History Handbook


eptember 21, 2006 marked the 30th anniversary of the first car bomb ever
to explode on U.S. soil. It exploded in the streets of Washington, DC killing
the former Chilean ambassador to the United Nations, Orlando Letelier,
and his U.S. assistant Ronnie Moffitt. The Letelier-Moffitt assassination
was one of several international assassinations carried out during the
1970s under Operation Condor. 

Operation Condor was a transnational and clandestine, state-sponsored terrorist
coalition among the militaries of the Southern Cone of Latin America (Argentina,
Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay). From the early 1970s through
the early 1980s, “subversives”—priests, nuns, politicians, students, and
teachers—basically anyone considered a political dissident or a challenge
to the military regimes—became possible targets for surveillance, torture,
and death (regardless of where in the world those people resided). As Argentine
general Jorge Rafael Videla explained in 1976, “A terrorist is not just
someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are
contrary to Western or Christian civilization.” 

On October 1975 the head of DINA (Directorate of National Intelligence
in Chile), Colonel Manuel Contreras, invited several of his counterparts
to a secret meeting titled “Primera Reunión InterAmericaca de Inteligencia
Nacional” in order to “provide a basis for excellent coordination and improved
action to benefit the national security of our respective nations.” 

The meeting took place the following month and ended with an agreement
on November 28 “called CONDOR by the unanimous approval of a motion presented
by the Uruguayan delegation in honor of the host country [Chile],” as the
minutes of that secret meeting explained. 

Operation Condor was to have three phases: the first involved further cooperation
among the militaries and intelligence agencies through the sharing of intelligence
and the surveillance of specific targeted persons. This first phase also
required the creation of a large data bank along with a complex telecommunications
system (later known as CONDORTEL) that connected all the Condor states
together. The closing statements of that first “Inter- American Meeting
of National Intelligence” recommended: “(1) From this day forward, initiate
bilateral or multilateral contacts upon the will of the countries participating
here, for the exchange of subversive information, opening their own, or
new, information files in their respective services; (2) We recommend the
creation of a coordinating office, with the purpose of providing information
on people and organizations linked to subversion; (5c) We recommend swift
and immediate contact when suspicious individuals are either expelled from
the country or travel outside the country, so as to alert the intelligence

The second phase promised cross-border operations to kidnap, interrogate
(torture), and “disappear” dissidents. The third phase created an international
assassination squad that, in practice, seemed to have focused on political/civilian
threats (not “terrorist” or “guerrilla”) and that would travel anywhere
in the world to eliminate its targets. A 1976 FBI intelligence report explained,
“A third and most secret phase of ‘Operation Condor’ involves the formation
of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the
world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination
against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from ‘Operation
Condor’ member countries.” 


efore Operation Condor came into effect in 1975, every would-be member
state was under military rule with the exception of Argentina where the
coup came a couple of years later. Operation Condor arguably became the
most repressive, far-reaching, and secretive system of the parallel or
“shadow” state structures. The military elites of the juntas engineered
the Condor system to secure and extend the dictatorships’ control and repression
over their societies. As Latin American specialist Patrice McSherry explains,
“This parallel apparatus was created to carry out covert or secret policies
to avoid legal constraints, and to circumvent any form of accountability.”
Furthermore, “the Condor death squads were created as an integral part
of the broader counterinsurgency or ‘counterterror’ campaign condoned by
elite groups as well as their key foreign ally, the United States.” 

Since the early 1960s the U.S. Military and CIA have conducted and trained
their Latin American counterparts in the use of torture, electric shocks,
sensory deprivation, “self-inflicted” pain techniques, the use of “drugs
and hypnosis to induce psychological regression,” as well as other means
of interrogation and assassination. In addition to assisting in the overthrow
of democratic governments (Brazil, 1964; Chile, 1973), the CIA helped in
the establishment of repressive intelligence agencies across the region
that became the coordinating centers in the Condor system. In Paraguay
the Technical Department for the Repression of Communism (la Técnica) was
originally organized with U.S. support. Similarly, Brazil’s National Information
Service (SNI)—established after the 1964 coup—enjoyed substantial CIA support
and influence. Finally, Chile’s infamous Directorate of National Intelligence
(DINA) was created with the careful guidance of eight CIA officers. As
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger assured Argentine Foreign Minister
Cesar Guzzetti in October 1976: “Look, our basic attitude is that we would
like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to
be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have
a civil war. We read about human rights problems, but not the context.
The quicker you succeed the better.” 

