Operation Condor: The CIA, Fascism, and Murder in Latin America
The US has spent the past 100 Years (and longer) installing murderous dictatorships throughout Latin America. Operation Condor was thus the logical outgrowth of American Foreign Policy dating back to the Monroe Doctrine. Operation Condor was a CIA backed plan to kidnap and torture and kill exiles who had escaped the (CIA installed) fascist military dictatorships in their South American home countries. It was also a secret multinational network operating throughout South America involved in coups, drug dealing, False Flag Terror, and above all massive state terror against their own people.
CAPTION – A man was carried away by the police in Montevideo, Uruguay, during a protest (NYT on Operation Condor)
You will begin to see a terrifying pattern as in the name of freedom and democracy all over the world the US actually installed dictators and trained death squads to make war on the planet. From Africa to Asia to Latin America the Same pattern takes place often with the same network of US officials famous names like Henry Kissinger, as well as lesser known figures like Vernon Walters and Duane Clarridge, all three were involved in running both Gladio and Condor as Mcsherry points out. It was the same story all over the world because the American Empire used the same methods all over the world. Operation Condor was both the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” in Miniature.
Condor Operatives falsely claimed to be battling “terrorists” as a means to justify their atrocities and manipulated the media to create panic over phony stories concocted as part of their PsyWar. Also with it’s creation of parallel state of death Squads who’s actions were both visible and deniable and which conducted a terror campaign against the populace
Latin America was in desperate need of revolution or at least reform. The majority lived in poverty while a tiny and brutal oligarchy owned everything. All over Latin America people were trying to organize change. The Cuban revolution of 1959 had provided an example of heroic defiance. Even elements of the catholic church were beginning to demand social change and liberation theology was spreading across the continent. Workers and peasants were demanding change. Communists and Socialists were working for a better future. This is what had the Pentagon and the CIA concerned. They were determined that there would be “no more Cubas”. In order to prevent any form of social change a whole generation of revolutionaries, reformers, even moderates who wanted to merely to maintain democracy would be wiped out. Latin America was set back 40 years and aside from the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 the world would have to wait until 1999 and the Election of Chavez before Latin America could finally become the beacon of hope it would have been long ago if not for the US and it’s murderous operation Condor. As McSherry explains The main targets would be elected leaders, priests, nuns, supporters of governments they had overthrown, as well as Union members, students, peasants, and other activists. They then moved to “obliterate all traces of leftist thought in their societies.” It was terror on a mass scale meant to terrorize whole societies into submission.
McSherry points out that the roots of Condor began well before the official program began in the 70’s. It had it’s roots in the long practice of installing dictators like Somoza in Nicaragua and training ruthless armies like the Nicaraguan National Guard to keep them in power all in service of corporate capitalism of course. The forces that would grow into Condor were further strengthened during the Cold War with the creation of the CIA and with programs to train and indoctrinate the military and police of the country in their new counter-insurgency role. The French played a large role in formulating counter-insurgency theory during their Dirty wars to maintain control of Indochina and Algeria. They would be involved in training both the American Military and their Latin American Counterparts. Former Nazis would also train the Americans and Latin Americans. However the US would play the primary role. Guatemala was their early laboratory for Counter-Terror after Overthrowing Arbenz they began training death squads there and it was there where the disappearances began. To disappear meant to be kidnapped tortured then killed with the body buried in secret or left out to send a message. Tens of thousands of people in Latin America would be disappeared in coming decades. Colombia would also become an important area to test out theories of counter-insurgency and death squads. Sadly both Colombia and Guatemala both still live under death squad terror today. Colombia is still being used as a model for covert war (Plan Colombia) resulting in a a terrifying “Drug War” in Mexico that is seldom mentioned despite more then 50,000 people being killed in recent years.
However it was the 1964 Coup in Brazil that really set the Condor network in motion. Goulart the reformist president was ousted, a military dictatorship was installed and the secret police went on a rampage of torture and murder forming death squads and coordinating police, military, intelligence in a war on the people of Brazil. Goulart may have later been killed using Sarin to induce a heart attack McSherry points out. I was definitely reminded of the death of Hugo Chavez and the many left wing Latin American leaders who have come down with cancer in recent years. Sometimes condor attempted to stage accidents to eliminate their victims and it’s most secret aspect were it’s “Phase III” operations it’s international assassination campaign which targeted prominent political and military figures who were in exile most infamously killing former chilean diplomat and Pinochet critic Orlando Letelier in Washington DC with a car bomb. (Fun film trivia fact this incident was fictionalized in Scarface where Tony Montana’s refusal to go along leads to his downfall) Unfortunately I’m skipping ahead again so to return following the coup in Brazil the system of state terror there which developed with the advice of the CIA, AID, and the pentagon was to influence the military and the police of the whole region. The CIA would send Brazilian death squads and their state terror apparatus to train the military, police, and intelligence of the other countries. Thanks to the CIA, the Defense department, and the school of the Americas, and the Conference of American Armies, there was already an integrated approach to the Police, military and intelligence forces of the whole region. The Police were intentionally militarized their role changed from fighting crime to hunting down subversives and they along with the police of much of the world were trained by the americans in brutal methods including torture at their International Police Academy. A multinational network of military and intelligence were formed they heads met regularly in Panama at the school of the America’s. Brazil would play a role in the coups in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The terrible results of this influence were best exemplified in Uruguay which would undergo a slow motion coup. From being known as the Switzerland of Latin America Uruguay became the torture capital. The Uruguayan security forces were trained in torture by Dan Mitrione who had earlier trained the Brazilian forces in torture. Mitrione a small town policeman recruited by the CIA was an expert in torture his motto, the precise amount of pain, in the precise place, for a precise amount of time and he viewed himself as a “technician” not a sadist. He would later meet a well deserved fate at the hands of Uruguay’s Tupamaro Guerrillas who kidnapped and later executed him. (Costa Gravas made a movie about it “State of Siege”) Back in America Mitrione was portrayed as a Hero murdered by senseless terrorists.
It was after the coup in Chile on September 11, 1973 which overthrew the socialist Allende and Installed the Neo-Liberal Fascist Pinochet regime that Condor would truly begin. A Proto Condor would begin immediately after the coup. Exiles who had fled from brutal regimes were kidnapped tortured and sent back to their home countries for more torture and usually death. With American permission and on their advice they even kidnapped and killed two US citizens radical journalists. Charles Horman and Frank Terrucci who had discovered too much about the CIA role in the coup. Condor was closely connected to surveillance of Americans as McSherry points out. At Fort Holabird in Maryland where Latin American military and intelligence were trained the army also kept files on 10 million American Subversives. Horman and Terrucci had long been under surveillance for Anti-War, Left wing activities and their is strong evidence the US gave their files to Chile’s CIA created DINA spy agency and gave the green light for their deaths. (Costa-Gavras made a movie about it called “Missing”) Chile became the new center for spreading state terror through Latin America. In 1974 a meeting was held to further increase cooperation in hunting down and killing exiles. Throughout 1974 the number of kidnappings and murders conducted by Condor Steadily increased. At an Abandoned garage called Orletti Motors what we would call today a black site had been set up. It was a veritable torture factory staffed by a multinational force of torturers. Many were veterans of the Argentine fascist death Squad triple A. It was a hell on earth an McSherry gives many horrifying tales of the rape and torture that went on there. Children were tortured in front of their parents. People were starved for weeks. Some went insane from their torture. Most would then be sent back home for further torture and execution although Uruguay preferred to let it’s victims live.
Finally it was in Nov 28, 1975 that Operation Condor was officially established it was named in honor of the Chilean Hosts of the meeting the Condor is their national bird. Colonel Contreras head of Chile’s DINA (and on CIA payroll since 73) Was known as Condor one and Signed the Secret Charter on behalf of Chile. Colonel Benito Guanes Serrano signed for Paraguay. Captain Joses Casas of Argentina, Major Carlos Mena of Bolivia and Colonel Jose a Fons of Uruguay all signed. Ecuador and Peru would later join as well. They agreed they needed a secret communications network and a computer database which the US military provided as a front for the CIA. Thus they could all share their massive lists of subversives. Within each country Condor formed a parallel state a secret network of operatives. In Argentina for example Within each military regiment for example their would be a couple of members who answered only to the high level Condor Operatives that headed the military or intelligence. GT (Grupo De Tarea) “task forces” (death squads) were assigned to hunt down subversives.
