Into the Murky Depths of ‘Operation Condor’

<i> Lucy Komisar is working on a book about U.S. human-rights policy in the 1970s and '80s, including a detailed case study of Chile</i>

The continued detention in London of Chile’s former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet points to many unanswered questions about his rule, including a terrorist conspiracy by six U.S.-supported Latin American governments--Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay--to murder their political opponents around the world. The Central Intelligence Agency and some U.S. government officials knew about this 1970s operation, but didn’t reveal it to the public or Congress.

Known as “Operation Condor,” foreign armies and security services cooperated in dealing with political opponents from one country who crossed into another, and assigned their own men to out-of-country operations to avoid the identification of local agents.

Now, Spanish authorities handling the Pinochet investigation want to know what the United States knows about Operation Condor, and Washington has been sending them declassified documents. But it has balked at requests to release all relevant papers in the archives of the State Department, the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA.

The U.S. government denied a report in the Guardian newspaper in London that it had urged the British to release Pinochet and not agree to his extradition to Madrid for fear that revelations about the U.S. role in the 1973 coup overthrowing Salvador Allende would come out during a trial. But, since the current investigation concerns the post-coup period, some U.S. officials are more likely worried about revelations of U.S. knowledge of and connections to Operation Condor.


The U.S. certainly knew about it. A week after the killings of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S., and his Instiute for Policy Studies colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976, Robert Scherrer, the FBI’s attache in Buenos Aires assigned to the case, reported key information to Washington. Scherrer had learned from an Argentine official that Chile was the center of something called Operation Condor, established to share intelligence and engage in joint operations against “so-called ‘leftists,’ communists and Marxists,” he wrote in a recently release document. He said the operation included setting up teams to carry out assassinations around the world and speculated it might have orchestrated the Washington bombing. Scherrer learned that the CIA had already reported on Operation Condor.

Col. Manuel Contreras, who organized the terror network, had set up the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), the Chilean secret police, two months after the September 1973 coup. CIA station chief Stuart Burton, who arrived in Santiago in May 1974, established a close liaison with Contreras and DINA. U.S. Embassy political officer John Tipton, who at the time was cabling protests of human-rights abuses and coauthoring a dissent channel memorandum that called for more U.S. attention to the issue, told me the CIA and DINA were working together. He said, “I don’t believe the CIA set up DINA, but they were in a close relationship. Burton and Contreras used to go on Sunday picnics together with their families. That permeated the whole CIA station.”

The Chilean government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission says U.S. Embassy personnel were involved in the capture of a Chilean by Paraguayan police. In the 1991 report, it said that Chilean Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarcon was arrested by the Paraguayan police crossing the border to Argentina in May 1975, and that the participants in his capture were “the Argentine intelligence services, who provided the information about his false passport; persons from the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires, who informed the Chilean Investigative Police of the result of the interrogations, and the Paraguayan police, who permitted the clandestine transport of the detainee.”

Fuentes Alarcon was brought to a Chilean torture center, Villa Grimaldi, in Santiago. He never left.


A Paraguayan, Federico Tatter, who had fled to Argentina in 1963 out of opposition to the Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship, was kidnapped in Buenos Aires in 1976. Years later, his widow got photographs from Paraguayan human-rights groups that showed her husband in the company of Paraguayan police. The photos were in records opened in 1993, after an ex-political prisoner, acting on a tip, took a judge to a police station to get his own files. They discovered a huge cache of documents, now known as the “archives of terror.”

The papers revealed that the terror network murdered a former president of Brazil and two Uruguayan parliamentarians, as well as hundreds of political activists. They also documented the presence of Nazis throughout the southern cone and the assassination of Israeli agents who were pursuing them. Finally, they detailed the connection of local intelligence services with drug traffickers and with the CIA.

Argentine journalist Stella Calloni, correspondent for the Mexican daily La Jornada in Mexico, reported that after the U.S. Agency for International Development arrived to help microfilm the Paraguayan files, some of which detailed U.S. connections with the Paraguayan police, journalists who sought to look at the archives discovered that the military-related material about Operation Condor had been put out of their reach.

In August 1975, Contreras had met in Washington with CIA deputy director Vernon A. Walters. Up until then, cooperation between the security services of the Latin American dictators had been informal. There are no declassified documents that prove Walters urged or approved the plan to set up Operation Condor, but the month after meeting with Walters, Contreras asked Pinochet, in a memo obtained by Italian courts, for another $600,000 for “reasons that I consider indispensable,” one of which was “the neutralization of the [Chilean] government junta’s principal adversaries abroad, especially in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, the U.S.A. and Italy.”

After Contreras’ meeting with the military intelligence chiefs of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in October, the relationship was formalized and a joint information center was established at DINA headquarters.

In March 1976, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and several other members of Congress visited Chile and met with human-rights defenders there. Miller has now called on President Bill Clinton to release “critical information that will help link Pinochet directly to acts of international terrorism.”

Meanwhile, the Spaniards are seeking a CIA report said to assert that Pinochet ordered the 1976 car-bomb assassination in Washington of Letelier and Moffitt.

It is widely believed that Operation Condor already had carried out the 1974 Buenos Aires killing of Pinochet’s predecessor, the democrat Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, and the 1975 Rome attack that disabled Christian Democratic opposition leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife. Those cases are being investigated by judicial authorities in Argentina and Italy, who might like to see U.S. archives.


The CIA immediately connected the Letelier-Moffitt killings to Operation Condor. After the assassinations, the agency decided the network had become a rogue operation that could create problems in the United States. When it found out about Condor plans in Europe, it advised police in France and Portugal, where assassinations were planned.

However, Operation Condor stayed in business elsewhere. The Chilean and Argentine military helped Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in the years before his 1979 overthrow. Through the network, Argentina helped organize death squads in El Salvador in 1979 and ’80. Operation Condor is believed to have operated until 1983. Evidence of Argentine participation was exposed during state prosecution of the military junta by the government of President Raul Alfonsin.

Two days after the congressional request, the State Department said it was prepared to look at ways to accelerate its declassification process. If the U.S. expects to be taken seriously in its protests against international terrorism by political adversaries, it must open its documents on Operation Condor, the terrorist operation of its sleazier friends.