Operation Condor was a covert, multinational “black operations” program organized by six Latin American states (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, later joined by Ecuador and Peru), with logistical, financial, and intelligence support from Washington.
In the Cold War climate of the 1960s and ’70s, when U.S. leaders and Latin American militaries regarded popular movements and political dissidents as “internal enemies,” any methods were considered legitimate in the “war against subversion.” In fact, many of these new social movements were indigenous nationalist, leftist, socialist, or radically democratic forces fighting to represent the voiceless and the marginalized.
As leftist and nationalist leaders won elections throughout Latin America in the 1960s and early 1970s, and new revolutionary and progressive movements gained strength, U.S. security strategists feared a communist-inspired threat to U.S. economic and political interests in the hemisphere. Local elites similarly feared that their traditional political dominance and wealth were at risk. Washington poured enormous resources into the inter-American security system, of which Condor was a top-secret part, to mobilize and unify the militaries in order to prevent leftist leaders from taking power and to control and destroy leftist and popular movements in Latin America. Anticommunism and “preventing another Cuba” were the national security priorities of the U.S. in Latin America.
The reigning national security doctrine incorporated counterinsurgency strategies and concepts such as “hunter-killer” programs and secret, “unconventional” techniques such as subversion, sabotage, and terrorism to defeat foes. Much of counterinsurgency doctrine is classified, but scholars have documented many of its key components. Michael McClintock, for example, analyzed a classified U.S. Army Special Forces manual of December 1960 Counter-Insurgency Operations, one of the earliest to mention explicitly, in its section "Terror Operations," the use of counterinsurgent terror as a legitimate tactic. He cites other secret U.S. army special operations handbooks from the 1960s that endorsed "counterterror," including assassination and abduction, in certain situations. One March 1961 article in Military Review stated, "Political warfare, in short, is warfare. . .[that] embraces diverse forms of coercion and violence including strikes and riots, economic sanctions, subsidies for guerrilla or proxy warfare and, when necessary, kidnapping or assassination of enemy elites.” In short, “disappearance” was a key element of counterinsurgency doctrine.
Operation Condor was a multinational system to specifically target exiles who had escaped the wave of military coups and dictatorships in their own countries. Thousands of Argentines, Uruguayans, and Brazilians fled to Chile in the early 1970s when the progressive Unidad Popular government was in power. After the September 1973 CIA-backed coup against President Salvador Allende, thousands escaped to Argentina. Operation Condor focused on these people — many of whom were under United Nations protection — using covert, cross-border abduction-disappearance, “rendition” to other countries, torture, and extrajudicial execution.
Condor’s targets were activists, organizers, and opponents of the dictatorships, as well as guerrillas or armed insurgents (all of whom were entitled to due process and freedom from torture). Exiles were considered dangerous enemies by the regimes because of their powerful influence in the developing global human rights movement. The Chilean exiles, for instance — some 200,000 Chileans were forced out of the country in the first years after the coup — were pioneers in organizing solidarity and anti-dictatorship groups worldwide, providing information to the U.N. and human rights groups, and transmitting through their music and art the hopes and promise of the Unidad Popular.
Under a top-secret agreement known as “Phase III” Condor also assassinated, or attempted to assassinate, key political opposition leaders exiled in Latin America, Europe, and the United States. Special teams of assassins from member countries were formed to travel worldwide to eliminate “subversive enemies”— political leaders who could organize and lead pro-democracy movements against the military regimes. One Condor assassination targeted former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, a prominent critic of the Pinochet regime. He and his U.S. colleague Ronni Moffitt were murdered in a 1976 car bombing in Washington, D.C. Other targets included constitutionalist Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofía Cuthbert, assassinated in Buenos Aires (1974), and two Uruguayan legislators and opponents of the Uruguayan military regime, Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, disappeared, tortured, and killed in Buenos Aires (1976). Washington and its Latin American allies feared elected leftist leaders as much, if not more, than revolutionary guerrillas in the region, as the plots against Presidents Goulart of Brazil and Allende, among others, demonstrated.