McSherry explains that Condor had three levels of activity. First Mutual cooperation among military intelligence agencies to coordinate surveillance and share intel. Exiles were constantly tracked and spied upon. Second covert action to detain and disappear exiles then transfer them to their home countries for torture and likely death. The third level was the top secret “phase III” their international assassination program in which teams of assassins traveled worldwide eliminating their opponents mainly politicians they feared could mobilize opposition to them. Many phase III operations were GLADIO style operations meant to blame the left for their crimes. For example One victim General Joaquin Zenteno who was also deeply involved in waging the dirty war but who was considered a threat by Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer was killed by the fictitious “Che Guevarra International Brigade.” Phase III was also closely connected to the CIA’s and secret army of cuban exiles and the fascist Gladio network both of whom were subcontracted to carry out phase III assassinations. Famous Phase III victims included Zelmar Michelini and Hector Guiterez Ruiz two politicians from Uruguay. Chilean General Carlos Pratts and his wife Sofia Cuthbert killed in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1974. the attempted assassination Chilean politician Bernardo Leighton and His wife Ana Fresno in Rome (1975) which was subcontracted to Italian fascists linked to GLADIO. Orlando Letelier former former minister of Chile under Allende, and a fierce critic of the Pinochet regime was killed in Washington DC in 1976 along with Ronni Moffit a US citizen in a car bombing carried by DINA (chilean intelligence) and cuban exiles with the probable involvement of then CIA Director George H.W. Bush. Finally Bolivia’s former president Jose Torres killed in Buenos Aires in 1976. They may have killed even more famous victims as they had the ability to induce heart attacks (using Sarin) and stage accidents. As I pointed out earlier this aspect of condor seems to have lived on doubtless now under direct CIA control with a wave of cancer striking Latin America’s progressive new leaders which has already killed that revolutionary giant Hugo Chavez. Just my own and many others speculation of course but it should be remembered that the CIA had it’s own evil scientific genius head of “technical services” Sidney Gotlieb more well known for his role in MK-Ultra but who also made a deep study of toxins poisons and diseases as tools of assassination both Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba nearly became victims. Thus way back in the 50’s and 60’s the CIA could already cause heart attacks and cancer and far more exotic diseases no one knows what they are capable of today.
McSherry Describes what she sees as the six defining characteristics of Operation Condor. First it specialized in cross border and foreign operations against exiles. It was thus only a part of the much broader repression carried out by the militaries of their own countries. Operations were conducted by specialized units within the intelligence agencies of the region. In Chile for example DINA’s Foreign department. In Argentina the extraterritorial task force of Battalion 601. Condor operatives were posted as military attaches in neighboring countries. Condor allowed exiles to be targeted with impunity. To give one example there is the tale of a talented Brazilian Pianist Francisco Tenorio Junior known as “Tenorinho”. He was picked up on a random search in downtown Buenos Aires because his beard made him a suspected guerrilla. When they found out he was a musician he became even more suspect in their eyes. Worse still they considered his Conductor Vincius de Moraes to be a communist. He was beaten, then tortured with electric shocks on what his torturers jokingly called the barbecue. Then he was waterboarded already a CIA favorite. Meanwhile his friends were desperately searching for him and trying to get him released. Unfortunately for him he learned that the highest levels of his government were involved when they came by to question him and he was shot for knowing to much. He was only one of thousands of victims. I selected his story merely to show the tragic absurdity and horror of Operation Condor.
The Second defining feature of Operation Condor was it’s multinational character. It united militaries that had formerly seen themselves as adversaries with long histories of suspicion and conflict. On the operational level Condor Units were made up of men from two or more countries organized on the model of US special forces specializing in unconventional warfare, psychological operations and “counter terror” i.e. terrorism. Captives were interrogated by a multinational force of torturers. Thus a prisoner would often be interrogated on their activities in every country they had ever visited by paranoid fascists who saw dangerous subversion in the most harmless activities. As mentioned earlier condor attacks were often carried out as false flags and falsely blamed on the left. Condor units reported to top army and intelligence commanders outside of ordinary military command channels.
The third characteristic according to McSherry is the the “precise and selective targeting of dissidents.” It differed from the broader more arbitrary disappearances conducted by these US installed national security states. Condor was meant to decapitate the leadership both of Revolutionary, popular and leftist organizations but also any leaders who opposed military dictatorship. Thus it was very similar to operation phoenix meant to be the surgical arm of the counter insurgency. It targeted not just revolutionary forces (who are entitled under international law to due process, and freedom from torture and arbitrary execution) As McSherry explains “It Also targeted union leaders, social democrats, Christian democrats, nationalists, dissident generals, former presidents and congressional representatives, and others who were opposed to military dictatorship and repression in their countries.”
