was eight and a half hours to the capital of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Río Gallegos. There were six crewmembers on board, but sources differ on the number of passengers, some stating 35 and others 43. Among them, 18 hijackers were anxiously waiting for the right time to execute their plan. A lack of funds limited the number of tickets they could afford, hence they were forced to change their initial plans to buy all seats on board. They all met at the pre-boarding area of the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, Buenos Aires’ domestic airport, carrying weapons and explosives on them. In order to ensure proper documentation and dissemination of their feat, they tipped off an important journalist, who promptly secured a seat on the flight.

“…a lone aviator, Miguel Fitzgerald, decided to fly a Cessna to Port Stanley, where he landed on the same race track that AR648 would later wallow in, went on to pin an Argentine flag on its fence and hand over a proclamation on the sovereignty of Argentina over the archipelago to a curious observer…”

Six hours into the flight, some of the passengers on board were beginning to wake up for breakfast while the 18 hijackers were quietly gearing up and preparing their weapons. A couple of them headed towards the back and locked the flight purser in the toilet. Another two approached the flight deck and ordered Captain Fernandez García to “scroll one-zero-five”. “Guys, stop fooling around and take your seats” was the captain’s reply, in the offhanded manner of an Argentine who is used to his compatriots’ peculiar sense of humour. Only this time he was met with the barrel of a gun to his head and promptly informed that his family would be ‘taken care of’ if he didn’t comply. Hence, despite the unfavourable weather conditions and the uncertainty of flying over the South Atlantic, renowned for its treacherous winds, without the appropriate charts and with limited fuel, the crew swiftly changed course.

Back in the passenger cabin, the governor of the Argentine territory of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and South Atlantic Islands was also being apprised of the hijacking. His presence on the flight was one of the reasons why the operation took place on that date and not later as planned. That, and the monumental fact that Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, happened to be in Buenos Aires preparing to play a polo match with General Onganía.

A Rough Landing

Adverse weather conditions made for a rough landing in Port Stanley’s racecourse, now turned into an improvised runway. The hijackers faced their first dilemma when they realised the aircraft was not only mired in mud, and hence a sitting duck, but it had also landed on the wrong side of the racecourse – the governor’s residence, the taking over of which was their primary objective, was now at exactly the other end of the track!

“…he was met with the barrel of a gun to his head and promptly informed that his family would be ‘taken care of’ if he didn’t comply…”

To the bemusement of the islanders, who initially thought the aircraft had made an emergency landing, the hijackers disembarked using ropes. Adding to the confusion, none of them spoke English. The flight purser was then designated as translator. Some 15 Kelpers, among them the Chiefs of Police and Marine, were taken hostage before the militants-turned-hijackers displayed seven Argentine flags and renamed the location ‘Puerto Rivero’ in honour of the controversial ‘gaucho’ Antonio Rivero who, in 1833, led a revolt against his foreign employers in the islands and is perceived by certain nationalists to be a symbol of the ‘national struggle’ against the British occupation. They also distributed a pamphlet in English in which they claimed they were not aggressors, but Argentines who considered the islands a part of their own country. The leader, Dardo Cabo, went on to announce, “We set foot today on the Argentine Malvinas Islands in order to reaffirm with our presence our national sovereignty.”
In the meantime, the aircraft was surrounded by soldiers and armed civilians, its movement blocked by vehicles and its own bogged down tyres. A new announcement was made by Dardo Cabo through the aircraft’s radio, “Operation Condor accomplished… Position Puerto Rivero (Malvinas Islands), English authorities consider us arrested. Chief of Police and Marine taken hostage by us until English governor annuls arrest and recognises that we are in Argentine territory”.

A stalemate ensued. The British forces took the opportunity to fortify their position around the aircraft. Flood lights, loud speakers with martial music and military vehicles were installed. A Dutch Catholic priest acted as mediator and eventually managed to have the hostages released. The passengers were provided accommodation by the local population while the hijackers sought refuge inside the aircraft. At 4.30 on 29 September the British governor demanded their unconditional surrender, but the hijackers dug in and waited. In the afternoon, the demand was repeated through the Catholic priest, to no avail. They were buying time, awaiting support from the Argentine population and its government. It never came.

A trade union honouring  one of its leaders, a former 'Condor', on the 40th anniversary of the hijacking.
A trade union honouring one of its leaders, a former ‘Condor’, on the 40th anniversary of the hijacking.

Shock and Awe and the Politics of a Veiled War

General Juan Carlos Onganía had come to power barely three months before through a coup d’état. Not wasting any time, he had already clamped down on student movements and university autonomy, having hundreds of students and professors alike battered and arrested by the police during the intervention of the prestigious University of Buenos Aires (UBA). He had also dissolved the parliament, trade unions and all political parties. The media was heavily censored and hence the news of the hijacking received very limited coverage. The population, still reeling from the shock of yet another coup and the crackdowns that came with it, paid little attention to the trickle of news from the incident that was leaked into mainstream media.

From the regime’s perspective, its main ambition was to depoliticise the society in order to prevent a fracture in society and insurgent groups from forming or flourishing, an aim which formed part of the United States’ cold war ‘doctrine of national security’, which was imposed on several ‘peripheral’ countries, especially in Latin America. The strategy intended to ensure that insurgencies didn’t spread within or out of those countries. And insurgencies, from far left to extreme right, were slowly beginning to take root in Argentina and would ultimately decimate the country in the 1970s. Giving free reign to Peronist militants who had hijacked a flagship carrier’s aircraft was clearly not in General Onganía’s plans. In addition, maintaining good commercial ties with Great Britain was crucial at a time when he was trying to reorganise the country’s economy which was, unsurprisingly for Argentina, in a shambles.

