Breaking News: Operation Condor

September 25, 2007

BRASÍLIA—New investigations are being opened into Operation Condor, the shadowy military network of the Cold War era whose key members were Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. Condor was a covert system that enabled the military dictatorships that ruled these countries in the 1970s and 1980s to share intelligence and to hunt down, seize and execute political opponents across borders. Con-dor's secret operations included assassinations of influential political leaders living in Latin America, the United States and Europe who opposed the anti-Communist military states.

There are new efforts in Latin America to penetrate the secrecy still shrouding Condor. In March, for example, the Brazilian Supreme Court mandated that classified files of the military and intelligence forces be opened to an Argentine judge investigating the 1980 disappearances of three Argentine citizens who were seized in Brazil and transferred secretly to Argentina. Subsequently, the Brazilian government agreed to pay an indemnity to the relatives, thereby accepting responsibility for their deaths.

A month later, Labor Party leader Leonel Brizola, together with family members of two former presidents, João Goulart and Juscelino Kubitschek, announced that the deaths of these two pro-democracy presidents may have been Condor assassinations. Goulart was elected president in 1961, overthrown in the 1964 military coup and exiled to Argentina, where he died in 1976 of an apparent heart attack. His family found the death suspicious, since, though he was taking medication for high blood pressure, he had just been given a clean bill of health by his doctors. No autopsy was permitted by the Brazilian or Argentine militaries. These suspicions seem even more valid given that U.S. expatriate and agent for the Chilean Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), Michael Townley, previously confirmed that DINA produced and used the nerve gas sarin, which induces heart attacks and leaves no traces. (Townley, a confessed Condor assassin, carried out murders of prominent Chilean exiles, including Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. in 1976 and Gen. Carlos Prats in Buenos Aires in 1974.) The Goulart family is calling for the use of new technology to determine whether the former President was poisoned in Argentina.

On May 12, Brazil's Congress named a special commission to investigate the circumstances of Goulart's death. Unfortunately, this investigation may not go as smoothly as hoped. In a recent suspicious development, Goulart's pilot, a key witness who was traveling from Argentina to Uruguay in late June to testify in a separate investigation, died of an apparent heart attack on the ferry crossing. Important papers he was carrying are believed to be missing.

The death of Kubitschek also raised questions. President between 1956 and 1961, Kubitschek then became a senator. After the 1964 coup, his senate term was cut short and his political rights suspended. In 1966, Kubitschek and Goulart led a broad-based effort to organize a pro-democracy political movement, but the military regime banned it. In 1976 Kubitschek died in a car crash in Brazil, but his wife and aide suspected foul play, citing the death threats he had received, contradictory testimony by witnesses to the crash, incomplete forensic information, and missing official documents regarding his death.

In further developments this past May, retired Col. Carlos Alberto Ponzi, the former regional head of the military regime's feared intelligence apparatus, the National Information Service (SNI), admitted that Brazilian military and intelligence forces participated in Operation Condor. "It was a dirty and ferocious war," said Ponzi, "Shouldn't we have defended ourselves?" The same month, the Human Rights Commission of the Brazilian Congress vowed that former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, exiled in Brazil since his ouster in 1989, would be brought to justice.

In addition to the new revelations emerging in Latin America, Condor is also a central investigative focus of Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge whose request for the extradition of Augusto Pinochet in 1998 gave new life to the struggle against impunity. The U.S. Justice Department also recently reopened a long-abandoned grand jury investigation of Pinochet's role in the assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier. One of the most secret and disturbing chapters of Western state terrorism is gradually coming to light.

J. Patrice McSherry is Associate Professor of Political Science at Long Island University-Brooklyn and author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (St. Martin's Press, 1997). She is also a member of NACLA's Editorial Board.


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