Operation Condor / Operación Cóndor
An Argentine court convicted 15 ex-military officers on 27 May 2016 for conspiring to kill dissidents during a US-backed crackdown decades ago. Hundreds of officers have been tried for atrocities carried out in the 1970s and 1980s. Some 15 of the 18 defendants were convicted of criminal conspiracy for their role in torture and murder cases that are connected with 105 executions and kidnappings in Latin America. The court was the first to try atrocities committed under Operation Condor. The 88-year-old former military dictator Reynaldo Bignone was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the forced disappearance of more than 100 people. The 77-year-old Uruguayan ex-colonel Manuel Cordero - the only non-Argentine national in the dock - was sentenced to 25 years. A key piece of evidence in the case was a declassified 1976 FBI cable that described in detail Washington's initiative to share intelligence and eliminate leftists across Latin America.
Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing apparatus among Southern Cone governments, evolved into an organization that identified, located, and assassinated suspected guerrilla leaders and regime critics. Condor was part of a broad and systematic trans-American policy actively pursued by the United States under the banner of anticommunism. US covert and extra-legal involvement in the manipulation and control of Latin American political and social transitions, was in the name of security. The United States played a central role the in supporting Operation Condor and nurturing the Latin American "national security state. There was extensive cooperation between the security/intelligence operations of six governments: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay - later joined by Peru and Ecuador, with covert support from the US government. Their intelligence services held formal meetings to plan “Operation Condor.” It included extensive exchanges of information on shady characters.
As leftist and nationalist leaders won elections throughout Latin America in the 1960s and early 1970s, and new revolutionary and progressive movements gained strength, U.S. security strategists feared a communist-inspired threat to US economic and political interests in the hemisphere. Local elites similarly feared that their traditional political dominance and wealth were at risk. Washington poured enormous resources into the inter-American security system. The reigning national security doctrine incorporated counterinsurgency strategies and concepts such as “hunter-killer” programs and secret, “unconventional” techniques such as subversion, sabotage, and terrorism to defeat foes.
While Operation Condor was originally developed to exchange intelligence information between the Southern Cone nations, it emerged as an organization that identified, located, and assassinated guerrilla leaders. Operation Condor's secret structures, intelligence networks, covert operations against dissidents, political assassinations worldwide, commanders and operatives, were linked to the Pentagon and the CIA, and extended to Central America in the 1980s. The CIA characterized this development as “an understandable reaction to the increasingly extra-national, extreme, and effective range of the Junta’s activities,” but noted that such activities were bound to complicate US relations with the security services, adding that it would be necessary to handle requests for information from those services “far more gingerly.”
Officially, Operation Condor was an intelligence-sharing arrangement that was established in 1975 among Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, later joined by Ecuador and Peru. However, it is now widely understood that the notorious Cold War-era "black operations" plan was masterminded, funded, and backed to the hilt by the USA. Operation Condor was the culmination of a U.S.-orchestrated campaign that entailed the ruthless silencing, murder, torture, and disappearance of thousands of left-wing opponents of US imperialism and the fascistic military dictatorships backed by the CIA and supported by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
There was no evidence that CIA or the Intelligence Community was involved in the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. He is believed to have committed suicide as the coup leaders closed in on him. In the 1960s and the early 1970s, as part of the US Government policy to try to influence events in Chile, the CIA undertook specific covert action projects in Chile. The major CIA effort against Allende came earlier in 1970 in the failed attempt to block his election and accession to the Presidency.
Nonetheless, the US Administration’s long-standing hostility to Allende and its past encouragement of a military coup against him were well known among Chilean coup plotters who eventually took action on their own to oust him. The CIA and other Government agencies had detailed reports of widespread human rights abuses by the Chilean military, including the killings and torture of leftist dissidents, almost immediately after a 1973 right-wing coup that the United States supported.
