Operation Condor: A transnational criminal conspiracy, uncovered

The recent guilty verdict for the criminal pact between Latin American dictatorships in the 70's reminds us that the struggle for memory, truth and justice upholds the pillars of democratic society.Español

Luz Palmás Zaldua
4 June 2016


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ARCHIVO – En esta foto de archivo del 24 de Marzo de 1976, el dictador argentino General Rafael Videla, en el centro, toma posesión como presidente en Buenos Aires. (AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia, Archivo)

On May 27, for the first time ever, a court in Latin America ruled that Operation Condor was a supranational criminal conspiracy organized to disappear political opponents across borders. The verdict was handed down by an Argentine court that convicted 14 high- and mid-ranking Argentine military officers who acted during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, and one Uruguayan military officer, for their involvement in this criminal plan.

This investigation into the Condor crimes began in Argentina in 1999 when two lawyers, David Baigún and Alberto Pedroncini, filed a legal complaint on behalf of five disappeared persons of different nationalities, all of them victims of the Southern Cone dictatorships' repressive coordination during the 1970s. The main argument was that these disappearances were carried out in the framework of a conspiracy between the highest-ranking military and political leaders, making criminal use of the state apparatus, in a context of dictatorial regimes in our region.

The judicial investigation lasted 14 years, during which time the case expanded. The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) joined the case in 2004 in representation of family members of some of those who had been disappeared. The public trial finally began in March 2013. At the time of the ruling, 105 cases of disappeared persons formed part of this judicial process: Uruguayans, Chileans, Paraguayans, Bolivians and several Argentines kidnapped in Brazil made it possible to draw up an unprecedented map of Operation Condor.

The puzzle

The ruling mobilized hundreds of witnesses, some of whom were survivors of concentration camps, relatives of the disappeared, researchers, journalists and public officials. Their stories referred to a common thread of struggle, persecution, exile and death. Many testified via videoconference from their countries of origin.

In addition to these testimonies, there were thousands of documents and archival materials that made it possible to explain the scope of the operation: a dozen reports by human rights organizations; more than 400 dossiers from the National Committee on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) in Argentina; various reports from international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; thousands of declassified documents from the US State Department, Paraguay's Archive of Terror, the National Security Archive, the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, the National Archive of Memory in Argentina and the Historical Research on the Detained-Disappeared conducted by the Presidency of Uruguay;  partial reports from the Rio de Janeiro State Truth Commission in Brazil; hundreds of documents from the armed forces; and journalistic, historical and judicial investigations.

One of the texts of huge evidentiary significance was the founding document of Operation Condor, discovered in 1992 in Paraguay and incorporated into this trial. Signed in Santiago, Chile, in November 1975 by representatives of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia, it outlined the terms of the criminal plan. Later, when the US State Department declassified documents related to that era in 2002, Brazil’s participation was verified.

The trial, then, provided the ideal scenario for contributing more knowledge about Operation Condor and it enabled witness’s voices to overlap with the documents.

A criminal structure

The founding document of Operation Condor structured the lawsuit that led to the trial. Bilateral and multilateral contacts for exchanging information were established at that first inter-American meeting of National Intelligence in 1975. The country representatives agreed to form a coordinating office to provide background on people or organizations connected with so-called “subversive” activity. Within this bureaucracy of terror, there was a recommendation that quick contact be made to alert intelligence agencies when an individual was to be expelled from a country or when a "suspect" was found to be traveling. They also agreed to allow the presence of intelligence personnel at the embassies of their countries.

The repressive coordination was planned in three phases. The first involved the creation of a centralized database of information about guerrilla movements, leftist political parties and groups, trade unionists, clergy and liberal politicians – in other words, everyone who the authoritarian governments identified as enemies.

The second phase consisted of taking action. Once the targets were identified, the attacks occurred.

The third and final phase, which was the most problematic, implied operations outside the region to find and eliminate dissidents who were in other countries in the Americas and Europe.

The ideological foundation for Operation Condor − a name used by the Uruguayan delegation to pay tribute to the host nation, Chile − was the National Security Doctrine.

The role of the United States

The United States government knew of the coordinated repression from early on, something that was also proven at the trial.

On September 28, 1976, special FBI agent Robert Scherrer sent a cable from his country’s embassy in Argentina to the US State Department. The document − analyzed in trial hearings − described in great detail the plan that maximized the efforts of dictatorships in their crusade against opponents and highlighted the "enthusiasm" of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. The cable also suggested that the murder of Orlando Letelier in the embassy district of Washington, DC, likely formed part of the third phase of Operation Condor.

There were other reports sent to the US government: CIA cables and recounted conversations between Henry Kissinger and the Argentine Foreign Affairs Minister, César Guzetti, and with the United States Ambassador to Paraguay, Robert White. These documents revealed the logistics and resources made available by the United States for the running of Operation Condor. For example, some members of the criminal plan used a US base in the Panama Canal that had a protected communications system, known as “Condortel,” and CIA computers.

When US President Barack Obama visited Argentina in March, he pledged to initiate a process to declassify Pentagon and CIA files dating back to Argentina’s era of state terrorism. In addition to shedding more light on the role of United States in Operation Condor, these documents may enable new investigations to be opened.

In terms of justice and reparation, Argentina’s justice process for the crimes against humanity committed during the last dictatorship is unique in the region. As of December 2015, 154 convictions were handed down and in-depth information came to light about the systematic plan to forcibly disappear people, kidnappings, the appropriation of children and concealment of their identities, operations by the security and armed forces, the complicity of civilians in the repression, and the individuals responsible for those crimes. The verdict in the Operation Condor trial and the new pathways that it opens up have an unprecedented regional impact in terms of accountability processes. News of the convictions was heard throughout the region and prompted changes. In Bolivia, for example, the Association of Family Members of Disappeared Detainees and Martyrs for the National Liberation of Bolivia (Asofamd) and the son of the former Bolivian president killed by Operation Condor, Juan José Torres, will make a formal request for the state to create a long-postponed Truth Commission.

The human rights movement in Argentina was born out of resistance to the extermination policy deployed by the military government. Relatives of the victims and survivors from different groups and organizations built a social movement that first fought against the dictatorial violence, and then for its investigation and sanctioning to keep it from repeating ever again. The recent guilty verdict for the criminal pact between the dictatorships of the National Security Doctrine reminds us that the struggle for memory, truth and justice is possible and necessary − and upholds the pillars of democratic society.

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