Hidden Terrors Part 5
excerpted from the book
the truth about U.S. police operations in Latin
by A.J. Langguth
Pantheon Books, 1978, paper
Throughout the early seventies, liberals in the Uruguayan Senate
had tried to form a united front. When this attempt failed and
the dictatorship became ever more oppressive, they were forced
to flee, usually to Buenos Aires. There the leaders were murdered
by Death Squads operating unhindered by Argentina's police.
Before the Tupamaros were exterminated and Uruguay's democracy
snuffed out, Nelson Bardesio was kidnapped by the rebels and compelled
to tell his story. He disappeared on February 24, 1972; and in
a series of interviews held underground, he confessed to police
bombings and described the link between the police and military
in Uruguay and Argentina. Marcba, before it was finally suppressed,
printed a transcript of his statements.
The Tupamaros had deleted names of Bardesio's colleagues,
intending to conduct their own investigation and mete out their
own justice. Even with the substitutions of X for the names of
police and military officers, Bardesio's confession confirmed
that Uruguayan Death Squads had been bombing and strafing the
houses of lawyers and journalists suspected of being sympathetic
to the Tupamaros. He also cleared up the mystery surrounding the
disappearance of Hector Castagnetto, a student whose two brothers
"I arrived at the house just in time," Bardesio's
statement read. "I saw them put Castagneno, who was blindfolded,
in X's auto [Bardesio provided a description, which the Tupamaros
deleted] that had a broken windshield and belonged to the Ministry
of the Interior. Castagnetto and the two functionaries of Department
4 sat in the back, X drove with Jose [an official of the Interior
Ministry] beside him.... X got into my auto.... The three autos
then went to the harbor, to the entrance beside the central railway
station. I believe this is the entrance for the Rowing Club. X's
auto turned in and we turned back. I took X to Department 5 and
went to the house of a friendly couple on Canelones Street, where
I then lived. One hour later, around 2 A.M., X phoned me to tell
me the house on Araucana Street was to be 'cleaned out' because
it would be searched by the police because of a neighbor's complaint,
and also if I might keep some parcels that they didn't have any
place to keep. X came to take me with his auto, and we went to
the corner of Rambla and Araucana streets, where we met a small
lorry normally used by the two functionaries trained in Brazil.
In the lorry there were two people I didn't know and who were
part of Jose's team. X told me to keep absolutely-secret about
them. They took me in the lorry to my studio, where I put the
two parcels and box taken from the house on Araucana Street....
I later opened the two parcels and found machine guns, .45 caliber,
without brands or numbers [they were filed clean] and some explosives.
These were colored cubes with a place for a detonator in one of
the extremities. They were enclosed with sheets of paper on which
was written CCT [Command to Chase the Tupamaros].... I understand
that Castagnetto was interrogated and tortured in the house on
Araucana Street and later murdered and thrown into the river.
This final part of the operation was carried out by the two functionaries
who went with him into the harbor."
Later, Bardesio disappeared entirely. He was first reported
in Canada; but when questions were raised about the propriety
of giving him sanctuary, he was sent elsewhere, apparently to
The Tupamaros were even more interested in the whereabouts
of Hector Amodio Perez. Amodio had ranked high in the rebel movement;
but when his prominence as a leader was challenged, he had seemed
to act from spite, providing the police with the locations of
thirty Tupamaro hideouts. Raul Sendic had escaped once from Montevideo's
sieve-like prison. Now he was captured again and shot through
both cheeks. Sendic lived, but his jaw was destroyed.
In the spring of 1972, a young Uruguayan returned from studying
law in Buenos Aires and found life in Montevideo hellish. Families
were reduced to whispering to each other in their own homes. Everyone
was taken for being a spy. The student himself knew two Tupamaros,
reason enough for his being arrested and confined to an army jail.
There, like prisoners in Brazil, he was appalled to find doctors-young
doctors, doctors his own age-cooperating in the torture. They
asked him whether he was asthmatic, to know whether to use electricity
on him or near-drownings in water. They measured his blood pressure
to see whether he could bear more pain. They gave him stimulants
to permit the torture to go forward. It was as though the police,
the soldiers, and the doctors were all crazed. "I torture
you," one army officer shouted at him. "Someday you
will kill me! But I don't care!"
In the spring of 1973, a member of Brazil's tame opposition party
sought out U. S. Senator James G. Abourezk of South Dakota in
his Washington office. Under a pledge of secrecy, the Brazilian
poured out grisly stories of torture and laid out fragmentary
but persuasive evidence that the United States was implicated
Since his election to the Senate, Abourezk had been seeking
an issue, a crusade, and he now began looking into the Office
of Public Safety. He was not its first critic, only its most determined
one. As early as 1966, Senator J. William Fulbright had expressed
doubts about the program, but he had caused no particular alarm
at OPS. Fulbright was emerging as a critic of the Vietnam war;
and among the police advisers who supported the U. S. intervention,
that position alone was enough to discredit him.
During his years as president, Lyndon Johnson had not taken
a stand on OPS. Officers at the police academy attributed this
to his two preoccupations, the Vietnam war and his Great Society,
and to the absence of much attack against the police program.
It was not crucial that he show support at that time.
During Nixon's first term in office, the president told Byron
Engle that the advisory program was a good one, and in good hands.
In 1971, while Brazil's third military president, General Medici,
was visiting Washington, Nixon had summed up his Latin American
policy by praising Brazil as a model for the continent. By the
time the drum roll of accusations began against OPS, however,
Nixon was expending his energies on a burglary at the Watergate
John Hannah, the U. S. AID director, supported OPS in a letter
to Congressman Otto Passman. But Hannah had been president of
Michigan State University at the time the university took on secret
CIA contracts for advisory work in South Vietnam, and that connection
undercut his authority with the Senate's liberals.
Overseas, the U. S. police advisers waited for a high-ranking
government official to stand up for them. None ever did. The CIA,
adroit at lobbying for itself, let OPS go down without a struggle.
When Senator Abourezk publicized the Texas bomb school, the agency
cut its losses rather than wage a campaign that might have led
to Congressional hearings.
In 1974, the CIA was still months away from the forthcoming
barrage of leaks and charges and investigations that would devastate
its reputation. "You must believe that we are honorable men,"
CIA director Richard Helms once told the Washington press corps,
and in the main they believed him.
When OPS was abolished, its funds cut o£ and the Car
Barn doors locked, some advisers retired entirely from government
service. Some entered into private security work. Jack Goin, for
example, opened a Washington office called Public Safety Services,
Inc. Other, better-connected men made an easy transition to the
Drug Enforcement Agency, which put them back in touch with police
Many advisers had never served in a country where torture
was the accepted means of extracting information. Others, although
stationed in Brazil or Uruguay, had never taken part in a torture
session. Some knew what went on; others claimed ignorance. But
whatever their background, in the years following Mitrione's murder,
they found themselves publicly soiled, disavowed by their government,
and usually out of a job.
An early omen that three decades of preferential treatment
were ending for the CIA was the word out of Paris that Philip
Agee was writing a book. While at his last post in Mexico City,
Agee had swung far to the political Left. He divorced his wife,
a serious step for a Catholic; he left the CIA, equally serious
for a man nearing forty with no training except in dirty tricks;
and he began his memoirs, most serious of all for a man who valued
Exercising the prudence he had been taught in Langley, Agee
was able to finish an immensely detailed reconstruction of his
years with the CIA. The very documentation- or the prospect of
long legal battles with the agency- discouraged most U. S. publishers.
But Agee's story had two happy endings. The book was published
with great success in London and then New York...
Throughout the seventies, tales of torture coming out of Brazil's
prisons had not changed greatly; and the relevance of Lincoln
Gordon's last defense was considerably diminished during the first
two months of President Jimmy Carter's administration, when the
police in Sao Paulo arrested 28,304 persons "on suspicion."
Occasionally, a commander whose excesses were too flagrant
was asked to retire. That happened in the aftermath of the death
in prison of a journalist, Vladimir Herzog. The outcome was different,
however, for the commander responsible for troops who tortured
a U. S. clergyman named Fred Morris. Eighteen months after Morris
was released, the commander was promoted to Brazil's highest military
post, despite publicity about the torture.
In Uruguay, a politician named Juan Maria Bordaberry had replaced
Pacheco Areco as president. Before Bordaberry's term had run out,
Uruguay's generals had stripped him of his power; then, in 1976,
they put him out of office altogether. In hardly more than a decade,
the Tupamaros had made good on their threat: in Uruguay, the former
model of democracy, there was now no dancing for anyone.
In the spring of 1977, a military court finally sentenced
a suspected Tupamaro for the killing of Dan Mitrione. For the
shooting, and his alleged part in the kidnapping of Geoffrey Jackson,
Antonio Mas. Mas received thirty years in prison.
Around the police barracks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian officers
trained at the International Police Academy remembered Dan Mitrione
fondly as a symbol of the era before Washington lost its will
to fight the Communists. The United States was decadent, the officers
said; it suffered from too much freedom. The torch had been passed
to the military and police of Brazil. It was now their task to
defend the hemisphere, and they would not falter.
In the police garages of Rio stood black, impregnable, rolling
fortresses, built at a cost of $100,000 each, designed to carry
troops with machine guns into the densest crowds. They were bulletproof
and so squat that they could not be tipped over. They could withstand
Molotov cocktails. They were air conditioned against the fumes
of their own tear gas.
