Hidden Terrors Part 6

excerpted from the book

Hidden Terrors

the truth about U.S. police operations in Latin America

by A.J. Langguth

Pantheon Books, 1978, paper

A Cuban Footnote
May 1979

When I ended this book with brief accounts of what had happened to many of its people in the years after Dan Mitrione's death, one man about whom I expected no further information was the double agent called Manuel the Cuban. I knew only that he had soundly deceived his CIA contacts and that he had returned to Cuba. I had neither his last name nor any way of tracing him, and Cuba was not an easy country to enter. Manuel seemed fated to remain a tantalizing minor figure in Uruguay's sad story.

Then, in August 1978, I was in London when a reporter called from the Washington Post. At a press conference in Havana, he said, a Cuban named Manuel Hevia Cosculluela was making serious charges against the U.S. police program, in which he claimed to have served in Uruguay. I told my caller that the description fit the double agent I had mentioned in my book and that, if it was the same man, his credentials were impressive, although I could not answer for his likely political bias. The call raised my hopes that one day I would meet Manuel Hevia and hear his story for myself.

Early in 1979, I was invited to tour Cuba with a group of broadcasters and journalists, many of them affiliated with San Francisco State College. We arrived in Havana at dinner time on April 6, and the next morning, a Saturday, I set off to find Hevia.

At the fifth office I visited, the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, a pleasant-faced official dug through a pile of papers and produced the paperbound book Manuel had written, Pasaporte 11333, Eight Years with the CIA. In exchange, I handed the official, Joaquin Santana, a copy of Hidden Terrors turned to the page about Manuel the Cuban.

"This is a big surprise to me," Santana said. "I was the editor for Manuel's book, and I wrote the introduction to it."

It turned out that Hevia, now employed by the Ministry of Transportation, was traveling outside Cuba and would not be back before I returned to the United States. Santana spoke with me at length on two occasions, however, and he introduced me to one of Manuel's good friends. From those conversations, but primarily from Manuel's book, comes this footnote:

As a youth, Manuel had studied at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, and had graduated from law school in Havana. When the CIA made overtures to him in the early 1960s, he informed officials in Cuban intelligence, who advised him to accept the CIA assignment.

Much of his story concerns the tension of a double agent's life: clandestine meetings, eluding pursuit, bluffing one's way past the CIA's lie detector. Manuel's chief CIA contact, William Cantrell, was an orderly, pipe-smoking man devoted to his family. Cantrell was posing as an adviser in the U. S. AID program to train Uruguayan police.

By the late 1960s, the Tupamaro rebels were alarming both Washington and the government in Montevideo; and as Cantrell prepared to return to the United States, he spoke to Manuel about his successors. One was named Richard Martinez; the other was not a CIA man himself but was a trusted supporter of "our program." That was Dan Mitrione. Cantrell had heard very encouraging reports about Mitrione's efficiency in Brazil.

In a meeting with Manuel, Mitrione explained that the rules were changing and that the U.S. advisers would not be spending much time at the Montevideo police headquarters. Instead, Mitrione had secured a house in the city's Malvm section with a cellar and a door to the inside from the garage.

Mitrione personally oversaw the soundproofing of the cellar. He put a record of Hawaiian music on a phonograph at full volume and went upstairs to be sure it could not be heard in the living quarters. He also insisted that his team fire a pistol downstairs while he listened above for any trace of sound.

"'Good, very good,"' Manuel quotes Mitrione as saying. "'This time I could hear absolutely nothing. Now you stay here while I go down."' That testing went on over and over again.

The first course to be held in the cellar drew largely from graduates of the International Police Academy in Washington. The early sessions dealt in insinuation: descriptions of the human anatomy and the central nervous system. "Very soon," Manuel wrote later, "things turned bad. As subjects for the first testing, they took beggars, known in Uruguay as bichicones, from the outskirts of Montevideo, along with a woman from the border with Brazil. There was no interrogation, only a demonstration of the different voltages on the different parts of the human body, together with the uses of a drug to induce vomiting-I don't know why or for what-and another chemical substance.

"The four of them died."

Reading Manuel's book, I particularly regretted at this point not being able to question him. Was Mitrione present while the instruction was being given? Did he witness the deaths? The wording is vague. In Brazil, so far as the victims knew, no U.S. adviser attended the torture class. They were too prudent to compromise themselves so directly.

In Uruguay, I had heard many accusations about Mitrione's role in the torture and I had sifted through them trying to be accurate and fair to his memory. Some Tupamaros acknowledged to me that their colleagues had reason to paint Mitrione in the darkest colors in order to justify killing him. And I held to a view Manuel Hevia later put forward at his press conference in Havana: that Mitrione was not unique, not a monster; that it was too comfortable to suggest that every nation and every occupation had its brutes.

Handling the material for this book had left me cautious, aware that after all the evidence had been weighed, some conclusions would have to remain tentative. Yet at every point that Hevia and I treated the same incident, our information gathered independently dovetailed into one expanded narrative. His final pages with their unguarded monologue from Mitrione ring true to me.

And since I am persuaded of the accuracy of that proud boasting, I think now that in looking within Mitrione for traits we all share, I underestimated the effect of his ten years at a repellent trade. Certainly I didn't anticipate his awful candor and cruelty as he unburdened himself to Manuel, one professional, one realist, to another.

It was the winter of 1970, six or seven months before Mitrione was kidnapped. Arriving in Montevideo later than he had expected, Manuel called Mitrione at home instead of at the U.S. embassy. "Mitrione asked me to come to see him, and we sat together in a small room in his house. I don't know why he invited me. We had a few drinks and talked about our philosophy of life."

Mitrione considered interrogation an art, he told l Manuel. First, there is a time of softening up the prisoner. The object is to humiliate him, to make him understand that he is completely helpless and to isolate him from the reality outside this cell. No questions, just blows and insults. Then blows in total silence.

After all that, the interrogation begins. Now the only pain should come from the instrument you've chosen to use. Mitrione said, "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount to achieve the effect."

During the session, you must avoid letting a person lose all hope of life. If you push too far, they become resigned to die. "Always leave them some hope, a distant light."

Manuel quotes Mitrione as continuing: "When you get what you want, and I always get it, it might be good to keep the session going a little longer with more hitting and humiliation. Not to get information now but as a political instrument, to scare him away from any further rebel activity."

The talk grew more confidential. "After that, he told me, 'When you receive a subject, the first thing to do is to determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, through a medical examination.

"'A premature death,' he emphasized, 'means a failure by the technician.'

"'Another important thing to know is exactly how far you can go, given the political situation and the personality of the prisoner.' Dan was really excited. He needed the kind of audience he had found in me. He continued, 'It is very important to know beforehand whether we have the luxury of letting the subject die.' It was the only time in all those months that his plastic eyes sparkled.

"Finally he concluded:

"'Before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers in any case. You have to act with the efficiency and cleanness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist. This is a war to the death. Those people are my enemy. This is a hard job, and someone has to do it. It's necessary. Since it's my turn, I'm going to do it to perfection.

"'If I were a boxer, I would try to be the world champion. But I'm not. But though I'm not, in this profession, my profession, I'm the best."'

Hidden Terrors

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