Pulling Back the Veil on Condor
by John Dinges
The Nation magazine, July 24/31, 2000
For three years, from 1975 through 1977, the countries in
what is known as the Southern Cone of South America underwent
a human rights crime wave unprecedented before or since in the
region. Military regimes in place for more than a decade in Brazil
and Paraguay were joined by like-minded military rulers who had
overthrown civilian regimes in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
Perhaps the most closely guarded secret was a system of international
cooperation known as Operation Condor, an intelligence organization
in which multinational teams tracked down and assassinated dissidents
outside their home countries. At least 13,000 people were killed,
and hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in concentration camps
in the six countries participating in Condor.
Now, the discovery of secret-police documents in Paraguay
and other recently declassified documents in the United States
is pulling back the veil from Operation Condor. The new information
paints a picture of up-to-the-minute knowledge of Condor operations
by US officials, including detailed intelligence just before Chile
sent a team to Washington, DC, where they killed a prominent opposition
leader with a car bomb on Embassy Row. Other documents provide
a feasible scenario for the origins of Operation Condor and point
to the intriguing early involvement of an FBI agent. This is my
reconstruction of what happened:
In May 1975, Paraguayan police arrested two men, Jorge Fuentes
Alarcon and Amilcar Santucho, who represented what they considered
a major new guerrilla threat, a united underground organization
of armed groups from several countries, called the Revolutionary
Coordinating Junta, or JCR.
The arrests were seen as an intelligence bonanza, according
to Paraguayan and US documents. Last year the Justice Department
declassified a letter, dated June 6,1975, from an FBI agent, Robert
Scherrer, to a Chilean police official. Scherrer, who had taken
great interest in the arrest of the two revolutionaries, describes
the results of "interrogations" of the two men.
"[Fuentes] admitted that he is a member of the Coordinating
Junta and was acting as a courier for said group," Scherrer
wrote. Santucho, his traveling companion, was the brother of Argentina's
most famous guerrilla leader, Roberto Santucho. Scherrer, whose
job included intelligence liaison with the Southern Cone countries,
told his Chilean counterpart that the FBI would follow up by investigating
two people living in the United States, in New York and Dallas,
whose names were discovered in Fuentes's address book (one of
them was identified by Scherrer as Fuentes's sister). There can
be little doubt that Scherrer was aware that the "interrogation"
in Paraguay meant brutal torture- in fact, he discussed the Paraguayans'
use of torture in a 1979 interview with me in which he also described
When the Paraguayans were finished interrogating Fuentes,
they turned him over to Chile's secret police, the DINA. Two days
later, DINA chief Manuel Contreras wrote an ebullient thank-you
note, dated September 25, 1975, to his Paraguayan counterpart,
conveying "the most sincere thanks for the cooperation given
us to help in the mission my agents had to carry out in the sister
republic of Paraguay, and I am sure that this mutual cooperation
will continue and increase in the accomplishment of the common
objectives of both services." Another long letter followed:
Contreras invited three Paraguayan intelligence officials to attend
a "strictly secret" meeting in Santiago along with intelligence
chiefs from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. The Paraguay
archive contains the agenda of the meeting, which was held November
25 December 1, 1975. It included discussion of codes and secret
communications methods, and a "flowchart" of the new
organization. The Fuentes/Santucho "success" appears
to have provided the impetus and the model for the formal organization
of the six countries into Operation Condor. Fuentes was seen,
tortured but alive, by a dozen witnesses inside a secret prison
known as Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago. He was
taken away in January 1976 and is presumed dead.
Nine months later, an apparent Condor mission struck in Washington.
On September 21, 1976, a car bomb exploded on Massachusetts Avenue,
killing Chilean exile leader and former US ambassador Orlando
Letelier and a US associate, Ronni Moffltt. FBI agent Scherrer
was assigned to investigate. In the 1979 interview, Scherrer told
me how he got a major lead in the case. He had contacted an Argentine
military intelligence officer who had been in Santiago the week
the assassination occurred: "It was a wild Condor operation,"
the source said' carried out by "those lunatics in Santiago."
