The Condor Case [Operation Condor]
The human costs of militarization
in Latin America
by Arturo Jimenez
September 21, 2006 marked the 30th anniversary
of the first car bomb ever to explode on U.S. soil. It exploded
in the streets of Washington, DC killing the former Chilean ambassador
to the United Nations, Orlando Letelier, and his U.S. assistant
Ronnie Moffitt. The Letelier-Moffitt assassination was one of
several international assassinations carried out during the 1970s
under Operation Condor.
Operation Condor was a transnational and
clandestine, state-sponsored terrorist coalition among the militaries
of the Southern Cone of Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil,
Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay). From the early 1970s through the
early 1980s, "subversives"-priests, nuns, politicians,
students, and teachers-basically anyone considered a political
dissident or a challenge to the military regimes-became possible
targets for surveillance, torture, and death (regardless of where
in the world those people resided). As Argentine general Jorge
Rafael Videla explained in 1976, "A terrorist is not just
someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas
that are contrary to Western or Christian civilization."
On October 1975 the head of DINA (Directorate
of National Intelligence in Chile), Colonel Manuel Contreras,
invited several of his counterparts to a secret meeting titled
"Primera Reunión InterAmericaca de Inteligencia Nacional"
in order to "provide a basis for excellent coordination and
improved action to benefit the national security of our respective
The meeting took place the following month
and ended with an agreement on November 28 "called CONDOR
by the unanimous approval of a motion presented by the Uruguayan
delegation in honor of the host country [Chile]," as the
minutes of that secret meeting explained.
Operation Condor was to have three phases:
the first involved further cooperation among the militaries and
intelligence agencies through the sharing of intelligence and
the surveillance of specific targeted persons. This first phase
also required the creation of a large data bank along with a complex
telecommunications system (later known as CONDORTEL) that connected
all the Condor states together. The closing statements of that
first "Inter- American Meeting of National Intelligence"
recommended: "(1) From this day forward, initiate bilateral
or multilateral contacts upon the will of the countries participating
here, for the exchange of subversive information, opening their
own, or new, information files in their respective services; (2)
We recommend the creation of a coordinating office, with the purpose
of providing information on people and organizations linked to
subversion; (5c) We recommend swift and immediate contact when
suspicious individuals are either expelled from the country or
travel outside the country, so as to alert the intelligence services."
The second phase promised cross-border
operations to kidnap, interrogate (torture), and "disappear"
dissidents. The third phase created an international assassination
squad that, in practice, seemed to have focused on political/civilian
threats (not "terrorist" or "guerrilla") and
that would travel anywhere in the world to eliminate its targets.
A 1976 FBI intelligence report explained, "A third and most
secret phase of 'Operation Condor' involves the formation of special
teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the
world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination
against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from
'Operation Condor' member countries."
Before Operation Condor came into effect
in 1975, every would-be member state was under military rule with
the exception of Argentina where the coup came a couple of years
later. Operation Condor arguably became the most repressive, far-reaching,
and secretive system of the parallel or "shadow" state
structures. The military elites of the juntas engineered the Condor
system to secure and extend the dictatorships' control and repression
over their societies. As Latin American specialist Patrice McSherry
explains, "This parallel apparatus was created to carry out
covert or secret policies to avoid legal constraints, and to circumvent
any form of accountability." Furthermore, "the Condor
death squads were created as an integral part of the broader counterinsurgency
or 'counterterror' campaign condoned by elite groups as well as
their key foreign ally, the United States."
Since the early 1960s the U.S. Military
and CIA have conducted and trained their Latin American counterparts
in the use of torture, electric shocks, sensory deprivation, "self-inflicted"
pain techniques, the use of "drugs and hypnosis to induce
psychological regression," as well as other means of interrogation
and assassination. In addition to assisting in the overthrow of
democratic governments (Brazil, 1964; Chile, 1973), the CIA helped
in the establishment of repressive intelligence agencies across
the region that became the coordinating centers in the Condor
system. In Paraguay the Technical Department for the Repression
of Communism (la Técnica) was originally organized with
U.S. support. Similarly, Brazil's National Information Service
(SNI)-established after the 1964 coup-enjoyed substantial CIA
support and influence. Finally, Chile's infamous Directorate of
National Intelligence (DINA) was created with the careful guidance
of eight CIA officers. As U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
assured Argentine Foreign Minister Cesar Guzzetti in October 1976:
"Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed.
I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported.
What is not understood in the United States is that you have a
civil war. We read about human rights problems, but not the context.
The quicker you succeed the better."
By that time Kissinger's "friends"
had already killed and disappeared thousands of Argentines. In
addition, a number of Uruguayans and Chileans had also been disappeared
in Argentina (by Condor agents), including some who were registered
refugees with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Similarly,
Uruguayan Senator Zelmar Michelini and Uruguayan Congressperson
Hector Gutierrez Ruiz had also been assassinated in Argentina
four months before Kissinger's meeting with Guzzetti. Nonetheless,
when meeting Guzzetti, Kissinger had maintained his earlier (March
1976) position when the Argentines understood Kissinger's "encouragement"
as having "U.S. approval for its all-out assault on the left
in the name of fighting terrorism," the National Security
Archive reports. Kissinger's political support extended to Operation
Condor. As McSherry explains, "Guzzetti also told Kissinger
that all the Southern Cone militaries were collaborating to pursue
'terrorists'-thus referring to Operation Condor and confirming
the embassies perceptionsof regional collusion in repression."
Nevertheless, Kissinger gave the Argentine junta a "green
light" providing its leaders a sense of "euphoria."
To make matters worse, on August 3, 1976,
Kissinger had received a report on Operation Condor titled the
"ARA Monthly Report: The 'Third World War' and South America."
The report informed Kissinger how the Southern Cone countries
had, "established Operation Condor to find and kill terrorists
of the 'Revolutionary Coordinating Committee' in their own countries
and in Europe. Brazil is cooperating short of murder operations."
The report also maintained that, "They
are joining forces to eradicate 'subversion,' a word which increasingly
translated into non- violent dissent from the left and center-left."
The report concluded by warning how, "This siege mentality
shading into paranoia is perhaps the natural resort of the convulsions
of recent years in which the societies of Chile, Uruguay, and
Argentina have been badly shaken by assault from the extreme left.
But the military leaders, despite near decimation of the Marxist
left in Chile and Uruguay, along with accelerated progress toward
that goal in Argentina, insist that the threat remains and that
war must go on. Some talk of the 'Third World War,' with the countries
of the southern cone as the last bastion of Christian civilization."
Precursors to Operation Condor
Before delving into the "official"
Condor years, it is important to note, as Peter Kornbluh argues,
that, "Long before Condor's formal creation, its methods
of intelligence sharing, surveillance coordination, multilateral
repression, and murder were all but perfected."
As early as the 1960s the United States
was pushing for more military to military cooperation. As U.S.
General Rubert W. Porter emphasized in 1968, "In order to
facilitate the coordinated employment of internal security forces
within and among Latin American countries we areendeavoring to
foster interservice and regional cooperation by assisting in the
organization of integrated command and control centers; the establishment
of common operating procedures; and the conduct of joint and combined
An excellent example of interservice cooperation,
and an important precursor to Operation Condor, was the Chilean-Argentine
cooperation in the 1974 assassination of retired Chilean General
Carlos Prats. As early as spring 1974, DINA covertly set up its
first external base in Argentina in order carry out surveillance
on Prats and other Chileans from the growing exile community living
in Argentina. DINA agent Enrique Arancibia Clavel was assigned
the task of setting up the "external branch" and quickly
obtained contacts within Argentina's federal police and its secret
intelligence, SIDE (Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado). After
the September 11, 1973 coup in Chile, General Prats and his wife
Sofia went voluntarily into exile in Argentina. Although Prats
had "faithfully carried out the restrictive instructions
pertaining to his exile," Kornbluh argues that Pinochet nonetheless
"considered Prats far more of a threat than any politician
or militant guerrilla." General Prats was the only person
with the potential to challenge Pinochet's support base: the Chilean
military. Furthermore, reports from Argentine intelligence showed
that Prats was writing his memoirs and that he had plans to move
to Europe. On September 29, 1974, Michael Townley, A DINA (and
future Condor) agent and an American expatriate placed a bomb
under the Prats' car. The following morning, as the Prats readied
themselves to leave their garage, the bomb exploded, killing the
couple and establishing an important precursor to the third phase
of Plan Condor.
Both Argentine and Chilean military elites
immediately felt the implications of General Prats's assassination.