By that time Kissinger’s “friends” had already killed and disappeared thousands
of Argentines. In addition, a number of Uruguayans and Chileans had also
been disappeared in Argentina (by Condor agents), including some who were
registered refugees with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Similarly,
Uruguayan Senator Zelmar Michelini and Uruguayan Congressperson Hector
Gutierrez Ruiz had also been assassinated in Argentina four months before
Kissinger’s meeting with Guzzetti. Nonetheless, when meeting Guzzetti,
Kissinger had maintained his earlier (March 1976) position when the Argentines
understood Kissinger’s “encouragement” as having “U.S. approval for its
all-out assault on the left in the name of fighting terrorism,” the National
Security Archive reports. Kissinger’s political support extended to Operation
Condor. As McSherry explains, “Guzzetti also told Kissinger that all the
Southern Cone militaries were collaborating to pursue ‘terrorists’—thus
referring to Operation Condor and confirming the embassies perceptions…of
regional collusion in repression.” Nevertheless, Kissinger gave the Argentine
junta a “green light” providing its leaders a sense of “euphoria.” 

To make matters worse, on August 3, 1976, Kissinger had received a report
on Operation Condor titled the “ARA Monthly Report: The ‘Third World War’
and South America.” The report informed Kissinger how the Southern Cone
countries had, “established Operation Condor to find and kill terrorists
of the ‘Revolutionary Coordinating Committee’ in their own countries and
in Europe. Brazil is cooperating short of murder operations.” 

The report also maintained that, “They are joining forces to eradicate
‘subversion,’ a word which increasingly translated into non- violent dissent
from the left and center-left.” The report concluded by warning how, “This
siege mentality shading into paranoia is perhaps the natural resort of
the convulsions of recent years in which the societies of Chile, Uruguay,
and Argentina have been badly shaken by assault from the extreme left.
But the military leaders, despite near decimation of the Marxist left in
Chile and Uruguay, along with accelerated progress toward that goal in
Argentina, insist that the threat remains and that war must go on. Some
talk of the ‘Third World War,’ with the countries of the southern cone
as the last bastion of Christian civilization.” 

Precursors to Operation Condor 


efore delving into the “official” Condor years, it is important to note,
as Peter Kornbluh argues, that, “Long before Condor’s formal creation,
its methods of intelligence sharing, surveillance coordination, multilateral
repression, and murder were all but perfected.” 

As early as the 1960s the United States was pushing for more military to
military cooperation. As U.S. General Rubert W. Porter emphasized in 1968,
“In order to facilitate the coordinated employment of internal security
forces within and among Latin American countries we are…endeavoring to
foster interservice and regional cooperation by assisting in the organization
of integrated command and control centers; the establishment of common
operating procedures; and the conduct of joint and combined training exercises.” 

An excellent example of interservice cooperation, and an important precursor
to Operation Condor, was the Chilean-Argentine cooperation in the 1974
assassination of retired Chilean General Carlos Prats. As early as spring
1974, DINA covertly set up its first external base in Argentina in order
carry out surveillance on Prats and other Chileans from the growing exile
community living in Argentina. DINA agent Enrique Arancibia Clavel was
assigned the task of setting up the “external branch” and quickly obtained
contacts within Argentina’s federal police and its secret intelligence,
SIDE (Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado). After the September 11, 1973
coup in Chile, General Prats and his wife Sofia went voluntarily into exile
in Argentina. Although Prats had “faithfully carried out the restrictive
instructions pertaining to his exile,” Kornbluh argues that Pinochet nonetheless
“considered Prats far more of a threat than any politician or militant
guerrilla.” General Prats was the only person with the potential to challenge
Pinochet’s support base: the Chilean military. Furthermore, reports from
Argentine intelligence showed that Prats was writing his memoirs and that
he had plans to move to Europe. On September 29, 1974, Michael Townley,
A DINA (and future Condor) agent and an American expatriate placed a bomb
under the Prats’ car. The following morning, as the Prats readied themselves
to leave their garage, the bomb exploded, killing the couple and establishing
an important precursor to the third phase of Plan Condor. 