Scherrer drafted a cable, dated September 28, 1976, that described
Condor to Washington FBI headquarters. For many years that cable
was virtually all that was known about Condor, and it left the
impression that Condor was discovered after the Letelier assassination.
We now know, thanks to the new documents, that US officials knew
about Condor before the Letelier assassination. In fact, CIA and
State Department officials wrote about Condor's assassination
plans in six documents before the assassination, and in one on
the very day of it.
That remarkable document is labeled "INR Afternoon Summary,
September 21, 1976.", It describes Condor as "inspired
by Chile" and designed for "the covert elimination of
subversives." Another INR (the State Department's Intelligence
and Research Department) document and two CIA documents discuss
internal squabbling among the Condor members: Argentina, Chile
and Uruguay were planning "the assassination of leftist targets
resident in Western Europe," according to the August 13 INR
document, but Brazil was refusing to participate. An August 12
CIA report says training sessions for the European assassination
operations are scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires. The documents
are among thousands on Chile ordered declassified by the Clinton
Administration in the wake of the 1998 arrest in London of former
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The new evidence does not indicate US foreknowledge of Chile's
plot against Letelier, but the existence of an international assassination
ring led by Chile must have been of inescapable relevance on the
afternoon of the car bombing. Yet it was almost a year before
the US investigation focused directly on Chile, eventually resulting
in the indictment of Condor organizer Contreras and two other
The newly declassified documents-in Paraguay as well as the
United States-are helping to reveal a wide range of Condor operations,
which included assassination plans or attempts (some of them aborted)
in the United States, Portugal, France, Italy and Mexico, and
the arrest and torture of an undetermined number of foreigners,
including citizens of Spain, Britain, France and the United States.
Those Condor activities are at the heart of a variety of new and
revived judicial investigations of human rights crimes of the
era: The US Justice Department has recently revived its investigation
of the Letelier murder and is now focusing on Pinochet's involvement.
Brazil is releasing documents about Condor, and its Congress is
probing possible Condor involvement in the 1976 deaths in Argentina
of two former Brazilian presidents, Joao Goulart and Juscelino
Kubitschek. An Argentine judge has traveled to Chile twice in
six months to interrogate military suspects in the 1974 Buenos
Aires car-bomb assassination of a Pinochet rival, Gen. Carlos
Latin Americans seem determined to push forward to a final
accounting of their past. But so far the United States has gone
no further than the release of revelatory-but often heavily censored-documents
from that era. (A final release of Chilean documents is scheduled
for mid-September.) The flood of new information and new investigations
adds up to a compelling argument for the US government to go beyond
its current posture-a kind of Clinton-era "limited hangout"
policy-and move quickly to a final truth-telling, along the lines
of the official Truth and Reconciliation investigations our country
has applauded in Chile, South Africa and other countries on the
front lines of the cold war. In the case of Operation Condor,
the revelations about the FBI role in the Fuentes case, as well
as the detailed US intelligence about Condor before an act of
Condor terrorism in Washington, raise questions about what else
was known and done in the liaison relationships between our intelligence
services and military missions and their counterparts in the Condor
FBI agent Scherrer (who died in 1995) was aware of the moral
dilemmas into which he was thrust. "I agree with the necessity
to exchange information on terrorists," Scherrer told me
in a 1979 interview. "I think they should be rounded up,
but tried, not slaughtered."
The issue is not only whether a single FBI agent crossed a
line by distributing and acting on information he knew was gained
by torture. The real question goes to the shared objectives among
US agencies and Gestapo-like secret-police organizations in Latin
America, and to the US policies that justified working with them
in full knowledge and tacit approval of their methods.
John Dinges's book, with Saul Landau, on the Letelier / Moffitt
killings, Assassination on Embassy Row (Pantheon), contained the
first investigative account of Operation Condor, including the
secret FBI cable. Dinges is writing a book on US liaisons with
South American military dictatorships in the seventies.
and Third World