A decade in which repression crossed borders
he 1970s was a time when mass repression began to cross borders. Military dictatorships ruled in most of South America, resulting in massive crimes against human rights. It was a time of total war to wipe out the democratic, socialist and often Marxist organizations that had coalesced into an international movement for radical social change. The military and their rightist civilian supporters defined their fellow citizens as the enemy if they participated in these leftist political parties and organizations. But because the movement had become international, the dictatorships increasingly saw the enemy as the young people who came from other countries. Foreigners were branded as “subversives”, “terrorists”, and “extremists” who should be feared, hunted down, imprisoned and in many cases tortured and killed. National borders were meaningless; exile, immigration status, the law itself were no protection.
Political xenophobia was hardly a new phenomenon in Latin America, particularly in the wake of the revolutionary fervor unleashed by the Cuban Revolution. But mass roundups of foreigners—that was new. International targeted assassinations—that was new. Police and intelligence agencies operating inside each other’s countries to track down and kill their adversaries; coordination and exchange of intelligence among nations covering most of South America; secret and extrajudicial transfers of prisoners back to their own countries to be tortured and eventually killed; international agreements and alliances to do all of the above in a systematic and efficient way: all of that had never occurred in the history of Latin America. It came to have a name, Operation Condor. The Condor Plan was not the only mechanism for transnational repression in this period but it was by far the bloodiest. And its teams went far beyond the borders of the member countries to launch assassinations and other kinds of operations in the United States, Mexico and Europe.
A brutal system
he military saw this brutal system as the international response to an international threat. Yet, in a kind of historic irony, the atrocities of Southern Cone dictatorships spawned a massive international human rights movement that discredited the military governments and would eventually become a major factor in bringing hundreds of the military perpetrators to justice. International crimes engendered international investigations that escaped the control of the military. Even the United States government, once the rightwing militaries’ staunchest ally, unleashed the FBI to successfully prosecute Chile’s intelligence service for murders in Washington DC.
Indeed, the campaign against foreign enemies was first witnessed in Chile, after the September 1973 overthrow of socialist President Salvador Allende. In the days and weeks following the coup, the military demonized “extremistas extranjeros” and began to round up hundreds of exiles from other countries in the region that had already come under military rule. More than 800 foreigners were imprisoned in improvised concentration camps such as the National Stadium in Santiago. Most were from the nearby countries that would eventually join the Condor alliance, and 49 foreigners would be killed or disappeared. Chile invited intelligence agents from some of those countries, notably Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia, to take part in interrogations.
It was a rehearsal for the approaching new era of heavily coordinated cross-border repression.
Findings of a definitive investigation
Source: Extracts adapted from Chapter 1 pp 1-4
his book greatly expands the investigation published in my 2004 book, The Condor Years: How Pinochet And His Allies Brought Terrorism To Three Continents, with new chapters and findings based on newly available information. Here I present the definitive investigative account of this unique period of international repression—The Condor Years. This time of unprecedented collaboration by the dictatorships spans roughly from the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 to the restoration of constitutional government in Argentina in 1983. It draws heavily on new sources that became available in the 2010s. Monumental judicial investigations of Operation Condor in Argentina and Chile resulted in convictions and prison sentences for dozens of military officers. The trials gathered testimonies and evidence from military sources that allow us to penetrate the military pact of silence for the first time. A third trial, in Italy, has also concluded, and draws on much of the same new evidence. The records of these trials, the “expedientes,” run to the tens of thousands of pages of evidence and are now accessible. In addition, the U.S. government in 2019 completed the largest ever declassification of CIA and FBI intelligence reports on the region. The new documents lift the veil of secrecy about the U.S. government’s relationship with the Condor alliance. Two U.S. intelligence officials, Frederick Latrash of the CIA and Robert Scherrer of the FBI, whose work is revealed in the new documents, epitomize the intimacy and vast scope of U.S. information about Condor operations. The Condor agents considered their U.S. counterparts as trusted allies and shared secret operational details with them. The new documents in many cases reveal the names of the Uruguayan, Paraguayan and Argentine military sources who first told Scherrer and Latrash about Condor. This trove of information offers a never before seen picture from inside the military systems, in which soldiers and officers reveal, albeit reluctantly, how their transnational campaigns were organized and carried out.
Exclusive new findings
- What the US knew: Evidence now available shows that the CIA knew of Condor’s existence within three months of its creation. The CIA had long promoted the idea of greater coordination among the region’s military, especially with regard to intelligence and communications. When the new organization was first discussed in U.S. cable traffic, it was viewed not with alarm but as a logical reaction to international coordination of armed groups on the left. Condor was seen as an understandable, even laudable, upgrade in the countries’ intelligence capabilities.
- An intimate relationship: United States intelligence agencies had contemporaneous and detailed intelligence interactions with agencies and agents carrying out the crimes of Operation Condor, including readouts of interrogations of prisoners under torture. While this relationship can accurately be described as complicity, it is the conclusion of this investigation, based on all available evidence, that the United States government did not collaborate in the creation of Operation Condor, nor in the identification of targets or execution of operations. Nevertheless, U.S. officials were informed in great specificity about Condor plans, including the names and locations of intended targets in Europe.
- Failure to prevent the assassination of Orlando Letelier: There is compelling evidence that U.S. intelligence and high State Department officials had obtained information that, had it been used, could have averted the Letelier assassination—considered the worst act of international terrorism committed on U.S soil until September 11, 2001.
- Central Command in Argentina: We can describe for the first time the structure, activities, personnel and physical location of “Condor Command Central”, the operational headquarters in Buenos Aires that carried out the vast majority of the multi-country kidnappings and killings as well as the training and execution of the European operations.
- One hundred million confiscated: We know the details of the transnational operations that hunted down and confiscated vast sums of money for the enrichment of the intelligence services, netting almost $100 million by cleaning out guerrilla organizations’ bank accounts in Europe and elsewhere.
- Operation Teseo: We now know that there were not one but at least eight Condor-related assassination missions underway in the summer and fall of 1976 and another nine operations in 1977-1980. Amazingly, almost all were detected in progress by U.S. intelligence. The targets were Chileans, Uruguayans, and Argentinians, and included not only members of militant organizations and political leaders but also human rights activists.
- The human lives: Finally, in what is perhaps the most valuable human dimension of the new investigations, it is possible to compile an accurate and virtually complete list of the victims of Operation Condor and related transnational campaigns. In many cases, the unprecedented stories of the detention, interrogation and final days of the victims—many of them with young families—are told. The accumulated tragedy and injustice of those victims form the moral compass of this book.
The English version of the book will be published with the provisional title Hunting Enemies Abroad: South American Dictatorships and US Complicity in the Condor Years (The New Press 2022 forthcoming).