After the September 1973 CIA-backed coup against President Salvador Allende, thousands escaped to Argentina. Operation Condor focused on these people — many of whom were under United Nations protection — using covert, cross-border abduction-disappearance, “rendition” to other countries, torture, and extrajudicial execution. Condor’s targets were activists, organizers, and opponents of the dictatorships, as well as guerrillas or armed insurgents.
Within a year after the Chile coup, the CIA and other US Government agencies were aware of bilateral cooperation among regional intelligence services to track the activities of and, in at least a few cases, kill political opponents. This was the precursor to Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing arrangement among Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay established in 1975.
Enforcement terror involves violent actions used by states to maintain the status quo through imposition of social control measures. Such terrorism is more efficient than agitational terrorism, is primarily internal, and is generally government sponsored. Frequently such activity represents a counterterrorist response to left-wing violence. Right-wing terrorist organizations are common in Central and South America, as discussions of such organizations as the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, the Brazilian White Hand, El Salvador's White Warriors Union, and Chile's DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) illustrate.
By 1976 the military regimes of the Southern Cone of South America saw themselves as embattled on one side by international Marxism and its terrorist exponents, and on the other by the hostility of the uncomprehending industrial democracies misled by Marxist propaganda. In response they banded together in what may well become a political bloc of some cohesiveness. But, more significantly, they joined forces to eradicate “subversion”, a word which increasingly translated into non-violent dissent from the left and center left.
Operations were run in Europe headed by American-born DINA operative Michael Townley along with Italian fascists to eliminate the exiled Christian Democratic/Socialist Party opposition. Chilean colonel Manuel Contreras, head of the fearsome Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), was a key Condor organizer. He called for a founding meeting in Santiago to institutionalize the Condor prototype in 1975. In 2000, the CIA acknowledged that Contreras had been paid by the CIA between 1974 and 1977, a period when the Condor network was planning and carrying out assassinations in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was briefed on Condor and its "murder operations" on August 5, 1976. Kissinger considered but did not deliver a warning to place the Condor regimes on notice that the United States had detected their assassination plans and wanted them stopped. The Condor demarche was never delivered. An initiative to counter terrorism had been aborted before it was ever carried out.
Former Chilean Ambassador and Cabinet Minister Orlando Letelier and United States citizen Ronni Karpen Moffitt were assassinated on September 21, 1976, by Chilean agents on the streets of Washington when Letelier's car exploded from a car bomb. Retired General Manuel Contreras and retired Brigadier General Pedro Espinoza, former director and operations director, respectively, of DINA (the army intelligence branch during the military regime), were convicted in 1993 of the 1976 killings in Washington, DC of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronni Moffitt.
The US government ordered the US diplomats and secret services to cancel their almost manifest collaboration with the state terrorists, who still had plans to eliminate Ed Koch [in reprisal for his legislative efforts to cut off military aid to that country] and other dangerous revolutionaries like him in the USA and Europe.
The security forces of the southern cone coordinated intelligence activities closely; operated in the territory of one another’s countries in pursuit of “subversives”; established Operation Condor to find and kill terrorists of the “Revolutionary Coordinating Committee” in their own countries and in Europe. Brazil was cooperating short of murder operations.
This siege mentality shading into paranoia was perhaps the natural result of the convulsions of recent years in which the societies of Chile, Uruguay and Argentina had been badly shaken by assault from the extreme left. But the military leaders, despite near decimation of the Marxist left in Chile and Uruguay, along with accelerating progress toward that goal in Argentina, insisted that the threat remains and the war must go on. Some talked of the “Third World War”, with the countries of the southern cone as the last bastion of Christian civilization.
The South American countries which had agreed to launch a counterterrorism operation in Europe (Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile) agreed in August 1976 to suspend initiation of the plan until Brazil decides whether or not to participate. Brazil agreed to participate in the intelligence coordination aspects of Condor in South America but had not agreed to participate in joint actions in Europe. The other Condor countries had not ruled out moving forward on the Paris operation without the Brazilians.
