Former military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla and 16 other military leaders in Argentina will be prosecuted on charges of conspiring to kidnap and kill political activists in a scheme known as Plan Condor, developed by Henry Kissinger and George Bush Sr., head of the CIA at the time. Dictators in Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina killed opponents in the 1970s and 80s under the plan, also known as Operation Condor. The United States and Latin American military governments developed Operation Condor as a a transnational, state-sponsored terrorist coalition among the militaries of South America. In Argentina alone some 30,000 people were disappeared as result, leaving loved ones to seek justice decades later.
Coordinating Terror with U.S. support
Plan Condor began with the U.S. supported military coup against Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. Allende’s government was targeted as a threat to U.S. strategic policy in Latin America early on. White House tapes reveal that on Sept. 14, 1970, then-President Richard Nixon ordered measures to force the Chilean economy into bankruptcy. "The U.S. will not accept a Marxist government just because of the irresponsibility of the Chilean people," declared Henry Kissinger, Nixon´s secretary of State.
Declassified U.S. Department of State documents have provided evidence to Plan Condor’s broad scope. The Operation was an ambitious and successful plan to coordinate repression internationally. FBI special agent intelligence liason to the Southern Cone countries Robert Scherrer (now deceased) sent the letter to the U.S. embassy in Argentina on September 28, 1976: "’Operation Condor’ is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning so-called ‘leftists,’ communists and Marxists, which was recently established between cooperating intelligence services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorist activities in the area."
The memo also specified Argentina’s enthusiasm over the plan. "Members of ‘Operation Condor’ showing the most enthusiasm to date have been Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. The latter three countries have engaged in joint operations, primarily in Argentina, against the terrorist target." Operation Condor has been difficult to investigate, due to the selectivity of victims and lack of official declassified documents from the CIA and Department of State. Many of the documents that have been released have been heavily censored. However, following an extensive investigation by Argentine courts beginning in 1999 and the decade long work of human rights groups to collect forensic evidence, 17 military leaders will be put on trial for their participation in the illegal persecution of social activists.
Argentina’s dictatorship and Plan Condor
Former dictator Jorge Videla, now 82, is currently under house arrest, already found guilty for stealing babies born in captivity during the bloody junta. The former dictator may now face a jail cell for his participation in Operation Condor.
In 1977, Videla speaking to journalists recognized the phenomenon of forced disappearances but suggested they were disappeared because they were participating in armed, clandestine struggle. "In our country people have been disappeared, this is a sad reality. But objectively we should recognize why and through whom they were disappeared. These people went disappeared because they went clandestine."
At least 25 Bolivian citizens were disappeared in Argentina during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Another 5 Bolivians were disappeared in Chile during the regime of Dictator Augustin Pinochet.
Ruth Llanos, a representative from the Bolivian Association of Family Members of The Detained and Disappeared said regional dictatorships used Plan Condor to target dissidents with the support of former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. "Plan Condor was a joint plan developed through Henry Kissinger, a criminal who hasn’t been punished yet. The plan established with the military dictatorships in Latin America was a process of forced disappearances of all social activists who in the 70’s and 80’s were looking for social transformation in their respective countries."
Orletti Auto Garage, Prototype for Plan Condor
"My name is Emi Dambra, mother of two disappeared. A girl and a boy. The girl was disappeared here in Buenos Aires and taken to the Orletti Auto-Garage." In front of the clandestine detention center where her daughter was tortured while pregnant and later murdered, Emi Dambra participated in a homage to victims of Plan Condor. "Orletti was the prototype example of Plan Condor, here they held prisoners from Uruguay and other countries," said Dambra Inside the Orletti Auto-Garage, which also functioned as a clandestine detention center tucked in a residential neighborhood in Buenos Aires, hundreds perished, not only Argentines but also citizens from Uruguay, Cuba, Chile and Bolivia.
Some 132 Uruguayans were "disappeared" through the Condor years (127 in Argentina, three in Chile, and two in Paraguay). Orletti functioned as the clandestine detention center for international prisoners. The clandestine detention center was rented out to the military under the guise of an Auto-Garage, secretly tucked in between homes. Commando groups would bring prisoners to the Garage in the middle of the night. During the day, witnesses say the torturers inside would leave the front gate half-way open. In one instance a Uruguayan couple were able to escape Orletti, naked and brutally tortured, in the middle of the night.
According to Dambra, those responsible for leading the bloody military junta should be put behind bars and not like former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla under house arrest. "We want to know what happened to each one of the victims, we want the people who organized this slaughter to be put in regular jails, with life sentences."
Fight against forced disappearances
The practice of forced disappearances was systematized in the Southern Cone by military governments in the 1970’s with U.S. financial support and trainings. It is estimated that 90,000 people in Latin America have been disappeared since the 1950’s. And the practice continues today in places like Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Argentina.
Patrick Rice, an Irish Priest who was disappeared by a commando group in a Buenos Aires shanty town in 1976 said that internationally coordinated disappearances of people continues today. "The phenomenon is occurring more and more now in the context in what is called the global war on terrorism. The practice of forced disappearances continues with secret detention centers such as Guatanamo. With the return to the use of the hood, the hood for us is a symbol of forced disappearances. People detained on places of undisclosed location, the practice of extraordinary renditions. All of this points to a new form of Operation Condor."
Operation Condor set precedents for internationally coordinated torture crimes that have transcended from the alleged "war on communism," "the war on drugs," to "the war on terror." Today, prisoners in undisclosed locations in Iraq face torture techniques similar to those used during Argentina’s 1976-1983, a carry over for U.S. policy implemented during the Plan Condor years.
Long time human rights activists like Ruth Llanos who lost her husband in the scheme known as Plan Condor say that it is more important than ever to push for the ratification of the U.N. treaty against forced disappearances. Even in countries like Argentina which ratified the treaty in November, 2007 disappearances continue with cases like missing witness Julio Lopez. Lopez, a retired construction worker and former political prisoner disappeared just hours before he was slated to give his final testimony on the eve of the conviction of the former police investigator, Miguel Etchecolatz. With Julio Lopez disappeared for more than a year, it is almost certain that he is dead. His capturers are using his body as a negotiating tool to protect military personnel from any further criminal charges or trials.
Videla and other military leaders will face trial early next year. Human rights groups continue to push for nations to sign the UN sanctioned treaty against forced disappearances, which the U.S. has refused to ratify.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer, and filmmaker based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at [email protected] For videos on the ongoing human rights trials in Argentina visit www.agoratv.org