By J. Patrice McSherry
International attention is focusing again on Operation Condor, the Cold War-era covert network of U.S.-backed military regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, later joined by Ecuador and Peru. The anticommunist Condor apparatus carried out a program of transnational political repression against exiled political opponents during the 1970s. Multinational Condor squads crossed into one another’s territory to carry out hundreds of disappearances, illegal cross-border transfers, tortures, and assassinations, including one in Washington, D.C. Condor’s targets included pro-democracy activists, unionists, Christian Democrat leaders, constitutionalist military officers, former ministers, and critics of the military regimes as well as guerrillas. Today in Latin America and Europe several trials of former Condor commanders and operatives are underway. One Italian judge recently called for the extradition of some 140 military and intelligence officers from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere for cross-border Condor crimes.
One recent news report highlighted the 1980 abductions of Noemi Gianetti de Molfino, a former Mother of the Plaza de Mayo of Argentina, and three other Argentines in Peru. U.S. officials knew of their capture by a joint Peruvian-Argentine commando, and one had advance knowledge of Condor's plan for the “permanent disappearance” of the Argentines. I discovered this document in the course of my research for a book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2005, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America. No steps were taken to avert the murder of the four.
In the course of my research on the repressive Condor system over the last fourteen years I have spoken to a number of survivors. They tell of abductions in the middle of the night, sadistic tortures they suffered at the hands of Condor teams, and the despair they endured in squalid secret prisons. Today, as we witness our own government using extralegal means such as abductions and cross-border transfers (“extraordinary rendition”), “waterboarding,” and incommunicado detention in Guantánamo and other secret “black sites,” their stories are painfully relevant.
In fact, I uncovered significant evidence of secret U.S. support for, and collaboration with, Operation Condor in the 1970s. During the Cold War, anticommunism often overrode human rights in Washington’s policy calculus. U.S. policy-makers feared that progressive or nationalist movements in the developing world were communist-inspired, and cultivated anticommunist allies who shared U.S. strategic interests. Declassified documents suggest that U.S. military and intelligence officials considered the Condor system to be an effective weapon in the hemispheric anticommunist crusade. It seems that a similar mentality prevails today among some of those in government.
In the 1970s Defense Department and CIA personnel had up-to-the-minute knowledge of Condor operations. One Defense Intelligence Agency report of October 1976 discussed a secret Argentine-Uruguayan intelligence operation in which members of an opposition organization of Uruguayans in Buenos Aires were abducted. The report noted that “a very secret phase of ‘Operation Condor’ involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to carry out operations including assassinations….A special team has apparently been organized in Argentina…structured much like a U.S. Special Forces Team.”
Perhaps the most significant document I uncovered in my research was a report indicating that Condor was granted authorized access to the U.S. continental communications system housed in the Panama Canal Zone. The 1978 cable, from U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay Robert White to the Secretary of State, reported that the commander of Paraguay’s armed forces had told him that 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 communicate and coordinate intelligence—and presumably operations against Condor targets. Essentially, U.S. military and/or intelligence forces put the official U.S. communications channel at the disposal of Operation Condor. The conclusion was unavoidable: such collaboration reflected high-level approval of the Condor apparatus.
Why did Washington support the military dictatorships of the Cold War era and collaborate with Condor? Clearly, top U.S. policy-makers considered such support to be in the U.S. interest. But that time of terror resulted in the destruction of democracy and widespread human rights atrocities that still reverberate in Latin America. Today there are many disturbing echoes of Operation Condor in the so-called war on terror. Again it is argued that the ends justify the means. But Operation Condor should have made clear that egregious violations of human rights and the rule of law are not the means to any good end.
J. Patrice McSherry, author of Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, is professor of political science and director of the Latin American & Caribbean Studies program at Long Island University.