Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (L) greets U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (R) in 1976 as Operation Condor was in full swing. | Photo: Reuters
By: Edward Rhymes
The United States was a major backer of the military dictatorships during the 1970s that overthrew some Latin American democracies.
It is altogether fitting to begin any analysis of Operation Condor with its birthplace: Chile. Thousands of people were imprisoned and killed after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup against democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende.
The Nixon administration had helped undermine Allende and then supported Pinochet as he dissolved parliament and began a brutal campaign against Chile’s left that lasted 17 years. His regime conducted raids, executions, abductions, arrests and torture of thousands of Chilean citizens.
More people were killed in the four months following the coup (through December 1973) than in any other year of the dictatorship. According to Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Commission, 250,000 people were detained for political reasons during this period.
In 1974, DINA, the Chilean secret police was officially recognized. During this time, foreign nationals in Chile, including diplomats, were among the killed or “disappeared.” In 2011, a Chilean commission investigating human rights abuses under the former military dictatorship said there were much more victims than previously documented.
The Valech Commission’s second report identified another 9,800 people who had been held as political prisoners and tortured. The new figures brought the total of recognized victims to 40,018. An earlier report by the commission documented 27,153 people who suffered human rights violations under military rule. The official number of those killed or disappeared went up to 3,065.
Rand Paul’s childish examples and suspect motives aside, the issue of the targeted assassination of U.S. citizens is not a matter of insignificant importance. Especially when placed in the context of DINA’s 1976 assassination in Washington, D.C. of former Allende foreign minister Orlando Letelier, who opposed Chile’s military regime.
Operation Condor was facilitated through a series of government takeovers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: General Alfredo Stroessner took control of Paraguay in 1954; the Brazilian military overthrew the democratic and popular government of Joao Goulart in 1964; General Hugo Banzer took power in Bolivia in 1971 through a series of coups; Chilean forces loyal to General Augusto Pinochet overthrew President Allende in 1973; a military junta headed by General Jorge Rafael Videla seized power in Argentina in 1976.
Although cooperation among the participating nations’ intelligence programs took place before Condor, it was during the Conference of American Armies held in Caracas on Sept. 3, 1973, that Brazilian General Breno Borges Fortes, head of the army, proposed to “extend the exchange of information” between various services in order to “struggle against subversion.”
In March 1974, representatives of the police forces of Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia met with Alberto Villar, deputy chief of the Argentine Federal Police and co-founder of the Triple A death squad, to implement cooperation guidelines in order to destroy the “subversive” threat represented by the presence of thousands of political exiles in Argentina. In August 1974, the corpses of Bolivian refugees were found in garbage dumps in Buenos Aires.
Military dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay worked together to track down, kidnap and kill people they labeled as subversives. This list includes leftist activists, labor organizers, students, priests, journalists, guerrilla fighters and their families.
Because of the covert nature of Operation Condor, its full extent may never be known, but researchers estimate that 50,000 were killed, 30,000 were “disappeared” and presumed killed, and 400,000 were jailed and/or tortured, according to the Center for Justice and Accountability.
The United States was a major backer of the military dictatorships during the 1970s that overthrew some Latin American democracies and less than stable governments.
To be clear, there has been little evidence that suggests that the U.S. had operational control of the program. John Dinges, the author of “The Condor Years,” stated, “The U.S.’ involvement is described as the green light, red light policy. Kissinger was in Santiago talking to Pinochet and the other leaders talking about human rights publicly — that’s the red light but privately giving them the green light by saying ‘Don’t worry too much about this, we support you’ … You can condemn the CIA all you want for its complicity but to say that the CIA had operational control of Operation Condor, there is simply not the evidence there.”
Nevertheless, there is documentation that shows that the United States was complicit in the actions carried out through Operation Condor in that it was aware of its existence and did nothing to stop it. And it gave organizational, as well as physical support to the program’s participating countries.
Two extremely compelling discoveries about U.S. links to Condor have recently come to light. First is a 1978 Roger Channel cable from Robert White, then ambassador to Paraguay, to the Secretary of State, which read, “By July 1976, the Agency was receiving reports that Condor planned to engage in ‘executive action’ outside the territory of member countries against leaders of indigenous terrorist.” This declassified State Department document links Operation Condor to the former U.S. military headquarters in the Panama Canal Zone.
Peter Kornbluh, an analyst with the National Security Archive, also uncovered a 1976 classified document (declassified in 2010), that shows that then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger halted a U.S. plan to curb a secret program of international assassinations by South American dictators.
The document, essentially, a set of instructions cabled from Kissinger to his top Latin American deputy, ended efforts by U.S. diplomats to warn the governments of Chile, Uruguay and Argentina against involvement in Condor.
In the cable, White reported a meeting with Paraguayan armed forces chief General Alejandro Fretes Davalos. Fretes Davalos identified the Panama Canal Zone base of the U.S. military as the site of a secure transnational communications center for Condor.
According to Fretes Davalos, intelligence chiefs from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay used “an encrypted system within the U.S. telecommunications net(work),” which covered all of Latin America, to “coordinate intelligence information.”
This U.S. base was the same base, by the way, that the U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. Special Forces and the Army School of the Americas called home. The School of Americas connection is salient as tens of thousands of Latin American officers were trained at the SOA, which used the infamous torture manuals released by the Pentagon and the CIA in the mid-1990s.
A case that highlights U.S. involvement in the Condor program was that of Chilean Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarcon, who was seized by Paraguayan police as he crossed the border from Argentina to Paraguay in May 1975. Fuentes, a sociologist, was suspected of being a courier for a Chilean leftist organization.
Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission later learned that the capture of Fuentes was a cooperative effort by Argentine intelligence services, personnel of the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires and Paraguayan police. Fuentes was transferred to Chilean police, who brought him to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious DINA detention center in Santiago. He was last seen there, savagely tortured.
When looking at the horrors that took place in Latin America, all with undeniable U.S. support, it is easy to see why someone such as Hugo Chavez was so strident in his fight against foreign influence in his nation’s affairs. This is the ignored history; the forgotten context, through which U.S. relationships with Latin America is viewed. This is the hypocrisy that Latin Americans are profoundly cognizant of and U.S. citizens are abhorrently ignorant of.
Let us remember that the current group of leftist Latin American leaders, remember the atrocities committed through Operation Condor, they don’t have to consult a history book. The ghosts of Condor’s victims will inevitably be invoked, but let us hope that it will also exorcise the demons of brutality and injustice as well.