Two weeks later, DINA officer Arancibia noted that, "An idea
exists to form an anti-communist intelligence community on a continental
level, with members of the armies of Uruguay and Argentina who
are interested in talking to Chile." Over the next year,
bilateral operations (and some multilateral, like the kidnapping,
torture, and murders by Chilean, Argentine and Paraguayan forces
of members of the organization Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria
in Paraguay) between Chile and Argentina continued. These operations
culminated in what Peter Kornbluh calls "one of the Pinochet
regime's most Machiavellian and macabre efforts to hide human
rights abuses." This became another essential precursor to
Condor, codenamed Operation Colombo.
Operation Colombo was a propaganda campaign
orchestrated by the Pinochet regime (with Argentine assistance)
in order to "quell" the many international human rights
accusations towards the Chilean junta. The most infamous part
of Operation Colombo was orchestrated in summer 1975 in what is
also referred to as the "list of the 119." In order
to explain the "disappearance" of 119 MIR (Movimiento
Izquierdista Revolucionario) and Communist party (PCCH) members,
the Pinochet regime planted two separate stories. The first story
appeared in a Argentine magazine LEA and the second in an obscure
Brazilian newsletter Novo O Dia. The Argentine magazine reported
that 60 Chileans had been killed "by their own comrades in
arms as part of a vast and implacable program of vengeance and
political purification." The second story explained how an
additional 59 Chileans had been killed during "a clash with
Argentine security forces." However, such justifications,
and the sloppy way in which they were carried out, raised several
red flags to untrusting Chileans (and the world in general). As
a result, human rights organizations, the international press,
and even the U.S. embassy in Chile eventually agreed that the
119 individuals named in the lists were most likely the victims
of a Chilean military conspiracy.
Nevertheless, some essential alliances
and important predecessors had now been established and in October
1975 Manuel Contreras managed to get Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay,
and Bolivia to sign the secret agreement Operation Condor. (Brazil
would not officially join the organization for another six months.)
After the military coup in Uruguay on
June 27, 1973, Uruguayan Senator Zelmar Michelini (Frente Amplio)
and Congressperson Hector Gutierrez Ruiz (Partido Nacional, and
former president of the House of Representatives) left their country
for exile in Argentina. Approximately three years later, on May
18, 1976, two coordinated Condor teams composed of Argentine and
Uruguayan forces separately kidnapped these exiled leaders. Three
days later, on May 21, their bodies appeared-shot to death and
stuffed in the trunk of a car-in an alley in Buenos Aires. According
to a 1999 human rights report conducted by the Uruguayan labor
union PIT/CNT, the purpose of the assassinations was to "behead
the exiled resistance to the Uruguayan dictatorship." Both
Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz, along with former presidential candidate
Wilson Ferreira Aldunate (who had also been targeted for assassination,
but managed to elude capture by seeking refuge in the Austrian
embassy), had been involved in an elaborate plan to move Uruguay
towards democratic elections.
Furthermore, as John Dinges explains,
"Ferreira and Michelini also had been exchanging letters
and phone calls with members of the U.S. Congress to arrange a
visit to Washington to testify about conditions in Uruguay."
In other words, Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz represented a political
threat to the military regime in Uruguay. As a result, a Condor
team kidnapped, tortured, and murdered the two Uruguayan leaders.
In addition, in a final attempt to discredit the legitimacy of
the two respected politicians, their bullet-ridden bodies were
left alongside the cadavers of two well known Tupamaro guerrillas,
Rosario Barredo and William Withelaw Blanco (although by that
time most of the Tupamaros had abandoned violent means and had
moved to establishing political ties with exiled leaders).
For Uruguayan exiles the peak of state-sponsored
transnational terrorism took place between 1976-1977. In addition
to the assassinations of Michelini, Gutierrez Ruiz, Barredo, and
Withelaw, between April 19 and May 21 1976, a series of additional
kidnappings and assassinations of Uruguayan exiles (living in
either Buenos Aires or the Rio de la Plata region) occurred, terrorizing
the Uruguayan population. The first was that of Telba Juarez,
an Uruguayan school teacher who was found shot to death in a barrio
in Buenos Aires (she was kidnapped along with Eduardo Chizzola
who is still "missing"). Shortly thereafter, civilians
strolling the beaches found 10 mutilated bodies off the shores
of Uruguayan or Argentine waters (the bodies are believed to be
those of kidnapped Uruguayans exiled in Argentina). These and
many other bodies that were found represent a minority of the
Uruguayan victims under Operation Condor. The majority, as McSherry
explains, remain "missing," including at least 132 Uruguayans
that were "disappeared" through the Condor years (127
in Argentina, 3 in Chile, and 2 in Paraguay). Moreover, the PIT/CNT
maintain that Condor agents also kidnapped eight children (five
of whom have been recovered by their families). An additional
five children were born while their mothers were imprisoned in
secret Argentine torture chambers, like the notorious Orletti
Motors (two of these babies have been recovered).
