In the Southern Cone during the 1960s to 1970s, intensely nationalistic, right-wing military officers violently seized power in reaction to domestic communist threats believed to be rooted in a broader transnational Marxist conspiracy. Although this threat was real, the military often exaggerated its intensity. Subversivos (subversives) could be leftist guerrillas just as easily as they could be labor leaders, human rights advocates, or opponents to military rule. Demonstrating the extent to which Southern Cone leaders felt threatened by communist subversion, Uruguayan Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Blanco insisted that his nation was fighting the "Third World War," while Argentine General Emilio Massera contended that military rule was protecting the last bastion of Christian civilization from communism.
The military governments were particularly concerned with the Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria (JCR, Revolutionary Coordinating Junta), an armed underground opposition movement formed by Argentine, Bolivian, Chilean, and Uruguayan leftists in 1975. The JCR aspired to start a continent-wide guerrilla war in an effort to overturn military rule. The military regimes responded with condor.
Once in power, these military regimes resorted to unlawful detention, torture, kidnapping, and extrajudicial killing in an effort to eliminate the often-exaggerated leftist threat. The term " los desaparecidos" (the disappeared) is used to describe those victims of military repression who, after being kidnapped and tortured, were never again seen. In Argentina, for example, the military often threw political prisoners out of aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean.
Argentine, Bolivian, Brazilian, Chilean, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan intelligence services formally established Operation condor at a meeting in Santiago, Chile, in June 1976, although these nations had been informally sharing intelligence as early as 1973. By July 1976, U.S. intelligence was becoming increasingly concerned with condor's activities. Originally designed as a data bank to gather and share intelligence on leftist dissidents living abroad, in July 1976 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that Operation condor had taken more of an "activist" role that now included "identifying, locating and 'hitting'" leftist dissidents abroad.
Washington's fears were validated on 21 September 1976 when Chilean intelligence agents detonated a car bomb on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., killing Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Letelier had served as Chilean ambassador to the United States as well as defense minister during the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970–1973). Following Augusto Pinochet's American-sponsored coup d'état on 11 September 1973, the Chilean military had kidnapped Letelier and transferred him to a political prison in Tierra del Fuego, where he had been tortured before being released in 1974. After his release and subsequent deportation to Venezuela he had moved to Washington, where he worked with the Institute of Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank, and acted as a very public opponent of Pinochet's regime. It was his public stance against the Pinochet dictatorship that made him a target.
Following a two-year investigation, the U.S. government indicted Michael Townley, a U.S. expatriate working for the Chilean intelligence agency (DINA), on charges of conspiracy to commit murder. After being extradited from Chile in April 1978, he pled guilty but had his sentence reduced to ten years' imprisonment after taking a plea bargain to name his accomplices. He named five anti-Castro Cuban exiles and three Chilean intelligence agents, including Manuel Contreras, head of DINA, in the Letelier assassination plot.
Despite the deplorable human rights record of Manual Contreras as head of Chilean intelligence, he acted as a CIA contact during the initial years of the Pinochet regime. CIA officials considered Contreras an asset because of his access to Pinochet and paid him a one-time fee in exchange for sensitive information on the Chilean dictatorship. In October 1976, the agency once again communicated with Contreras in an effort to gain information about Operation condor and the culpability of the Chilean intelligence service in the Letelier/Moffitt assassination. According to the CIA, Contreras confirmed the existence of Operation condor but denied that it carried out political assassinations. Contreras remained un-helpful, and the CIA severed its relationship with him in 1978.
U.S. complicity in Operation condor is becoming more transparent with the declassification of documents in both the United States and the Southern Cone states. By 1976, the United States was certainly aware of condor and even tried to bring it under a modicum of control. Some U.S. State Department officials did not agree with this course of action, however. For example, Ernest Siracusa, U.S. ambassador to Uruguay, responded to Washington's concern regarding condor by asserting that the United States had urged these countries to cooperate for security purposes. "Now that they are doing so," he said, "our reaction should not be one of opprobrium."
The most damning indication of U.S. complicity in condor remains a 1978 memorandum from Robert White, U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, quoted at length in the New York Times (6 March 2001, A47). White stated that Southern Cone intelligence heads kept in touch with one another through a U.S. communications facility in the Panama Canal Zone.
Once military governments had successfully consolidated their power throughout the Southern Cone by the late 1970s, Operation condor seemed to disappear. As late as 1983, however, Argentine military and intelligence units were advising the Honduran and Salvadorian militaries—some of the worst human rights violators of the hemisphere. Many observers have asserted that this was an extension of condor.
What is certain is that condor fell with the military dictatorships that nurtured it. Bolivia's military dictatorship collapsed in 1982, and dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay followed in 1983 and 1985, respectively. Although democracy did not emerge until later in Brazil (1986), Paraguay (1989), and Chile (1990), with the demise of three of condor's primary participants, the intelligence network was rendered ineffective.
Military authoritarian rule in the Southern Cone exacted a frightful human toll. The victims of Operation condor contribute to the high number of desaparacidos throughout Latin America that are as high as 30,000 in Argentina, 3,000 in Chile, and 1,000 in Bolivia. Operation condor serves as a historical reminder of the brutal reality that was military rule in Latin America in the 1970s.
R. Matthew Gildner
Dinges, John, and Saul Landau. Assassination on Embassy Row. New York: Pantheon, 1980.; Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.