Both Argentine and Chilean military elites immediately felt the implications
of General Prats’s assassination. Two weeks later, DINA officer Arancibia
noted that, “An idea exists to form an anti-communist intelligence community
on a continental level, with members of the armies of Uruguay and Argentina
who are interested in talking to Chile.” Over the next year, bilateral
operations (and some multilateral, like the kidnapping, torture, and murders
by Chilean, Argentine and Paraguayan forces of members of the organization
Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria in Paraguay) between Chile and Argentina
continued. These operations culminated in what Peter Kornbluh calls “one
of the Pinochet regime’s most Machiavellian and macabre efforts to hide
human rights abuses.” This became another essential precursor to Condor,
codenamed Operation Colombo.


Operation Colombo was a propaganda campaign orchestrated by the Pinochet
regime (with Argentine assistance) in order to “quell” the many international
human rights accusations towards the Chilean junta. The most infamous part
of Operation Colombo was orchestrated in summer 1975 in what is also referred
to as the “list of the 119.” In order to explain the “disappearance” of
119 MIR (Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario) and Communist party (PCCH)
members, the Pinochet regime planted two separate stories. The first story
appeared in a Argentine magazine


and the second in an obscure Brazilian

Novo O Dia

. The Argentine magazine reported that 60 Chileans
had been killed “by their own comrades in arms as part of a vast and implacable
program of vengeance and political purification.” The second story explained
how an additional 59 Chileans had been killed during “a clash with Argentine
security forces.” However, such justifications, and the sloppy way in which
they were carried out, raised several red flags to untrusting Chileans
(and the world in general). As a result, human rights organizations, the
international press, and even the U.S. embassy in Chile eventually agreed
that the 119 individuals named in the lists were most likely the victims
of a Chilean military conspiracy. 

Nevertheless, some essential alliances and important predecessors had now
been established and in October 1975 Manuel Contreras managed to get Argentina,
Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia to sign the secret agreement Operation Condor.
(Brazil would not officially join the organization for another six months.) 



fter the military coup in Uruguay on June 27, 1973, Uruguayan Senator
Zelmar Michelini (Frente Amplio) and Congressperson Hector Gutierrez Ruiz
(Partido Nacional, and former president of the House of Representatives)
left their country for exile in Argentina. Approximately three years later,
on May 18, 1976, two coordinated Condor teams composed of Argentine and
Uruguayan forces separately kidnapped these exiled leaders. Three days
later, on May 21, their bodies appeared—shot to death and stuffed in the
trunk of a car—in an alley in Buenos Aires. According to a 1999 human rights
report conducted by the Uruguayan labor union PIT/CNT, the purpose of the
assassinations was to “behead the exiled resistance to the Uruguayan dictatorship.”
Both Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz, along with former presidential candidate
Wilson Ferreira Aldunate (who had also been targeted for assassination,
but managed to elude capture by seeking refuge in the Austrian embassy),
had been involved in an elaborate plan to move Uruguay towards democratic

Furthermore, as John Dinges explains, “Ferreira and Michelini also had
been exchanging letters and phone calls with members of the U.S. Congress
to arrange a visit to Washington to testify about conditions in Uruguay.”
In other words, Michelini and Gutierrez Ruiz represented a political threat
to the military regime in Uruguay. As a result, a Condor team kidnapped,
tortured, and murdered the two Uruguayan leaders. In addition, in a final
attempt to discredit the legitimacy of the two respected politicians, their
bullet-ridden bodies were left alongside the cadavers of two well known
Tupamaro guerrillas, Rosario Barredo and William Withelaw Blanco (although
by that time most of the Tupamaros had abandoned violent means and had
moved to establishing political ties with exiled leaders). 

