Torture - as American as apple pie
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
"The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise
amount, for the desired effect.''
The words of an instructor in the art of torture. The words
of Dan Mitrione, the head of the Office of Public Safety (OPS)
mission in Montevideo.
Officially, OPS was a division of the Agency for International
Development, but the director of OPS in Washington, Byron Engle,
was an old CIA hand. His organization maintained a close working
relationship with the CIA, and Agency officers often operated
abroad under OPS cover, although Mitrione was not one of them.
OPS had been operating formally in Uruguay since 1965, supplying
the police with the equipment, the arms, and the training it was
created to do. Four years later, when Mitrione arrived, the Uruguayans
had a special need for OPS services. The country was in the midst
of a long-running economic decline, its once-heralded prosperity
and democracy sinking fast toward the level of its South American
neighbors. Labor strikes, student demonstrations, and militant
street violence had become normal events during the past year,
and, most worrisome to the Uruguayan authorities, there were the
revolutionaries who called themselves Tupamaros. Perhaps the cleverest,
most resourceful and most sophisticated urban guerrillas the world
has ever seen, the Tupamaros had a deft touch for capturing the
public's imagination with outrageous actions, and winning sympathizers
with their Robin Hood philosophy. Their members and secret partisans
held key positions in the government, banks, universities, and
the professions, as well as in the military and police.
"Unlike other Latin-American guerrilla groups,"
the New York Times stated in 1970 "the Tupamaros normally
avoid bloodshed when possible. They try instead to create embarrassment
for the Government and general disorder." A favorite tactic
was to raid the files of a private corporation to expose corruption
and deceit in high places, or kidnap a prominent figure and try
him before a "People's Court". It was heady stuff to
choose a public villain whose acts went uncensored by the legislature,
the courts and the press, subject him to an informed and uncompromising
interrogation, and then publicize the results of the intriguing
dialogue. Once they ransacked an exclusive high-class nightclub
and scrawled the walls perhaps their most memorable slogan: "O
Bailan Todos O No Baila Nadie -- Either everyone dances or no
Dan Mitrione did not introduce the practice of torturing political
prisoners to Uruguay It had been perpetrated by the police at
times from at least the early 1960s. However, in surprising interview
given to a leading Brazilian newspaper in 1970, the former Uruguayan
Chief of Police Intelligence, Alejandro Otero, declared that US
advisers, and in particular Mitrione, had instituted torture as
a more routine measure; to the means of inflicting pain they had
added scientific refinement; and to that a psychology to create
despair, such as playing a tape in the next room of women and
children screaming and telling the prisoners that it was his family
"The violent methods which were beginning to be employed,"
said Otero, "caused an escalation in Tupamaro activity. Before
then their attitude showed that they would use violence only as
a last resort."
The newspaper interview greatly upset American officials in
South America and Washington. Byron Engle later tried to explain
it all away by asserting: "The three Brazilian reporters
in Montevideo all denied filing that story. We found out later
that it was slipped into the paper by someone in the composing
room at the Jornal do Brasil."
Otero had been a willing agent of the CIA, a student at their
International Police Services school in Washington, a recipient
of their cash over the years, but he was not a torturer. What
finally drove him to speak out was perhaps the torture of a woman
who, while a Tupamaro sympathizer, was also a friend of his. When
she told him that Mitrione had watched and assisted in her torture,
Otero complained to him, about this particular incident as well
as his general methods of extracting information. The only outcome
of the encounter was Otero's demotion.
William Cantrell was a CIA operations officer stationed in
Montevideo and ostensibly a member of the OPS team. In the mid-1960s
he was instrumental in setting up a Department of Information
and Intelligence (DII), and providing it with funds and equipment.
Some the equipment, innovated by the CIA's Technical Services
Division, was for the purpose torture, for this was one of the
functions carried out by the DII.
"One of the pieces of equipment that was found useful,"
former New York Times correspondent A. J. Langguth learned, "was
a wire so very thin that it could be fitted into the mouth between
the teeth and by pressing against the gum increase the electrical
charge. it was through the diplomatic pouch that Mitrione got
some of the equipment he needed in interrogations, including these
Things got so bad in Mitrione's time that the Uruguayan Senate
was compelled undertake an investigation. After a five-month study,
the commission concluded unanimously that torture in Uruguay had
become a "normal, frequent and habitual occurrence inflicted
upon Tupamaros as well as others. Among the types of torture the
commission's report made reference to were electric shocks to
the genitals, electric needles under the fingernails, burning
with cigarettes, the slow compression of the testicles, daily
use of psychological torture ... "pregnant women were subjected
to various brutalities and inhuman treatment" ... "certain
women were imprisoned with their very young infants and subjected
to the same treatment."
Eventually the DII came to serve as a cover for the Escuadron
de la Muerte (Death Squad), composed, as elsewhere in Latin America,
primarily of police officers, who bombed and strafed the homes
of suspected Tupamaro sympathizers and engaged in assassination
and kidnapping. The Death Squad received some of its special explosive
material from the Technical Services Division and, in all likelihood,
some of the skills employed by its members were acquired from
instruction in the United States. Between 1969 and 1973, at least
16 Uruguayan police officers went through an eight-week course
at CIA/OPS schools in Washington and Los Fresnos, Texas in the
design, manufacture and employment of bombs and incendiary devices.
The official OPS explanation for these courses was that policemen
needed such training in order to deal with bombs placed by terrorists.
There was, however, no instruction in destroying bombs, only in
making them; moreover, on at least one reported occasion, the
students were not policemen, but members of a private right-wing
organization in Chile. Another part of the curriculum which might
also have proven to be of value to the Death Squad was the class
on Assassination Weapons-
"A discussion of various weapons which may be used by
the assassin" is how OPS put it. Equipment and training of
this kind was in addition to that normally provided by OPS: riot
helmets, transparent shields, tear gas, gas masks, communication
gear, vehicles, police batons, and other devices for restraining
crowds. The supply of these tools of the trade was increased in
1968 when public disturbances reached the spark-point, and by
1970 American training in riot-control techniques had been given
to about a thousand Uruguayan policemen.
Dan Mitrione had built a soundproofed room in the cellar of
his house in Montevideo.
In this room he assembled selected Uruguayan police officers
to observe a demonstration of torture techniques. Another observer
was Manuel Hevia Cosculluela, a Cuban who was with the CIA and
worked with Mitrione. Hevia later wrote that the course began
with a description of the human anatomy and nervous system
Soon things turned unpleasant. As subjects for the first testing
they took beggars ... from the outskirts of Montevideo, as well
as a woman apparently from the frontier area with Brazil. There
was no interrogation, only a demonstration of the effects of different
voltages on the different parts of the human body, as well as
demonstrating the use of a drug which induces vomiting-I don't
know why or what for-and another chemical substance. The four
of them died.
In his book Hevia does not say specifically what Mitrione's
direct part in all this was but he later publicly stated that
the OPS chief "personally tortured four beggars to death
with electric shocks''.
On another occasion, Hevia sat with Mitrione in the latter's
house, and over a few drinks the American explained to the Cuban
his philosophy of interrogation. Mitrione considered it to be
an art. First there should be a softening-up period, with the
usual beatings and insults. The object is to humiliate the prisoner,
to make him realize his helplessness, to cut him off from reality.
No questions, only blows and insults. Then, only blows in silence.
Only after this, said Mitrione, is the interrogation. Here
no pain should be produced other than that caused by the instrument
which is being used. "The precise pain, in the precise place,
in the precise amount, for the desired effect," was his motto.
During the session you have to keep the subject from losing
all hope of life, because this can lead to stubborn resistance.
"You must always leave him some hope ... a distant light
"When you get what You want, and I always get it,"
Mitrione continued, "it may be good to prolong the session
a little to apply another softening-up. Not to extract information
now, but only as a political measure, to create a healthy fear
of meddling in subversive activities. "
The American pointed out that upon receiving a subject the
first thing is to determine his physical state, his degree of
resistance, by means of a medical examination. "A premature
death means a failure by the technician ... It's important to
know in advance if we can permit ourselves the luxury of the subject's
Not long after this conversation, Manual Hevia disappeared
from Montevideo and turned up in Havana. He had been a Cuban agent-a
double agent-all along.