If Brazil's students ever dared to throw another stone, the
police would not be sitting on the curb of downtown Rio crying.
The coup de grace in the campaign against the Office of Public
Safety was delivered by a motion picture. Costa Gavras, the Greek
film director, hired an Italian, Franco Solinas, as his script
writer, and together they set off for Latin America to make a
film about the death of Dan Mitrione. Solinas, a member of the
Italian Communist party, had written the script for Gillo Pontecorvo's
The Battle of Algiers.
When Costa-Gavras visited Montevideo in 1972, he sidestepped
questions from the local reporters about the kind of film he intended
to make. Privately, though, he was collecting documents. Through
Alain Labrousse, a French writer, Costa-Gavras obtained blurred
photocopies of the material from Benitez.
Solinas traveled to the Dominican Republic, where he tried
to meet secretly with the head of the country's Communist party.
Although that attempt failed, a party functionary briefed Solinas
on the police terror in the Dominican Republic and assured him
that Dan Mitrione had set up the apparatus in Santo Domingo after
the U. S. invasion of 1965.
From that time on, Mitrione acquired a reputation as his country's
foremost expert in torture. The New Scientist, a British publication,
described a device called the Mitrione vest. Designed for interrogations,
it slowly inflated until it crushed the ribs of its victims. The
vest itself was no more horrifying than other well-documented
methods of torture used in Brazil and Uruguay and later in Chile.
Yet, no prisoners, at least none who lived to testify at the Bertrand
Russell Tribunal in Rome or at hearings of Amnesty International,
had ever heard of such a vest, and Mitrione's friends never claimed
for him the ingenuity of an inventor.
Hank Mitrione and her children could only meet the accusations
with equal hyperbole about the Dan Mitrione they had known. "A
perfect man," his widow said. "A great humanitarian,"
said his daughter, Linda.
Mrs. Mitrione withdrew to a suburb of Washington to finish
the job of raising her children. She kept a large portrait of
her husband on the wall, and a photograph of Frank Sinatra on
the piano. She did not keep much in touch with her husband's former
colleagues. They had been very kind to her, but she found it hard
to respond to their notes and Christmas cards.
Costa-Gavras included in State of Siege every undocumented
rumor about Dan Mitrione from Santo Domingo or Belo Horizonte
because his aim was a composite indictment of U. S. policy throughout
Latin America. He and Solinas named their central character Philip
E. Santore, and Costa-Gavras cast Yves Montand in the role. Montand
was slim and continental; he smoked cigarettes. Mitrione had been
corpulent and Midwestern; he had puffed, sometimes, on big cigars.
In the film, the interrogation sequences omitted the Tupamaro's
incessant use of "you know" and Mitrione's sententious
repeating of his remarks. "You are subversives, Communists,"
Santore tells his captors in the movie. "You want to destroy
the foundations of society, the fundamental values of our Christian
civilization, the very existence of the free world. You are an
enemy who must be fought in every way possible."
With speeches of that sort, the film explained lucidly Santore's
motivation; and in public statements Costa-Gavras extended the
same analysis to Mitrione, who was, he said, "as sincere
as the judges of the Catholic Church during the Inquisition....
He is convinced that one must cut down everything that is liberal
or Communistic and by any means possible. He thinks that ordinary
liberalism can plunge society into chaos."
But very few police advisers, least of all Mitrione, shared
such certainties. Their mission in Latin America was not only
secret but vague. Dan Mitrione went there to stop the Communists.
As did Philip Agee. As did Lincoln Gordon. In the years after
Castro came to power in Cuba, no administration, Republican or
Democrat, felt that it could afford another Cuba in the Western
Hemisphere. And no one resisted the Communists more fervently
than the local military and police officers, especially those
who returned from Panama, Washington, or Fort Bragg persuaded
that they were the Free World's first line of defense.
Philip Agee, college-educated, of the middle class, a divorced
father of two, came to see the result of his official Iying and
cut free, a decision that took courage and perhaps a degree of
fanaticism. Had Dan Mitrione been the inquisitor that Costa-Gavras
painted him, his character might have equipped him for the same
sort of dramatic conversion. Instead, Mitrione was self-educated,
of the working class, a devoted father of nine, and dedicated
to his work. In the White House and the U. S. embassies, there
were brilliant men to set his nation's policy; in the CIA, there
were arrogant men to interpret it.
With the overthrow of Goulart on April 1, 1964, Mitrione's
job in Brazil had changed drastically. He had been working for
democracy; henceforth, he would be working for a dictatorship.
If no one in Washington or Brazil saw the difference, why should
In Uruguay, young men and women who considered themselves
idealists began to shoot policemen who were often Mitrione's good
friends. The U. S. government had developed harsh methods in South
Vietnam for combating that kind of subversion, and some of those
techniques and devices had found their way to Latin America. Mitrione
merely made use of them.