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Into the Murky Depths of 'Operation Condor'

November 01, 1998|Lucy Komisar | Lucy Komisar is working on a book about U.S. human-rights policy in the 1970s and '80s, including a detailed case study of Chile

NEW YORK — The continued detention in London of Chile's former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet points to many unanswered questions about his rule, including a terrorist conspiracy by six U.S.-supported Latin American governments--Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay--to murder their political opponents around the world. The Central Intelligence Agency and some U.S. government officials knew about this 1970s operation, but didn't reveal it to the public or Congress.

Known as "Operation Condor," foreign armies and security services cooperated in dealing with political opponents from one country who crossed into another, and assigned their own men to out-of-country operations to avoid the identification of local agents.

Now, Spanish authorities handling the Pinochet investigation want to know what the United States knows about Operation Condor, and Washington has been sending them declassified documents. But it has balked at requests to release all relevant papers in the archives of the State Department, the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA.

The U.S. government denied a report in the Guardian newspaper in London that it had urged the British to release Pinochet and not agree to his extradition to Madrid for fear that revelations about the U.S. role in the 1973 coup overthrowing Salvador Allende would come out during a trial. But, since the current investigation concerns the post-coup period, some U.S. officials are more likely worried about revelations of U.S. knowledge of and connections to Operation Condor.

The U.S. certainly knew about it. A week after the killings of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S., and his Instiute for Policy Studies colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976, Robert Scherrer, the FBI's attache in Buenos Aires assigned to the case, reported key information to Washington. Scherrer had learned from an Argentine official that Chile was the center of something called Operation Condor, established to share intelligence and engage in joint operations against "so-called 'leftists,' communists and Marxists," he wrote in a recently release document. He said the operation included setting up teams to carry out assassinations around the world and speculated it might have orchestrated the Washington bombing. Scherrer learned that the CIA had already reported on Operation Condor.

Col. Manuel Contreras, who organized the terror network, had set up the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), the Chilean secret police, two months after the September 1973 coup. CIA station chief Stuart Burton, who arrived in Santiago in May 1974, established a close liaison with Contreras and DINA. U.S. Embassy political officer John Tipton, who at the time was cabling protests of human-rights abuses and coauthoring a dissent channel memorandum that called for more U.S. attention to the issue, told me the CIA and DINA were working together. He said, "I don't believe the CIA set up DINA, but they were in a close relationship. Burton and Contreras used to go on Sunday picnics together with their families. That permeated the whole CIA station."

The Chilean government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission says U.S. Embassy personnel were involved in the capture of a Chilean by Paraguayan police. In the 1991 report, it said that Chilean Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarcon was arrested by the Paraguayan police crossing the border to Argentina in May 1975, and that the participants in his capture were "the Argentine intelligence services, who provided the information about his false passport; persons from the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, who informed the Chilean Investigative Police of the result of the interrogations, and the Paraguayan police, who permitted the clandestine transport of the detainee."

Fuentes Alarcon was brought to a Chilean torture center, Villa Grimaldi, in Santiago. He never left.

A Paraguayan, Federico Tatter, who had fled to Argentina in 1963 out of opposition to the Gen. Alfredo Stroessner's dictatorship, was kidnapped in Buenos Aires in 1976. Years later, his widow got photographs from Paraguayan human-rights groups that showed her husband in the company of Paraguayan police. The photos were in records opened in 1993, after an ex-political prisoner, acting on a tip, took a judge to a police station to get his own files. They discovered a huge cache of documents, now known as the "archives of terror."

The papers revealed that the terror network murdered a former president of Brazil and two Uruguayan parliamentarians, as well as hundreds of political activists. They also documented the presence of Nazis throughout the southern cone and the assassination of Israeli agents who were pursuing them. Finally, they detailed the connection of local intelligence services with drug traffickers and with the CIA.

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