Operation Condor

From: Columbia University | By: John Dinges

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | From 1975 to 1977 military regimes in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina rounded up thousands of people who were suspected of having affiliations with radical leftist movements and put them into concentration camps and secret detention centers. Many "disappeared"--they were tortured, interrogated, executed and secretly buried.

Dissidents fortunate enough to escape their home countries were located, captured and interrogated through the efforts of Operation Condor, a multinational intelligence organization. Often, the dissidents were returned to the disappearance apparatus of the military governments they fled.

Through declassified archives, investigation and interviews, John Dinges, a reporter and professor of journalism at Columbia University, crafted this chilling account of Condor's overall development and repressive practices.
The discovery and release of previously secret documents, along with aggressive new judicial investigations, are shedding new light on South America's worst era of political repression. The US government is helping by ordering the declassification of long-secret files, but the new information also is confirming a more active cooperation with the regimes' antiterrorist activity than has been previously acknowledged.

Human-rights crime wave in South America's Southern Cone

For three years, 1975 through 1977, the countries in what is known as the Southern Cone of South America underwent a human-rights crime wave of a magnitude not seen before or since in the region. Military regimes in place for more than a decade in Brazil and Paraguay were joined by like-minded military rulers who overthrew civilian regimes in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia in the 1970s. Political police--described even by sympathetic US military observers as "Gestapo-like"--rounded up countless thousands of people who were suspected of affiliation with radical leftist movements.

Concentration camps and secret detention centers proliferated. The military carried out a political extermination campaign that resulted in the mass murders of more than 10,000 people in Argentina and more than 3,000 in Chile. A new word, "disappearance," was added to the vocabulary of international human-rights law. It referred to the process of secret arrest, torture and interrogation of suspects, followed by execution and secret disposal of bodies--often in makeshift crematoriums, in mass graves or at sea, where drugged prisoners were dumped out of helicopters. Similar tactics involving lesser numbers of murders--in the hundreds--were used in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia.

Perhaps the most closely guarded secret was a system of international cooperation among the dictatorships, known as Operation Condor. As one civilian government after another fell to the military, political refugees flowed across borders, in some cases seeking safe haven to organize revolutionary movements against the military. Operation Condor was an intelligence organization in which multinational teams tracked down dissidents outside their home countries, captured and interrogated them, and in many cases delivered them back to the disappearance apparatus of the military governments they had fled.

Unlocking Condor's secrets

A small room in Paraguay's Palace of Justice in Asuncisn, off in a quiet corner on the eighth floor, houses what is perhaps the only public, uncensored record of the inner workings of that police terror and of Operation Condor. No one has made an exact count of the vast archive, which was discovered and confiscated in 1993 by a judge investigating a human-rights case. According to the best estimates, there are between 500,000 and 700,000 individual pages of documents and photos--all raw files of Paraguay's political police and its military intelligence allies in other countries.

The discovery and release of previously secret documents, along with aggressive new judicial investigations, are shedding new light on South America's worst era of political repression. The US government is helping by ordering the declassification of long-secret files, but the new information also is confirming a more active cooperation with the regimes' antiterrorist activity than has been previously acknowledged.

The US Justice Department sent a team of two assistant US attorneys and three FBI agents to Chile in March 2000 to conduct interviews with 42 people, many of whom were former military officers, who were thought to have information about or to have participated in the 1976 assassination in Washington, D.C., of Chile's former foreign minister Orlando Letelier. Results of the investigation have not been made public, but sources familiar with the inquiry acknowledge that one of the targets for possible indictment is retired General Augusto Pinochet, Chile's dictator from 1973 to 1990.
Argentine judge Maria Servini de Cubria, investigating the 1974 assassination in Buenos Aires of a Pinochet rival, General Carlos Prats, has gathered evidence including contemporary memoranda from suspected participants; has obtained the confession of an American, Michael Townley, who worked for Chile's secret police; and has ordered the arrest of a former Argentine intelligence agent, Juan Ciga Correa, who worked with Townley to kill Prats. Forty-eight documents obtained by Servini, including a memo directly implicating Pinochet in the Letelier murder, have been handed over to US investigators.

In Brazil, the Congress set up a special commission to investigate charges that Operation Condor may have assassinated former President Juan Goulart in Argentina in 1976, using poison to simulate a natural death. Goulart's democratically elected government was overthrown in 1964 by a military coup. In a separate investigation of Brazil's participation in Operation Condor, Brazilian authorities have ordered the declassification of military documents.
A Spanish judicial investigation, which resulted in the indictment and request for the extradition of Pinochet in October 1998, remains open even though Great Britain refused the extradition request on health grounds and allowed Pinochet to return to Chile. The Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, has also indicted several former Argentine military leaders, including former President Jorge Videla. The charges in both cases involve crimes against humanity, which has subjected the military leaders to jurisdiction of international law.
Pinochet and Videla must remain inside their own borders to avoid exposing themselves to further extradition requests, but neither are they free from legal problems in their own countries. In May 2000 an appeals court stripped Pinochet of his immunity as former president and senator, and he faces more than 100 separate charges of ordering torture and disappearances. Videla has been arrested briefly and forced to appear in court to answer for other alleged human-rights crimes, including charges that the babies of mothers killed by the military were secretly adopted by military families.
All of the investigations are known to use the Paraguayan archive and the declassified documents on Chile, in addition to their own sleuthing. Because the Chilean documents were released by a presidential executive order, they include actual operational files of the CIA, which are otherwise exempt from declassification under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Judge Garzon of Spain is known to have received a complete 14,000-page set of the Chilean documents and a selection of 1,500 pages of Paraguayan archive documents thought to relate to Operation Condor.

Investigators are starting to put all of the information together and come up with a more complete picture of the functioning of the repressive apparatus, especially international operations such as Condor, and even to reveal clues of possible collaboration by US agencies.

For example, in my research in the Paraguayan archives and other new document collections, I was able to piece together a feasible scenario for the origins of Operation Condor and to show an intriguing early involvement of a US FBI agent who later reported on the existence of Condor to his superiors. The following is my interpretation of what transpired.

The birth of Operation Condor

In May 1975, Paraguayan police arrested two men representing what they considered a major new guerrilla threat, a united underground organization of armed groups from several countries, called the Revolutionary Coordinating Body (JCR, or Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria). The men were Jorge Fuentes Alarcon, a top-echelon officer in the armed Chilean group MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), and Amilcar Santucho, of Argentina's ERP (People's Revolutionary Army). Santucho's brother, Roberto, was the head of ERP, considered the most violent guerrilla group in Argentina. The Chilean and Argentine movements had joined with underground groups from Uruguay and Bolivia to create the JCR to fight the Southern Cone's military regimes. Fuentes and Santucho were on their way to Paris for a meeting of the JCR when they were arrested at the Paraguayan border.

The arrests were seen as an intelligence bonanza, according to Paraguayan and US documents. The military operation growing out of the arrests involved the intelligence agencies of at least four countries, including the US FBI, and the document trail indicates the combined intelligence efforts may have led directly to the formal launch of Operation Condor a few months later.

The Justice Department has declassified a letter, dated June 6, 1975, showing that an FBI officer, Robert Scherrer, had taken great interest in the arrest of the two revolutionaries. The document is a letter from Scherrer, whose job included maintaining intelligence liaisons with the various countries, to a Chilean police official in which he passes on information that the men had revealed under interrogation.

"[Fuentes] admitted that he is a member of the Coordinating Junta and was acting as a courier for said group," Scherrer wrote to the head of Chile's police investigations. He said the FBI would follow up by investigating two people living in the United States, in New York and Dallas, one of them Fuentes's sister, whose names were discovered in Fuentes's address book.

There are at least a dozen documents in the Paraguayan archive on Fuentes and Santucho, including lists of questions to be used in Fuentes's four months of interrogation about the functioning of the JCR and his own Chilean group. One document is a handwritten list of questions sent by an Argentine intelligence officer, who signed the letter "Osvaldo." When the Paraguayans were finished with Fuentes, they turned him over to Chile. One document sums up his fate in bureaucratic language: "By higher order, he [Fuentes] was freed on September 23, 1975, and expelled by way of Presidente Stroessner airport."

Fuentes was last seen alive inside Chile's most feared secret detention center, known as Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago. Other DINA (Directorate of National Intelligence) victims testified years later, to Chile's human-rights investigative body, the Rettig Commission, that they saw Fuentes there after he arrived from Paraguay "badly wounded from the tortures" and covered with a skin disease. They reported that he was kept in a cage and was driven insane by the continuing DINA torture before eventually disappearing.