The Fourth Characteristic was it’s “parastatal structure.” I’ll let her explain “I define Parastatal structures as the forces and infrastructure of “Black World” special operations. This Hidden part what I term the parallel state includes parapolice and paramilitary forces harbored and directed by the state, with access to a vast shadow infrastructure including secret prisons, fleets of unmarked cars and unregistered aircraft, unofficial cemeteries, secure communication systems, and other parallel structures funded by “black budgets.” In Latin America the parallel state augmented the lethal capabilities of the military dictatorships while allowing them the appearance of legality and a certain legitimacy” In other words the parallel state allowed them to get away with murder and a host of other crimes. Thanks to the parallel state the crimes of the military dictatorship were both visible and deniable. Once kidnapped by the parallel state a victim was held in complete secrecy, tortured, killed their body burned or thrown out to sea. The victims family had no way of knowing what had happened and most still don’t know the exact details all these decades later.
The fifth characteristic of Operation Condor was it’s “Advanced Technology” and access to huge resources. Condor employed a computer database of thousands of individuals suspected of subversion. The CIA helped them set one up it was similar to the ones the CIA set up during the phoenix program in Vietnam or for the Fascist colonels in Greece after their coup. Condor also used a top secret advanced communications system part of the US militaries communication system doubtless supplied on CIA advice. It was called Condortel. They used it to track their victims and order their death squads into action. Thus throughout all Condors murderous operations which the US officially generally tried to deny or downplay the US government knew everything they were doing since they were obviously able to listen in on their own system.
The sixth Characteristic of Condor was it’s “use of criminal syndicates and extremist organizations and networks to carry out operations, especially Phase III assassinations. while Condor was an alliance among military states, it employed civilians and paramilitaries, another aspect of it’s parallel nature.” Highly sensitive phase III Style assassins were usually carried out by people not in the military but by “special agents.” Of course I’ve already discussed their use of cuban exiles and Italian fascists to carry out high profile assassinations. McSherry introduces the shadowy figure of Michael Townley an American who worked for DINA and probably the CIA although they deny it because of his role in the infamous Orlando Letelier assassination. In addition to his jobs for DINA and the CIA Townley was also connected to Latin American fascist groups. Townley worked within the Chilean fascist paramilitary organization Patria y Libertad during the Allende years(DINA was only founded after the coup). He also worked closely with Argentinian death squads Milicia, Libertadores de America and Triple A. Triple A was the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance composed of police right wing military and gangsters and it appears again and again throughout McSherry’s book committing the most horrifying tortures and murder. For example at the infamous Black site Orletti Motors many of the torturers were recruited from Triple A. Between 1973-76 Triple A conducted a GLADIO style campaign of terror and psychological operations to help facilitate the 76 coup. After the coup Triple A was integrated into the state terror apparatus and spun off into new death squads. Townley is worthy of an article or a book in his own right he along with James Blystone were two probable CIA advisers to condor. In addition to working with fascists Condor also worked with Gangsters and drug dealers. No doubt you could also write a whole book on the role of Condor in drug trafficking. McSherry concentrates instead on it’s role as a torture and assassination program but as with GLADIO and phoenix these parallel structures were also perfect for smuggling drugs. Thus Condor operatives along with notorious Nazi exile Klaus Barbie would carry out the infamous 1980 “Cocaine Coup” in Bolivia which McSherry discusses.
One fascinating chapter of the book called “condor commanders and operatives” gives fascinating details of the careers of some of the top Condor members. Claudia Vallejos for example was trained by both the Nazi exiles in Argentina, the Brazilians and the US special forces. Infamous sadist Osvaldo Romo Mena worked closely with the nazis in Colonia Dignidad (another infamous black site where many were tortured and killed) . Another Juan Battista was trained by the Navy Seals served in Vietnam and was Condors man in New York city spying on the exiles there before being transferred to central America to train death squads he was a close associate of Oliver North. America was the secret extra member as this story, the Orlando Letelier assassination and CIA deputy director Vernon Walters mysterious trip to Asuncion(you’ll have to read the book) make clear. I don’t have time to go into it here but clearly Condor was also related to infamous programs like Cointelpro and the CIA’s operation Chaos, as well as military intelligence programs that surveilled american subversives. At least three americans were killed by condor.
Condors final expansion was into Central America. As I pointed out in many ways it was a return home since south america’s dirty wars owed much to the template of Guatemala. Central America even had it’s own proto-condor dating back to 1963 called Condeca. However with the 1979 Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua Condor was brought into central America. In 1976 With the Letelier assassination Chile was under the spotlight and so the center of Condor moved to Argentina which had just had a recent coup. Argentina waged the most brutal dirty war on it’s people in South America 30,000 people were disappeared in a few years. Argentina became a CIA proxy used to train the already brutal central American death squads to be more efficient. After Somaza’s fall they also began training the nicaraguan contras and they had already been training Somoza’s brutal forces. Rene Aubisson infamous God Father of Death Squads asked for Argentinian help training his death squads at an infamous 1980 meeting of the World Anti-Communist league. At first they trained the death squads in Argentina but later switched to sending advisers out to central America. After the falklands war Argentina cut their level of assistance in revenge for the US siding with Britain and the CIA was forced to take a more direct hand leading eventually to the Iran Contra scandal. The brutal wars waged with the help of condor would be incredibly bloody. In Honduras 2,000 would die, In Guatemala 150,000 were disappeared, in El Salvador 100,000 while in Nicaragua despite their valiant resistance to the invading death squads or “Contras” 50,000 would be killed. During this Period the governments of the region formed their own Central American Condor called CREM which united the governments and the contras in the same centralized cooperation adopted in the southern cone.
During the “Cold War” aka World War 3 as the Condor network referred to it America claimed to be fighting to spread freedom an democracy. However when it was a choice between democracy that might lead to reform and a loss of corporate profits for the multinational corprations or Dictatorships that would ruthlessly maintain inequality they choose the latter. Thus just like today they were lying outrageously claiming to be fighting “tyranny” while in reality they imposed it everywhere. In Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, even in parts of Europe they imposed brutal military dictatorships that waged an ugly war on their people. Condor was merely one example one network of dangerous fascists, one program of mass murder of torture among many. The best members of a whole generation were systematically wiped out either for daring to dream of a better world or for daring to oppose the nightmare that the Military dictatorships sought to impose. Unfortunately Condor like GLADIO and Phoenix became the blueprint for the future. As McSherry points out every element of Condor was openly adopted as part of the war on terror. Kidnappings now called extraordinary rendition. Torture at black sites. and Hunter killer teams of assassins currently US special forces and CIA drones. Plus a massive system of tracking and surveillance that with advances in technology now spies on every single person on the planet. Somewhere lists are still being stored of subversives. America’s war on the planet continues. This is why it is important to study Operation Condor, the Phoenix Program, GLADIO, and the many other ugly programs in the history of counterinsurgency. All these programs are still being replicated today and as McSherry reveals they were also closely connected although taking place across the world from each other. They reveal the truth behind the propaganda the ugly face of the American Empire of Chaos which rules through terror torture and murder while portraying itself as benevolent.
But there is another much happier lesson to be learned from Operation Condor. Despite their attempt to murder all progressive thought to terrify the people in submission people continued to resist. Operation Condor failed. Today Latin America is a beacon of hope for the world because it is there that people are determined to create a better world and they have already made great strides despite CIA subversion and the resistance of local elites who still control the media. Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador Nicaragua and the still defiant Cuba represent a hope for the world. They are determined to raise their people out of poverty to finally address the inequalities, to improve health care and education. to use their resources to benefit their people and not just multinational corporations. Never again must the US gain control of the continent never again should it be allowed to impose it’s operation condor there to terrorize a continent. So remember Operation Condor next time some state department liar is criticizing Venezuela on Human Rights. What insane hypocrisy to criticize them for locking up fascist murderers and coup plotters when the whole continent remembers the bloody reign of terror the US so recently conducted there. Long live a Latin America free of America’s brutal rule.
I relied mostly on J. Patrice McSherry’s “Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America” which I highly recommend you read for yourself. I also recommend a Great Documentary about the CIA called “On Company Business” It does a great job of explaining the various coups in Latin America and includes extensive interviews with CIA whistleblowers John Stockwell and Phillip Agee. The section on Mitrione is excellent. The Same director also did a great documentary on GLADIO on 1992 for the BBC just search for BBC and Gladio on youtube. For more on the dirty wars in Central America and the Iran Contra Scandal check out my April 2014 Article “Israel Supported El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.” UNITA in Africa were very similar to the Contras I discuss them in my February 2015 “CIA in Africa” I couldn’t resist mentioning these articles as McSherry’s work is connected to so many other topics I have studied and written about but with her own razor sharp brand of analysis. She also Wrote a book called “Military Power and Democracy in Argentina” that I look forward to reading. For more on the Condor and Drugs read “Cocaine Politics” By Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall.