“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”
In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto-repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.
Mendez was an early victim of Operation Condor, a torture and assassination program focused on the region’s leftists that, from 1975 to 1986, would spread terror across Latin America’s southern cone. On May 27, an Argentine court convicted 14 military officers of crimes connected with Operation Condor, issuing prison sentences ranging from 13 to 25 years. Among those sentenced was Reynaldo Bignone, Argentina’s last military dictator, now 88. (He held power from 1982 to 1983.)
Those convictions are deeply satisfying to the surviving victims and their families, to the legal teams that worked for more than a decade on the case, and to human-rights organizations around the world. And yet, as just as this outcome is, it has left me with questions—questions about the length of time between crime and conviction, and about what kinds of justice can and cannot be achieved through prosecutions alone.
Operation Condor was launched by the security forces of five military dictatorships: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Brazil soon joined, as did Ecuador and Peru eventually. As a Cold War anti-communist collaboration among the police, military, and intelligence services of those eight governments, Condor offered an enticing set of possibilities. The various services could not only cooperate, but pursue their enemies in tandem across national borders. Indeed, its reach stretched as far as Washington, DC, where in 1976 its operatives assassinated former Chilean ambassador to the US Orlando Letelier and his young assistant, Ronni Moffitt, both of whom then worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank.
How many people suffered grievously or died due to Operation Condor? A definitive number is by now probably beyond recovery, but records from Chile’s secret police suggest that by itself Argentina’s “dirty war”—the name given to the Argentine junta’s reign of terror, “disappearances,” and torture—took the lives of 22,000 people between 1975 and 1978. Thousands more are thought to have died before that country’s dictatorship ended in 1983. It’s generally believed that at least another 3,000 people died under the grimmest of circumstances in Chile, while thousands more were tortured but lived. And although its story is less well known, the similar reign of terror of the Uruguayan dictatorship directly affected the lives of almost every family in the country. As Lawrence Wechsler wrote in a 1989 article in The New Yorker: