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.
That remarkable document is labeled “INR Afternoon Summary, September 21, 1976.” It describes Condor as “inspired by Chile” and designed for “the covert elimination of subversives.” Another INR (the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Department) document and two CIA documents discuss internal squabbling among the Condor members: Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were planning “the assassination of leftist targets resident in Western Europe,” according to the August 13 INR document, but Brazil was refusing to participate. An August 12 CIA report says training sessions for the European assassination operations are scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires. The documents are among thousands on Chile ordered declassified by the Clinton Administration in the wake of the 1998 arrest in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The new evidence does not indicate US foreknowledge of Chile’s plot against Letelier, but the existence of an international assassination ring led by Chile must have been of inescapable relevance on the afternoon of the car bombing. Yet it was almost a year before the US investigation focused directly on Chile, eventually resulting in the indictment of Condor organizer Contreras and two other DINA officers.
The newly declassified documents–in Paraguay as well as the United States–are helping to reveal a wide range of Condor operations, which included 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 citizens of Spain, Britain, France and the United States. Those Condor activities are at the heart of a variety of new and revived judicial investigations of human rights crimes of the era: The US Justice Department has recently revived its investigation of the Letelier murder and is now focusing on Pinochet’s involvement. Brazil is releasing documents about Condor, and its Congress is probing possible Condor involvement in the 1976 deaths in Argentina of two former Brazilian presidents, João Goulart and Juscelino Kubitschek. An Argentine judge has traveled to Chile twice in six months to interrogate military suspects in the 1974 Buenos Aires car-bomb assassination of a Pinochet rival, Gen. Carlos Prats.
Latin Americans seem determined to push forward to a final accounting of their past. But so far the United States has gone no further than the release of revelatory–but often heavily censored–documents from that era. (A final release of Chilean documents is scheduled for mid-September.) The flood of new information and new investigations adds up to a compelling argument for the US government to go beyond its current posture–a kind of Clinton-era “limited hangout” policy–and move quickly to a final truth-telling, along the lines of the official Truth and Reconciliation investigations our country has applauded in Chile, South Africa and other countries on the front lines of the cold war. In the case of Operation Condor, the revelations about the FBI role in the Fuentes case, as well as the detailed US intelligence about Condor before an act of Condor terrorism in Washington, raise questions about what else was known and done in the liaison relationships between our intelligence services and military missions and their counterparts in the Condor dictatorships.
FBI agent Scherrer (who died in 1995) was aware of the moral dilemmas into which he was thrust. “I agree with the necessity to exchange information on terrorists,” Scherrer told me in a 1979 interview. “I think they should be rounded up, but tried, not slaughtered.”
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 among 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.