Pulling Back the Veil on Condor
For three years, from 1975 through 1977, the countries in what is known as the Southern Cone of South America underwent a human rights crime wave unprecedented 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 had overthrown civilian regimes in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Perhaps the most closely guarded secret was a system of international cooperation known as Operation Condor, an intelligence organization in which multinational teams tracked down and assassinated dissidents outside their home countries. At least 13,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps in the six countries participating in Condor.
Now, the discovery of secret-police documents in Paraguay and other recently declassified documents in the United States is pulling back the veil from Operation Condor. The new information paints a picture of up-to-the-minute knowledge of Condor operations by US officials, including detailed intelligence just before Chile sent a team to Washington, DC, where they killed a prominent opposition leader with a car bomb on Embassy Row. Other documents provide a feasible scenario for the origins of Operation Condor and point to the intriguing early involvement of an FBI agent. This is my reconstruction of what happened:
In May 1975, Paraguayan police arrested two men, Jorge Fuentes Alarcón and Amilcar Santucho, who represented what they considered a major new guerrilla threat, a united underground organization of armed groups from several countries, called the Revolutionary Coordinating Junta, or JCR.
The arrests were seen as an intelligence bonanza, according to Paraguayan and US documents. Last year the Justice Department declassified a letter, dated June 6, 1975, from an FBI agent, Robert Scherrer, to a Chilean police official. Scherrer, who had taken great interest in the arrest of the two revolutionaries, describes the results of "interrogations" of the two men.
"[Fuentes] admitted that he is a member of the Coordinating Junta and was acting as a courier for said group," Scherrer wrote. Santucho, his traveling companion, was the brother of Argentina's most famous guerrilla leader, Roberto Santucho. Scherrer, whose job included intelligence liaison with the Southern Cone countries, told his Chilean counterpart that the FBI would follow up by investigating two people living in the United States, in New York and Dallas, whose names were discovered in Fuentes's address book (one of them was identified by Scherrer as Fuentes's sister). There can be little doubt that Scherrer was aware that the "interrogation" in Paraguay meant brutal torture--in fact, he discussed the Paraguayans' use of torture in a 1979 interview with me in which he also described Fuentes's arrest.
When the Paraguayans were finished interrogating Fuentes, they turned him over to Chile's secret police, the DINA. Two days later, DINA chief Manuel Contreras wrote an ebullient thank-you note, dated September 25, 1975, to his Paraguayan counterpart, conveying "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." Another long letter followed: Contreras invited three Paraguayan intelligence officials to attend a "strictly secret" meeting in Santiago along with intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. The Paraguay archive contains the agenda of the meeting, which was held November 25-December 1, 1975. It included discussion of codes and secret communications methods, and a "flowchart" of the new organization. The Fuentes/Santucho "success" appears to have provided the impetus and the model for the formal organization of the six countries into Operation Condor. Fuentes was seen, tortured but alive, by a dozen witnesses inside a secret prison known as Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago. He was taken away in January 1976 and is presumed dead.
Nine months later, an apparent Condor mission struck in Washington. On September 21, 1976, a car bomb exploded on Massachusetts Avenue, killing Chilean exile leader and former US ambassador Orlando Letelier and a US associate, Ronni Moffitt. FBI agent Scherrer was assigned to investigate. In the 1979 interview, Scherrer told me how he got a major lead in the case. He had contacted an Argentine military intelligence officer 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. For many years that cable was virtually all that was known about Condor, and it left the impression that Condor was discovered after the Letelier assassination. We now know, thanks to the new documents, that US officials knew about Condor before the Letelier assassination. In fact, CIA and State Department officials wrote about Condor's assassination plans in six documents before the assassination, and in one on the very day of it.