In 1973 or early 1974, before the Condor apparatus acquired its code name and formal structure, the counterinsurgents created the prototype of Condor. A February 1974 meeting took place in Buenos Aires to plan deeper collaboration of the police of six South American states. Between 1973 and 1975 cross-border disappearances and forcible, extralegal transfers of exiles (“renditions”) by multinational Condor squadrons intensified under an unwritten agreement enabling the associated militaries to pursue individuals who had fled to neighboring countries. This was the essence of Condor, as yet unnamed.
Chilean colonel Manuel Contreras, head of the fearsome Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), was a key Condor organizer. He called for a founding meeting in Santiago to institutionalize the Condor prototype in 1975. In 2000, the CIA acknowledged that Contreras had been paid by the CIA between 1974 and 1977, a period when the Condor network was planning and carrying out assassinations in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.
In 1974 a Uruguayan abduction-disappearance squadron took up residence in Buenos Aires and worked with its Argentine and Chilean counterparts to “disappear,” torture, interrogate, and illegally transfer exiles. Selected Uruguayan navy units began to coordinate secret repressive actions with personnel from the notorious Argentine Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) in 1974, and an ESMA delegation traveled to Uruguay that year to train officers in torture techniques in counterinsurgency courses. In an emblematic case, Uruguayan exile Antonio Viana was kidnapped from his home in Buenos Aires by a joint Argentine-Uruguayan squad, taken to the federal police headquarters, and tortured by Uruguayan officers he recognized. Viana soon realized that the squad included officers from the Argentine Federal Police and the Uruguayan Organismo Coordinador de Operaciones Antisubversivas (OCOA) and Dirección Nacional de Información e Inteligencia (DNII). In the Argentine federal police headquarters, La Superintendencia de Seguridad Federal, Viana was tortured both physically and psychologically. Viana testified that his torturers and interrogators included Argentine police officers Miguel Angel Iñiguiz and Alberto Villar and Uruguayans Carlos Calcagno, José Gavazzo, Hugo Campos Hermida, Jorge Silveira, and Víctor Castiglioni, names that are infamous in Uruguay. Viana's case is one of many confirming that Condor was operative long before its official founding meeting in November 1975, thus highlighting the importance of the February 1974 meeting in Buenos Aires. Viana was transported back to Uruguay where he remained “disappeared” for years (he survived).
Documents discovered in Argentina show that the Chilean DINA and Argentine intelligence agencies were working together in 1974 to abduct members of the Chilean Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR) and the so-called OPR-33 of Uruguay in Argentina. Condor officers in Argentina used an abandoned auto repair shop, Orletti Motors — code-named OT [Operaciones Tácticas] 18 — as a secret torture and detention center for foreign detainees. Survivors reported seeing Bolivians, Chileans, Uruguayans, as well as two young security guards from the Cuban embassy in Argentina, imprisoned and tortured there. Most were killed.
Recent testimonies, such as that of Brazilian coronel Paulo Malhaes, who appeared before Brazil’s Comisión de la Verdad, provided confirmation of joint covert operations by Brazil’s Centro de Informaciones del Ejército and Argentine Batallón 601 de Inteligencia de Campo de Mayo against Argentines who were in Rio. Malhaes confessed to following and “disappearing” many Argentines, some who were protected by the U.N. and others who were members of the Montoneros. Malhaes died of a heart attack in 2014 after three men broke into his house and held him hostage for ten hours, ransacking the place and taking files and weapons.
Condor, “officially” institutionalized in November 1975, filled a crucial function in the inter-American counterinsurgency regime. While the militaries carried out massive repression within their own countries, the transnational Condor system silenced individuals and groups that had escaped the dictatorships to prevent them from organizing politically or influencing public opinion. The anticommunist mission, of which Condor was a part, ultimately crushed democratic as well as radical movements and individuals. Condor was not solely a Latin American (or Chilean) initiative; nor was it a simple instrument of Washington. Condor was secret component of the continental counterinsurgency regime. The militaries’ use of “disappearance” was central for carrying out covert counterinsurgency wars, provoking terror, and at the same time providing plausible deniability — the ability to camouflage links to the state and create impunity.
Justice is still pending for many crimes committed under the Condor system.
J. Patrice McSherry is author of Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (2005) and many other works on Operation Condor.