Operation Condor: Deciphering the U.S. Role
by J. Patrice McSherry
According to recently de-classified files, the U.S. aided and facilitated
Condor operations as a matter of secret but routine policy.
In mid-April, 2001, Argentine judge Rodolfo Canicoba issued path-breaking
international arrest warrants for two former high-ranking functionaries of
the military regimes of Chile and Paraguay.
These two, along with an Argentine general also summoned by the court, are
accused of crimes committed within the framework of Operation Condor.
Judge Canicoba presides over one of several cases worldwide investigating
abductions and murders linked to Condor, a shadowy Latin American military
network created in the 1970s whose key members were Chile, Argentina,
Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, later joined by Peru and Ecuador.
Condor was a covert intelligence and operations system that enabled the
Latin American military states to hunt down, seize, and execute political
opponents across borders.
Refugees fleeing military coups and repression in their own countries were
"disappeared" in combined transnational operations. The militaries defied
international law and traditions of political sanctuary to carry out their
ferocious anticommunist crusade.
The judge's request for the detention and extradition of Manuel Contreras of
Chile, former chief of the gestapo-like Directorate of National Intelligence
(DINA), and former dictator Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, along with his
summons for ex-junta leader Jorge Videla of Argentina, represents another
example of the rapid advances occurring in international law and justice
since the arrest of General Pinochet in 1998. In effect, the struggle
against impunity is being "globalized."
As human rights organizations, families of victims, lawyers, and judges
press for disclosure and accountability regarding human rights crimes
committed during the Cold War, inevitable questions arise as to the role of
the foremost leader of the anticommunist alliance, the United States.
This article explores recent evidence linking the U.S. national security
apparatus with Operation Condor.
Condor took place within the broader context of inter-American
counterinsurgency coordination and operations led and sponsored by the
Pentagon and the CIA. U.S. training, doctrine, organizational models,
technology transfers, weapons sales, and ideological attitudes profoundly
shaped security forces in the region.
Recently declassified documents add weight to the thesis that U.S. forces
secretly aided and facilitated Condor operations. The U.S. government
considered the Latin American militaries to be allies in the Cold War,
worked closely with their intelligence organizations, and promoted
coordinated action and modernization of their capabilities. As shown here,
U.S. executive agencies at least condoned, and sometimes actively assisted,
some Condor "countersubversive" operations.
What was Operation Condor?
In the 1960s and 1970s, populist, nationalist, and socialist movements
emerged throughout the class-stratified nations of Latin America,
challenging the entrenched privileges of local oligarchies as well as U.S.
political and economic interests. In this context, U.S. national security
strategists (who feared "another Cuba") and their Latin American
counterparts began to regard large sectors of these societies as potentially
or actually subversive. Cold War NationalSecurity Doctrine--a politicized
doctrine of internal war and counterrevolution that targeted "internal
enemies"--incorporated U.S. and French counterinsurgency concepts and
anticommunist ideology. The doctrine gave the militaries a messianic
mission: to remake their states and societies and eliminate "subversion."
Political and social conflict was viewed through the lens of
countersubversive war; the counterinsurgents believed that world communism
had infiltrated their societies. During these years, militaries in country
after country ousted civilian governments in a series of coups--even in such
long-standing democracies as Chile and Uruguay--and installed repressive
regimes. The "anticommunist crusade" became a crusade against the principles
and institutions of democracy and against progressive and liberal as well as
revolutionary forces, and the national security states institutionalized
Operation Condor allowed the Latin American militaries to put into practice
a key strategic concept of national security doctrine: hemispheric defense
defined by ideological frontiers. The more limited concept of territorial
defense was superseded.
To the U.S. national security apparatus--which fostered the new
continent-wide security doctrine in its training centers, such as the Army
School of the Americas in Panama--and most of the Latin American militaries,
the Cold War represented World War III, the war of ideologies. Security
forces in Latin America classified and targeted persons on the basis of
their political ideas rather than illegal acts. The regimes hunted down
dissidents and leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns,
intellectuals, students and teachers--not only guerrillas (who, under
international law, are also entitled to due process).
Condor specialized in targeted abductions, disappearances,
interrogations/torture, and transfers of persons across borders. According
to a declassified 1976 FBI report, Condor had several levels. The first was
mutual cooperation among military intelligence services, including
coordination of political surveillance and exchange of intelligence
information. The second was organized cross-border operations to
detain/disappear dissidents. The third and most secret, "Phase III," was the
formation of special teams of assassins from member countries to travel
anywhere in the world to carry out assassinations of "subversive enemies."