About half a year later, 31 July 1970 to be exact, Dan Mitrione
was kidnapped by the Tupamaros. They did not torture him. They
demanded the release of some 150 prisoners in exchange for him.
With the determined backing of the Nixon administration, the Uruguayan
government refused. On 10 August, Mitrione's dead body was found
on the back seat of a stolen car. He had turned 50 on his fifth
day as a prisoner.
Back in Mitrione's home town of Richmond, Indiana, Secretary
of State William Rogers and President Nixon's son-in-law David
Eisenhower attended the funeral for Mitrione, the city's former
police chief. Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis came to town to stage
a benefit show for Mitrione's family.
And White House spokesman, Ron Ziegler, solemnly stated that
"Mr. Mitrione's devoted service to the cause of peaceful
progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free
"A perfect man," his widow said.
"A great humanitarian," said his daughter Linda.
The military's entry into the escalating conflict signaled
the beginning of the end for the Tupamaros. By the end of 1972,
the curtain was descending on their guerrilla theater. Six months
later, the military was in charge, Congress was dissolved, and
everything not prohibited was compulsory. For the next 11 years,
Uruguay competed strongly for the honor of being South America's
most repressive dictatorship. It had, at one point, the largest
number of political prisoners per capita in the world. And, as
every human rights organization and former prisoner could testify,
each one of them was tortured. "Torture," said an activist
priest, "was routine and automatic."
No one was dancing in Uruguay.
In 1981, at the Fourteenth Conference of American Armies,
the Uruguayan Army offered a paper in which it defined subversion
as "actions, violent or not, with ultimate purposes of a
political nature, in all fields of human activity within the internal
sphere of a state and whose aims are perceived as not convenient
for the overall political system."
The dissident Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, summed up his
country's era of dictatorship thusly: "People were in prison
so that prices could be free."'
The film "State of Siege" appeared in 1972. It centered
around Mitrione and the Tupamaros and depicted a Uruguayan police
officer receiving training at a secret bomb school in the United
States, though the film strove more to provide a composite picture
of the role played by the US in repression throughout Latin America.
A scheduled premier showing of the film at the federally-funded
John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington was canceled. There
was already growing public and congressional criticism of this
dark side of American foreign policy without adding to it. During
the mid-1970s, however, Congress enacted several pieces of legislation
which abolished the entire Public Safety Program. In its time,
OPS had provided training for more than one million policemen
in the Third World. Ten thousand of them had received advance
training in the United States. An estimated $150 million worth
of equipment had been shipped to police forces abroad. Now, the
"export of repression' was to cease.
That was on paper. The reality appears to be somewhat different.
To a large extent, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
simply picked up where OPS had left off. The drug agency was ideally
suited for the task, for its agents were already deployed all
over Latin America and elsewhere overseas in routine liaison with
foreign police forces. The DEA acknowledged in 1975 that 53 "former"
employees of the CIA were now on its staff and that there was
a close working relationship between the two agencies. The following
year, the General Accounting Office reported that DEA agents were
engaging in many of the same activities the OPS had been carrying
In addition, some training of foreign policemen was transferred
to FBI schools in Washington and Quantico, Virginia; the Defense
Department continued to supply police type equipment to military
units engaged in internal security operations; and American arms
manufacturers were doing a booming business furnishing arms and
training to Third World governments. In some countries, contact
between these companies and foreign law enforcement officials
was facilitated by the US Embassy or military mission. The largest
of the arms manufacturers, Smith and Wesson, ran its own Academy
in Springfield Massachusetts, which provided American and foreign
"public and industrial security forces with expert training
in riot control".
Said Argentine Minister Jose Lopez Rega at the signing of
a US-Argentina anti-drug treaty in 1974: "We hope to wipe
out the drug traffic in Argentina. We have caught guerrillas after
attacks who were high on drugs. The guerrillas are the main drug
users in Argentina. Therefore, this anti-drug campaign will automatically
be an anti-guerrilla campaign as well.
And in 1981, a former Uruguayan intelligence officer declared
that US manuals were being used to teach techniques of torture
to his country's military. He said that most of the officers who
trained him had attended classes run by the United States in Panama.
Among other niceties, the manuals listed 35 nerve points where
electrodes could be applied.