“…President Onganía declared, “The recovery of the Malvinas Islands cannot be an excuse for factiousness”. With this, he sealed the hijackers’ fate…”

In an official communiqué on 29 September, President Onganía declared, “The recovery of the Malvinas Islands cannot be an excuse for factiousness”. With this, he sealed the hijackers’ fate.

The Etiquette of a Sovereign Surrender

With no rations, not enough winter clothes, an inoperative aircraft and a lack of popular and state support, ‘Operation Condor’ was soon doomed. Forty bitterly cold hours after landing, the hijackers, through the Catholic priest’s mediation, surrendered their weapons to the flight’s pilot-in-command, Captain Fernandez García. “By having the captain take us into custody,” one of them later said, “it was, through him, the (Argentine) national state which took on the powers of the police, a fact which constitutes an act of sovereignty”.

Lone aviator Miguel Fitzgerald flew his Cessna to Port Stanley in 1964 and claimed Argentinian sovereignty over the islands.
Lone aviator Miguel Fitzgerald flew his Cessna to Port Stanley in 1964 and claimed Argentinian sovereignty over the islands.

After surrendering their weapons, the hijackers remained in the custody of the Catholic priest until a week later when they, along with the passengers and crew of the ill-fated AR648 flight, boarded the vessel ‘ARA Bahía Buen Suceso’, sent by the Argentine government, bound for the city of Ushuaia, where the militants were detained. Upon his arrival, Dardo Cabo stated, “I went to Malvinas to reaffirm our national sovereignty and want to clarify that I have at no time handed myself over to the British authorities, but accepted the hosting of the Catholic Church offered through the Archbishop of the Malvinas Islands; that I considered myself detained by Argentine authorities, represented by the captain of Aerolíneas (Argentinas); that I handed over to the governor of Tierra del Fuego and Malvinas Islands, Admiral Guzman, the Argentine flags which flew in the land of Malvinas for thirty-six hours.”

Former president Fernandez paying homage to the flags raised by the hijackers
Former president Fernandez paying homage to the flags raised by the hijackers

The Aftermath

A trial ensued, marred by the fact that there was no national jurisprudence on hijacking. They were convicted of several minor offences, the maximum of which carried three years of imprisonment. Most walked free after nine months.

After their release, some of the hijackers decided to pursue their militant (a.k.a. terrorist) careers in leftist insurgent groups and others in right wing ones in the explosive mayhem of the Argentine 1970s. Dardo Cabo became a prominent member of ‘Montoneros’, a leftist (and Peronist) urban guerrilla group and was assassinated by the regime in 1977. The second in command, Alejandro Giovenco, joined the far-right insurgency and died when the briefcase bomb he was carrying exploded. A few were killed in intra-insurgency battles. Other were ‘disappeared’ in the infamous dirty war that formed part of the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

Pensions and Government Grants

In 2012 the then president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez, of the Peronist party, who was prone to spur the Falklands/Malvinas conflict throughout her two mandates, decided to award government grants to the surviving hijackers and pensions to the relatives of those deceased. A similar initiative had been spearheaded by the government of the province of Buenos Aires a few years earlier. The events went mostly unnoticed in a country that had little recollection of the incident in the first place and has yet to come to terms with its recent history.

The Kirchner/Fernandez administrations managed to dig a trench in Argentine society, which makes any political analysis, even if unbiased, the object of virulent partisan accusations. As such, while a populist government such as that of Cristina Fernandez may hail the hijackers as ‘heroes’ meriting just reward – not the least of which is because they’re militant Peronists – those on the other side of the spectrum wallow in shame – and horror – at the knowledge of the previously unfathomable fact that their taxes are being used to pay grants and pensions to former terrorists. Or, more accurately, they would wallow in shame if they knew about it. Amidst the battery of extraordinary news that Argentines are used to receiving on a regular basis, this one went virtually unnoticed. So unnoticed, in fact, that it wasn’t reported by the mainstream media. It is to be speculated that Ms Fernandez preferred to downplay this move within Argentina due to the backlash she would receive from it, while successfully managing to send a hostile message to the UK and the Kelpers.

To this day only very few Argentine citizens, save the hard core nationalist militant, the historian and those who lived through the event (and have not been affected by social amnesia), have ever heard of the hijacking of AR648 and its purported role in the sovereignty of the islands.

Left: 'Condor' leader Dardo Cabo and girlfriend Cristina Verrier. 'Condor' leader Dardo Cabo was one of the more than 30,000 who 'disappeared' during the last dictatorship
Left: ‘Condor’ leader Dardo Cabo and girlfriend Cristina Verrier. ‘Condor’ leader Dardo Cabo was one of the more than 30,000 who ‘disappeared’ during the last dictatorship

Alejandra Gentil is the managing director at A.I.R. AVSEC Innovative Results Ltd. With more than 20 years of experience in aviation security, she has worked extensively in AVSEC operations, consultancy and training in the Americas, the Middle East and Africa, providing services to diverse industry stakeholders.