The connection of the Fuentes-Santucho case to Operation Condor continues in the Paraguayan archive: Two days after Fuentes arrived in Chile, DINA chief Manuel  Contreras wrote an ebullient thank-you note, dated September 25, 1975, to his Paraguayan counterpart, investigations chief Pastor Coronel. Contreras conveys "the most sincere thanks for the cooperation given us to help in the mission my agents had to carry out in the sister republic of Paraguay, and I am sure that this mutual cooperation will continue and increase in the accomplishment of the common objectives of both services." According to Rosa Palau, co-director of the Paraguayan archive, the unearthing of Operation Condor begins with the discovery of this document.

Another long letter followed: Contreras invited three Paraguayan intelligence officials to attend a "strictly secret" meeting in Santiago along with intelligence chiefs from Argentina,  Bolivia and Uruguay. Chile would pay all expenses for those attending this "First Working Meeting on National Intelligence," which took place November 25-December 1, 1975. The archive contains the agenda of the meeting, discussion of codes and secret communications methods and a "flow chart" of the new unnamed organization. In the invitation, Contreras described the meeting as "the basis of excellent coordination and improved action on behalf of the national security of our respective countries."

A year later, Scherrer was investigating another case: the assassination of Letelier on September 21, 1976, in Washington D.C. In an interview, Scherrer told me he got a major lead from an Argentine military-intelligence source who had been in Santiago the week the assassination occurred: "It was a wild Condor operation," the source said, carried out by "those lunatics in Santiago."

Scherrer drafted a cable, dated September 28, 1976, that described Condor to Washington FBI headquarters:
Operation Condor is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning leftists, communists and Marxists which was recently established between the cooperating services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorists and their activities in the area. In addition Operation Condor provides for joint operations against terrorist targets in member countries of Operation Condor. Chile is the center for Operation Condor, and in addition it includes Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay... A third and more secret phase of Operation Condor involves the formation of special teams from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions, including assassinations, against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations.

Scherrer's cable said the Letelier assassination might have been a Condor "phase 3" operation, and it was later proved that Paraguay actually provided false passports to Chilean agents involved in the killing.

The new documents are helping to complete the still incomplete record of Condor activities during its most active period, 1975 to 1978. The record known so far includes assassination plans or attempts (some of them aborted) in the United States, Portugal, France, Italy and Mexico, and the arrest and torture of an undetermined number of foreigners, including Spanish, British, French and US citizens. Those Condor activities are the heart of Spain's charges against Pinochet, the Letelier case under investigation in Washington, the Brazilian investigation into Goulart's death and a variety of cases involving Uruguayans arrested and killed in Argentina.

The role of the United States

The Fuentes case, pieced together from the plethora of new documentation, provides a window into Condor's operational on-the-ground activities. The revelations about the FBI role in the case also illustrate how a final truth-telling must include full and honest disclosure by the United States of the nature and extent of participation by our intelligence services in the support and exchange of intelligence operations that cohabited with Condor.

I had interviewed Scherrer extensively in 1978 and 1979, and he discussed the case then. I checked my notes from interviews with Scherrer, who died in 1995. Both Fuentes and Santucho were mentioned several times. In one interview Scherrer said, "Paraguay picked up a MIRista, Fuentes, turned him over to Contreras. He was tortured and killed."

In the same context, Scherrer told me the Latin American intelligence services were pressuring the FBI to provide information on "terrorists" who had sought haven in the United States. "I agree with the necessity to exchange information on terrorists," Scherrer said in that interview. "I think they should be rounded up, but tried, not slaughtered." (Scherrer also revealed that a Paris phone number found in Santucho's address book led police to a Paris apartment, where they unexpectedly encountered Carlos the Jackal, whose real name was Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a Venezuelan wanted for a series of terrorist acts including the raid on the Israeli compound during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Carlos and his heavily armed bodyguards escaped after killing two policemen, apparently unaware they were knocking on the door of one of the world's most feared international terrorists.)

Scherrer was clearly at the center of a furiously fought antiterrorist war, and US policy placed him unequivocally on the side of the military governments trying to wipe out leftist resistance. The moral dilemmas facing officials like Scherrer can be inferred from the circumstances in which they were thrust and from their often aridly phrased official reports.

While Latin American countries are probing the uncomfortable details of their repressive past, there has never been full accounting of US liaison and collaboration with the Latin American agencies carrying out the repression. The issue is not only whether a single FBI agent crossed a line by distributing and acting on information he knew was gained by torture. The real question goes to the shared objectives between US agencies and Gestapo-like secret police organizations in Latin America, and to the US policies that justified working with them in full knowledge and tacit approval of their methods.