Hidden Terrors Part 5

excerpted from the book

Hidden Terrors

the truth about U.S. police operations in Latin America

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 were Tupamaros.

"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 Panarna.

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 in it.

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 apartments.

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 overseas.

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 his life.

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 Mitrione?

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.

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