Phase III was aimed at political leaders especially feared for their
potential to mobilize world opinion or organize broad opposition to the
Victims of Condor's Phase III, conducted during the mid-1970s, included
Chilean Orlando Letelier--foreign minister under President Salvador Allende
and a fierce foe of the Pinochet regime--and his American colleague Ronni
Moffitt, in Washington D.C., and Chilean Christian Democrat leader Bernardo
Leighton and his wife, in Rome. Condor assassinations in Buenos Aires were
carried out against General Carlos Prats, former Commander-in-Chief of the
Chilean army; nationalist ex-president of Bolivia Juan Jose Torres; two
Uruguayan legislators known for their opposition to the Uruguayan military
regime, Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutierrez Ruiz. In the first two cases,
DINA assassination teams "contracted" local terrorist and fascist
organizations to assist in carrying out the crimes. A U.S.-born DINA
assassin--expatriate Michael Townley--admitted his role in the Prats,
Letelier-Moffitt, and Leighton crimes. Clearly, Operation Condor was an
organized system of state terror with a transnational reach.
According to a declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report from
1976, Condor used multinational commando teams made up of military and
paramilitary operatives who carried out combined cross-border operations,
and testimony from survivors of such operations confirms this. Condor also
employed a telecommunications system (Condortel) to coordinate its
intelligence, planning, and operations against political opponents. An
Argentine military source told a U.S. Embassy contact in 1976 that the CIA
had played a key role in setting up
the computerized links among the intelligence and operations units of the
six Condor states.
Declassified U.S. documents make clear that U.S. security officers saw
Condor as a legitimate "counterterror" organization. One 1976 DIA report
stated, for example, that one Condor team was "structured much like a U.S.
Special Forces Team," and described Condor's "joint counterinsurgency
operations" to "eliminate Marxist terrorist activities." This report noted
that Latin American military officers bragged about Condor to their U.S.
counterparts. Numerous other CIA, DIA, and State Department documents
referred to Condor as a counterterror or countersubversive organization and
some described its assassination capability in a matter-of-fact manner. In
1978, for example, the CIA wrote that by July 1976 "the Agency was receiving
reports that Condor planned to engage in `executive action' outside the
territory of member countries." In fact, the documentary evidence shows that
the CIA was fully aware of such capabilities and operations years earlier.
Known Cases of U.S. Collaboration with Condor
A key case illuminating U.S. involvement in Condor countersubversive
operations was that of Chilean Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarc=F3n, who was seized
by Paraguayan police as he crossed the border from Argentina to Paraguay in
May 1975. Fuentes, a sociologist, was suspected of being a courier for a
Chilean leftist organization. Chile's Truth and Reconciliation Commission
later learned that the capture of Fuentes was a cooperative effort by
Argentine intelligence services, personnel of the U.S. Embassy in Buenos
Aires, and Paraguayan police. Fuentes was transferred to Chilean police, who
brought him to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious DINA detention center in
Santiago. He was last seen there, savagely tortured.
Recently declassified U.S. documents include a letter from the U.S. Embassy
in Buenos Aires (written by FBI official Robert Scherrer) informing the
Chilean military that Fuentes had been captured. Additionally, Scherrer
provided the names and addresses of three individuals residing in the United
States whom Fuentes named during his interrogation, and told his
counterparts in the Pinochet regime that the FBI was conducting
investigations of the three. This letter, among others, confirms that U.S.
officials and agencies were cooperating with the military dictatorships and
acting as a link in the Condor chain. Perhaps most striking is that this
coordination was routine (if secret), standard operating procedure within
Two of the most explosive discoveries about U.S. links to Condor have
emerged in the past few months. First is a 1978 Roger Channel cable from
Robert White, then Ambassador to Paraguay, to the Secretary of State,
discovered by this researcher in February 2001. This declassified State
Department document links Operation Condor to the former U.S. military
headquarters in the Panama Canal Zone.