What this shows is a series of coordinated
operations between Argentine and Uruguayan forces intended to
terrorize anyone opposed to the dictatorship. John Dinges explains
the extent of Uruguay's involvement in Operation Condor: "Uruguay's
SID [Servicio de Inteligencia de Defensa], the newly consolidated
defense intelligence service, began operating inside Argentina
around the time of the coup. The Uruguayan operations in Argentina
resulted in the largest group of disappearances carried out by
Operation Condor. Indeed, more Uruguayans disappeared and were
assassinated in Argentinathan in Uruguay itself as a result of
security police operations."
While Uruguay was one of the most involved
members of the Condor system, it faced a relatively small militant
threat, though it should be noted that recent Uruguayan history
had made the middle class and military quite frightened (as a
result of Tupamaro operations and revolutionary rhetoric). By
1975 the Tupamaros had been crushed by the military and those
who survived were extremely divided and "had all but ceased
guerrilla activity." The only "terrorist" threat
came from a small anarcho-syndicalist group called the Partido
por la Victoria (PVP) which had a militant branch known as OPR-33.
Condor agents kidnapped all the PVP members they found and sent
them to Orletti Motors in Argentina for severe torture sessions.
Condor operatives also killed the majority of PVP members, including
their leaders, Leon Duarte and Gerardo Gatti, who "disappeared"
in 1976. However, a "fortunate" group of 22 PVP men
and women were separated by Condor agents at Orletti Motors (after
being tortured) to be used for a propaganda campaign. On October
20, 1976, a Condor team took the 22 prisoners to a hotel only
to be "captured" by Uruguayan armed forces a couple
of hours later. Soon after, the Uruguayan military held a press
conference where they claimed that the 22 captured were militants
from the terrorist organization OPR-33 that had been planning
a military offensive against Uruguayan targets. In addition, the
Uruguayan military seized the opportunity to "explain"
the disappearances of an additional 60 Uruguayans in Argentina.
The irony of the insignificantly small
PVP is that, while they were never able to exert any real "threat,"
the fact that they existed provided a useful pretext for further
repression by the Uruguayan military. The more serious threat
to the survival and legitimacy of the Uruguayan dictatorship was
that of political dissidents like Mich- ellini, Gutierrez Ruiz,
and Ferreira. After a joint task force of Uruguayans, Chileans,
and Argentines raided the offices of a church that contained the
records of registered refugees with the United Nations High Commission
for Refugees (UN- HCR), the vast majority of people the Condor
agents went after had renounced or never promoted violence (not
to suggest that if they had not renounced violence such a fate
would be warranted).
Impunity continues to protect those responsible
for the atrocities committed during those 12 years of military
rule. In 1989 a plebiscite in Uruguay reaffirmed some earlier
amnesty laws (the 1984 Naval Pact and 1986 Ley de Caducidad) that
decided to forgo prosecution without conviction of crimes committed
before March 1985. (However, the 1989 plebiscite passed by a slim
majority with threats from the military that a price would be
paid if it did not pass.) No Uruguayan court has been able to
establish a trial dealing with the crimes of Operation Condor
like the hearings of Baltazar Garzón in Spain, Rodolfo
Canicoba Corral in Argentina, or Juan Guzman in Chile.
In the current "war on drugs,"
"terrorism," "sub- version," or "narcoterrorism,"
the United States continues to militarize the Andean region and
Latin America as a whole. In 1998 U.S. Secretary of Defense William
S. Cohen argued in the Defense Ministerial III in Bogotá,
Colombia that, in his opinion, "In order to interdict the
terrorist before they set off their weapons, you have to have
that king of intelligence-gathering capability, but it runs smack
into Constitutional protection of privacy. And it's a tension
which will continue to exist in every free society-the reconciliation
of the need for liberty and the need for law and order. Because
once the bombs go off-this is a personal view, this is not a governmental
view of the United States, but it's my personal view-that once
these weapons start to be exploded, people will say protect us.
We're willing to give up some of our liberties and some of our
freedoms, but you must protect us."
Challenging constitutional protections
in a region whose antecedents in fighting "terrorism"
include Op- eration Condor can have detrimental results, to say
the least. The U.S. government has continued (successfully) to
blur the line between drug-trafficking and terrorism for many
years. In 2001 the majority leader of the House of Representatives,
Dennis Hastert, argued that "by cracking down on the illegal
drug trade we weaken terrorists' ability to strike the United
States and other democracies." He later claim- ed, "The
illegal drug trade is the financial engine fueling many terrorist
organizations around the world." Similarly, Francis X. Taylor,
the State Department's coordinator for the Office of Anti-Terrorism
made the claim that, "Today, the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia (FARC) are the most dangerous international terrorist
organization based in the hemisphere[n]ow more than ever it is
time to build coalitions against terrorism which are founded on
pro-active diplomacy, strict application of the law, financial
controls, intelligence sharing and a fierce resolve to achieve
Washington had long been trying to find
a way to combat the guerrilla movements (mainly FARC and ELN)
in the region. After the September 11 attacks, in August 2002,
with the cover of "new" threats and under the name of
"cooperative security," the U.S. Congress authorized
the use of lethal assistance for counterterrorism along with counterdrug
measures. (Prior to August 2002, the funds from Plan Colombia
and the Andean Regional Initiative could only be used to combat
the drug trade. Covert policies tell a different story, however.)
Illustrating this "new" concept
of "cooperative security," in November 2002, Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained, "Next May, the Organization
of American States will meet to review the hemisphere's security
architecture. Our objective should be to strengthen those institutions
and develop new areas for concrete operation. I hope that this
week's conference will consider two such initiatives. First is
an initiative to foster regional naval cooperation. The objective
would be to strengthen the operational and planning capabilities
of partner nations, upgrade national command and control systems,
and improve regional information-sharing. This could potentially
include cooperation among coast guards, customs, and police forces.
I suggest we consider a round-table as a good way to consider
and pursue this initiative. Second is an initiative to improve
the hemisphere's peace keeping capabilities. Many of you are already
leaders in this field-you are sending skilled and experienced
forces with specialized capabilities to global hot spots. We should
explore the possibility of integrating these various specialized
capabilities into larger regional capabilities-so that we can
participate as a region in peacekeeping and stability operations."
Latin American specialist Brian Loveman
argues that military leaders around Latin America "also saw
opportunities in the melding of antiterrorism and the drug war."
As Loveman explains, a month after Rumsfeld's speech, the commander
of the Argentine army explained how, "defense must be treated
as an integral matter."
Loveman concludes that, "The focus
on counterterrorism and intelligence pushed the militaries of
the region increasingly back into surveillance of civilians and
participation in domestic politics...." It is a shame that
Washington officials don't remember the blowback from the first
war on terrorism 30 years ago. As Operation Condor specialist
John Dinges explains, "The Letelier assassination in Washington,
DC was blowback. It was orchestrated by a close ally, a dictator
the United States helped install, maintain, and defend in power;
it was planned by an intelligence official [Manuel Contreras]
who had been on the CIA payroll and who traveled frequently for
consultation with CIA officials in Washington; it was carried
out by DINA, a newly created security organization whose personnel
were trained in Chile by a CIA team; it was detected in its initial
operational stages not by alert spycraft, but by the very chumminess
of CIA officials with those planning the crimes."
This time around the potential "blowback,"
suffering, and devastation are clear. According to the U.S. government
there are identified terrorist threats in virtually every country
in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador,
Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela all supposedly contain
some type of Middle Eastern "terrorist cells" within
their country. In addition since the United States also sees "narcoterrorism"
and illegal immigration as national security threats, the U.S.
also incriminates Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba (the U.S. also considers
Cuba a "state-sponsored" terrorist nation), the Dominican
Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua,
and Peru. If the United States continues to push its hegemonic,
aggressive, and militaristic policies, and if the Latin American
militaries agree with the U.S. and decide to once again eliminate
"internal terrorist threats," we might once again witness
the flight of the Condor throughout Latin America.
Arturo Jimenez is a political science
graduate student from San Diego State and is currently working
on a masters thesis exploring Operation Condor.