Operation Condor served as the information gathering organization for monitoring the opposition activities to the military juntas of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In the Soviet Union, the KGB had long functioned as a means of exterminating dissidents inside the country and opponents abroad. Iranian, Yugoslavian, and Libyan hit teams infiltrate exile settlements abroad, executing opponents of the respective regimes. Such hit teams consisted of killers from an elite police or military unit, a backup and getaway unit, a logistical support unit, a target surveillance detail, and a communications unit.
Information requirements for political kidnappings are extensive and predictable. The nine-millimeter semiautomatic handgun is the favored weapon of hit teams assigned to do close-in work; for car ambushes, assassination squads in Europe use tiny Czech-made machine pistols. In an attempt to discourage government-sponsored terrorism, the United States prohibited U.S. training of foreign police forces (1974), ordered assessment of the human rights conditions in countries aided by international security programs (1976), cancelled military assistance to a number of countries because of human rights violations (1977), and prohibited sale of small arms to several South and Central American countries (1977). Although some nations clearly use murder at home as a form of internal control and assassination abroad to eliminate enemies, most countries endure this situation in silence.
The term subversion grew to include nearly anyone who opposed government policy. In countries where everyone knew that subversives can wind up dead or tortured, educated people had an understandable concern about the boundaries of dissent. The concern doubled when there was a chance of persecution by foreign police acting on indirect, unknown information. Numerous Uruguayan refugees have been murdered in Argentina, and there are widespread accusations that Argentine police were doing their Uruguayan colleagues a favor. These accusations were at least credible, whether or not they are exact.
The threat was not imaginary. At one time or other, urban and rural guerrillas have created severe problems for almost every South American government, including those where democracy is still surviving. They provoked repressive reactions, including torture and quasi-governmental death squads. There was a terror-oriented “Revolutionary Coordinating Junta”, possibly headquartered in Paris, which was both a counterpart of and an incentive for cooperation between governments.
Both terrorists and the peaceful Left had failed. This was true even in the minds of studious revolutionaries. Che Guevara’s romantic fiasco crushed hopes for rural revolution. Allende’s fall was taken (perhaps pessimistically) as proving that the electoral route cannot work. Urban guerrillas collapsed in Brazil with Carlos Marighela and in Uruguay with the Tupamaros. The latter represented a high-water mark. Their solid, efficient structure posed a real wartime threat.
Opponents of the military regimes called them fascist. It was an effective pejorative, the more so because it can be said to be technically accurate. But it was a pejorative. Insecure, repressive governments nevertheless allow substantial “democratic” freedoms, including varying degrees of freedom of expression. The ambiente was more like Washington than Moscow. You can buy a good newspaper, a pair of decadently-flowered blue jeans, a girlie magazine, or a modern painting.
Long after left-wing threats were squashed, the regimes were still terrified of them. Fighting the absent pinkos remains a central goal of national security. Threats and plots are discovered. Some “mistakes” are made by the torturers, who have difficulty finding logical victims. Murder squads kill harmless people and petty thieves. When elections are held, the perverse electorate shows a desire to put the military out of power. Officers saw the trend ending with their own bodies on the rack.
Four decades later, Brazil and other governments began investigating those accused of being responsible. The task was possible now that the armed forces that perpetuated Condor were firmly under civilian control and the courts showed a greater interest in recent years in overturning or reinterpreting amnesty laws that had protected alleged human rights abusers. By 2013 prosecutors in Rome were investigating 35 Chilean, Bolivian, Peruvian and Uruguayan ex-officials who they accused of crimes committed against Italian citizens in the region. Argentine courts were trying 21 former military officials for their alleged participation in Condor. They committed "thousands of crimes including kidnapping, torture, murder and disappearances," said Pablo Ouviña, the chief prosecutor in Argentina's Condor trial.
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