In the cable, White reported a meeting with Paraguayan armed forces chief
General Alejandro Fretes Davalos. Fretes identified the Panama Canal Zone
base of the U.S. military as the site of a secure transnational
communications center for Condor. According to Fretes Davalos, intelligence
chiefs from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay used "an
encrypted system within the U.S. telecommunications net[work]," which
covered all of Latin America, to "coordinate intelligence information." In
the cable, White drew the connection to Operation Condor and questioned
whether the arrangement was in the U.S. interest--but he never received a
The Panama base housed the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command
(SOUTHCOM), the U.S. Special Forces, and the Army School of the Americas
(SOA), among other facilities, during most of the Cold War. Tens of
thousands of Latin American officers were trained at the SOA, which used the
infamous torture manuals released by the Pentagon and the CIA in the
mid-1990s. Latin American officers trained in Panama have confirmed that the
base was the center of the hemispheric anticommunist alliance. One military
graduate of the School said, "The school was always a front for other
special operations, covert operations." Another officer, an Argentine navy
man whose unit was organized into kidnap commandos ("task forces") in 1972,
said the repression was part of "a plan that responded to the Doctrine of
National Security that had as a base the School of the Americas, directed by
the Pentagon in Panama." A Uruguayan officer who worked with the CIA in the
1970s, said that the CIA not only knew of Condor operations, but also
The second astonishing piece of recently-released information is the
admission by the CIA itself in September 2000 that DINA chief Manuel
Contreras was a CIA asset between 1974 and 1977, and that he received an
unspecified payment for his services. During these same years Contreras was
known as "Condor One," the leading organizer and proponent of Operation
Condor. The CIA never divulged this information in 1978, when a Federal
Grand Jury indicted Contreras for his role in the Letelier-Moffitt
assassinations. Contreras was sentenced to a prison term in Chile for this
crime, and convicted in absentia in Italy for the Leighton attack. The CIA
claims that it did not ask Contreras about Condor until after the
assassinations of Letelier and Moffitt in September 1976. This assertion is
hardly credible, less so when one considers that the CIA was privy to
earlier assassination plans by Condor. Moreover, the CIA helped organize and
train the DINA in 1974, and retained Contreras as an asset for a year after
the Letelier/Moffitt assassinations. The CIA destroyed its file on Contreras
Michael Townley's relationship to the CIA is also murky. Townley turned
state's evidence in the Letelier/Moffitt assassination trial, served a short
sentence, and then entered the Witness Protection Program. In Chile, Townley
had said that he was a CIA operative, and so did the attorney who defended
the accused Cuban exiles in the Letelier/Moffitt assassination trial in the
United States. In fact, declassified documents show that Townley was
interviewed by CIA recruiters in November 1970 and was judged to be "of
operational interest as a possible [phrase excised] of the Directorate of
Operations in 1971." The memo carefully states, however, that the "Office of
Security file does not reflect that Mr. Townley was ever actually used by
the Agency." A separate affidavit states that "in February 1971, the
Directorate of Operations requested preliminary security approval to use Mr.
Townley in an operational capacity." Townley had close ties to the U.S.
Embassy and to high-ranking Foreign Service officers, who knew of his ties
to the fascist anti-Allende paramilitary group Patria y Libertad. The
question that must be asked is whether Townley and Contreras were acting
independently, or as CIA agents in Condor planning and operations.
By Way of Conclusion
Although the documentary record is still fragmentary and many sources
continue to be classified, increasingly weighty evidence suggests that the
U.S. national security apparatus sponsored and supported Condor operations.
The new evidence reopens important ethical, legal, and policy issues
stemming from the Cold War era. In fragile Latin American democracies today,
civilian governments are still struggling to deal with the legacies of state
terror and to control their still-powerful military-security organizations,
while families are still trying to learn what happened to their disappeared
For U.S. citizens, the new documentation provokes troubling questions about
the country's central role in financing, training, and collaborating with
institutions that carried out torture, assassination, and coups in the name
of national security. During the Cold War, the ends were assumed to justify
the means, resulting in appalling abuses that violated the human rights and
fundamental freedoms the U.S. government publicly espoused.
A process of truth and accountability is needed in this country to address
the U.S. role in Latin American repression, as a number of lawyers and human
rights activists have advocated. Moreover, U.S. officials should
unequivocally reject security doctrines that rationalize violations of human
rights as legitimate means to any end.
J. Patrice McSherry is Associate Professor of Political Science at Long
Island University and author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and
Democracy in Argentina (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997) and numerous
articles on Condor and the Latin American military. She began studying
Condor in the early 1990s and has conducted research in Paraguay, Chile,
Argentina, and the United States.
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