Cross-Border Terrorism: Operation Condor

September 25, 2007

Baltasar Garzón, the Spanish judge who requested the arrest of Pinochet while he was visiting a London clinic, is spearheading an investigation of a shadowy Latin American military network created in the 1970s called Operation Condor.[1] Through Condor, associated Southern Cone militaries shared intelligence on political opponents—and seized, tortured and executed them—in cooperation with one another. Refugees fleeing military coups and repression in their own countries were hunted down in these transnational operations. The militaries defied international law and traditions of political sanctuary to carry out their shared anti-Communist crusade.

Condor allowed the militaries of the Southern Cone to put into practice a key strategic concept of Cold War national security doctrine: hemispheric defense defined by "ideological frontiers." The more limited concept of territorial defense was superseded. To many U.S. national security officials as well as Latin American officers, the Cold War represented World War III—the war of ideologies. Security forces in the region classified and targeted individuals on the basis of their political ideas rather than illegal acts. The regimes pursued dissidents and leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns, intellectuals, and students and teachers as well as guerrillas.

The Chilean state security agency, the National Directorate of Intelligence (DINA), formally organized Condor in 1975, after having carried out cross-border operations earlier. The constitutionalist, anti-coup Chilean general Carlos Prats, for example, was murdered, along with his wife, in a 1974 DINA car- bombing in Buenos Aires. In 1975, Colonel Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA, established Condor in a secret meeting with military intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. They institutionalized intelligence sharing and coordination of covert repressive operations across borders. Condor represented a new and sophisticated level of collaboration and functioning in a nationalist region.

Intelligence organizations within Condor had free rein to track suspects and plan and implement disappearances, torture and transfers across borders in member countries. There was no semblance of due process for the prisoners—and there were many thousands of prisoners. In Argentina, where Condor operations were extensive, a former garage called Orletti Motors became a central clandestine detention center for Condor, holding prisoners from Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and elsewhere.

The most secret aspect of Condor was its campaign to assassinate political leaders especially feared for their potential to mobilize world opinion or organize broad opposition to the military states. The 1976 car- bomb assassination in Washington D.C. of Allende's foreign minister and ambassador to the United States Orlando Letelier—a fierce foe of the Pinochet regime—and his U.S. colleague Ronni Moffitt was a Condor operation. Another took place in 1975, when Chilean Christian Democrat leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife were ambushed and wounded in an assassination attempt in Rome. DINA agents contracted Cuban exiles in the United States and fascist terrorists in Italy to assist in carrying out the respective crimes.[2] A U.S. expatriate and DINA assassin named Michael Townley played a central role in the Prats, Letelier and Leighton operations.

Other assassinations that bore Condor's mark included the 1976 murders in Buenos Aires of Bolivian ex-president Juan José Torres and of two Uruguayan legislators known for their opposition to the Uruguayan military regime, Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz. Clearly Condor was an anti-Communist international that went far beyond targeting "Communists."

New evidence about Operation Condor emerged in 1992 and 1993 when extensive police and military files were discovered in a Paraguayan police garrison and in an office of Paraguay's Interior Ministry called the Technical Department for the Repression of Communism (La Técnica). La Técnica, originally organized with U.S. support, was the nerve center of dictator General Alfredo Stroessner's repressive apparatus. The "Archives of Terror," as they are known in Latin America, document the systematized nature of state terror operations. The archives, which I examined in 1996, include thousands of surveillance and intelligence reports on the activities of Paraguayan political parties, unions and social organizations; 10,000 police surveillance photographs; and official communications among military regimes regarding the activities of Latin Americans of many nationalities as well as some Europeans suspected of antigovernment attitudes or activities. The files prove that the coordination across borders of extrajudicial abductions—the system known as Condor—operated through official government channels. Yet to this day there has been no official acknowledgement of Condor in these countries.

Materials in the Paraguayan archives actually have solved some cases of the disappeared. One involved two Argentine members of the Peronist Youth, Dora Marta Landi and Alejandro Logoluso, who went to Paraguay after the 1976 coup in Argentina. They were arrested in Asunción in March 1977, but the authorities told their parents they were later freed. The Argentine junta consistently denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. Official documents found in the Archives show, however, that the two had been detained by the Paraguayan police and then delivered on May 16, 1977 to an Argentine military unit. They were flown in an Argentine navy plane to Buenos Aires, where the trail ends. The Paraguayan police report includes their photos and fingerprints and the names of the Argentine officers who took them.

Also in the archives were 1960s military training manuals of USARCARIB (U.S. Army Carribean School, the previous name of the U.S. Army School of the Americas), with lessons in methods of surveillance and infiltration of legal organizations such as political parties, unions, church and student groups, sabotage, population control and setting up interrogation centers. These manuals were similar to those released here in 1996 and 1997 by the Pentagon and the CIA. Latin American officers ruthlessly applied the methods taught by U.S. instructors.

U.S. government agencies worked closely with DINA and with the other intelligence organizations that were part of Operation Condor. In the Paraguayan archives there were official requests to—and from—the U.S. Embassy, the CIA and the FBI, to track suspects. The FBI searched for individuals wanted by DINA in the United States in 1975.[3] In 1976 an FBI officer stationed in Argentina reported Operation Condor to his superiors and linked it to the Letelier murder.[4] According to the FBI operative's Argentine military source, the CIA had played a key role in setting up computerized links among the intelligence and operations units of the six Condor regimes.[5]

Many analysts have emphasized the role of the Nixon Administration in promoting, via a secret plan code-named Track II, the coup against Allende that brought Pinochet to power. But this policy must be understood within the larger context of inter-American counterinsurgency coordination and operations, led by U.S. military and intelligence agencies, during the 45 years of the Cold War.

Garzón's investigation has thrown new light upon the issue of systematic human rights violations and crimes against humanity on the Western side of the Cold War, essentially demanding glasnost for the West. Operation Condor was a supranational structure of organized state terror whose reach was truly global and whose consequences are still reverberating in Latin America.

J. Patrice McSherry teaches politics at Long Island University-Brooklyn and is author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (St. Martin's Press, 1997). This piece is drawn from a longer article-in-progress on Condor. Her article, "The Emergence of Guardian Democracy," appeared in NACLA's November/December 1998 issue.

1. The author is grateful to Ariel Armony for his comments; to the LIU-Brooklyn administration for travel funds to Chile and Argentina in 1998; to SUNY-New Paltz for research conducted in 1996; and to the Research Released Time Committee and the Trustees of Long Island University.
2. For more background in English see John Dinges and Saul Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); Taylor Branch and Eugene M. Propper, Labyrinth (New York: Viking Press, 1982); Stella Calloni, "The Horror Archives of Operation Condor," Covert Action Bulletin, No. 50 (Fall 1994): and Ariel C. Armony, Argentina, the United States, and the Anti-Communist Crusade in Central America, 1977-1984 (Athens: Center for International Studies, Ohio University, 1997).
3. Tim Weiner, "FBI Helped Chile Search for Leftists, Files Show," New York Times, February 10, 1999.
4. This incident was first discussed, to my knowledge, in Dinges and Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row, pp. 237-240, and was confirmed by recently declassified FBI documents, which can be viewed on the Web site of the National Security Archive.
5. Saul Landau, The Dangerous Doctrine: National Security and U.S. Foreign Policy (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988), p. 119; personal correspondence with Landau, February 13, 1999.

Tags: Chile, Augusto Pinochet, repression, Operation Condor, Southern Cone

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