For Uruguayan exiles the peak of state-sponsored transnational terrorism
took place between 1976-1977. In addition to the assassinations of Michelini,
Gutierrez Ruiz, Barredo, and Withelaw, between April 19 and May 21 1976,
a series of additional kidnappings and assassinations of Uruguayan exiles
(living in either Buenos Aires or the Rio de la Plata region) occurred,
terrorizing the Uruguayan population. The first was that of Telba Juarez,
an Uruguayan school teacher who was found shot to death in a barrio in
Buenos Aires (she was kidnapped along with Eduardo Chizzola who is still
“missing”). Shortly thereafter, civilians strolling the beaches found 10
mutilated bodies off the shores of Uruguayan or Argentine waters (the bodies
are believed to be those of kidnapped Uruguayans exiled in Argentina).
These and many other bodies that were found represent a minority of the
Uruguayan victims under Operation Condor. The majority, as McSherry explains,
remain “missing,” including at least 132 Uruguayans that were “disappeared”
through the Condor years (127 in Argentina, 3 in Chile, and 2 in Paraguay).
Moreover, the PIT/CNT maintain that Condor agents also kidnapped eight
children (five of whom have been recovered by their families). An additional
five children were born while their mothers were imprisoned in secret Argentine
torture chambers, like the notorious Orletti Motors (two of these babies
have been recovered).

What this shows is a series of coordinated operations between Argentine
and Uruguayan forces intended to terrorize anyone opposed to the dictatorship.
John Dinges explains the extent of Uruguay’s involvement in Operation Condor:
“Uruguay’s SID [Servicio de Inteligencia de Defensa], the newly consolidated
defense intelligence service, began operating inside Argentina around the
time of the coup. The Uruguayan operations in Argentina resulted in the
largest group of disappearances carried out by Operation Condor. Indeed,
more Uruguayans disappeared and were assassinated in Argentina…than in
Uruguay itself as a result of security police operations.” 

While Uruguay was one of the most involved members of the Condor system,
it faced a relatively small militant threat, though it should be noted
that recent Uruguayan history had made the middle class and military quite
frightened (as a result of Tupamaro operations and revolutionary rhetoric).
By 1975 the Tupamaros had been crushed by the military and those who survived
were extremely divided and “had all but ceased guerrilla activity.” The
only “terrorist” threat came from a small anarcho-syndicalist group called
the Partido por la Victoria (PVP) which had a militant branch known as
OPR-33. Condor agents kidnapped all the PVP members they found and sent
them to Orletti Motors in Argentina for severe torture sessions. Condor
operatives also killed the majority of PVP members, including their leaders,
Leon Duarte and Gerardo Gatti, who “disappeared” in 1976. However, a “fortunate”
group of 22 PVP men and women were separated by Condor agents at Orletti
Motors (after being tortured) to be used for a propaganda campaign. On
October 20, 1976, a Condor team took the 22 prisoners to a hotel only to
be “captured” by Uruguayan armed forces a couple of hours later. Soon after,
the Uruguayan military held a press conference where they claimed that
the 22 captured were militants from the terrorist organization OPR-33 that
had been planning a military offensive against Uruguayan targets. In addition,
the Uruguayan military seized the opportunity to “explain” the disappearances
of an additional 60 Uruguayans in Argentina. 

The irony of the insignificantly small PVP is that, while they were never
able to exert any real “threat,” the fact that they existed provided a
useful pretext for further repression by the Uruguayan military. The more
serious threat to the survival and legitimacy of the Uruguayan dictatorship
was that of political dissidents like Mich- ellini, Gutierrez Ruiz, and
Ferreira. After a joint task force of Uruguayans, Chileans, and Argentines
raided the offices of a church that contained the records of registered
refugees with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UN- HCR),
the vast majority of people the Condor agents went after had renounced
or never promoted violence (not to suggest that if they had not renounced
violence such a fate would be warranted). 

Impunity continues to protect those responsible for the atrocities committed
during those 12 years of military rule. In 1989 a plebiscite in Uruguay
reaffirmed some earlier amnesty laws (the 1984 Naval Pact and 1986 Ley
de Caducidad) that decided to forgo prosecution without conviction of crimes
committed before March 1985. (However, the 1989 plebiscite passed by a
slim majority with threats from the military that a price would be paid
if it did not pass.) No Uruguayan court has been able to establish a trial
dealing with the crimes of Operation Condor like the hearings of Baltazar
Garzón in Spain, Rodolfo Canicoba Corral in Argentina, or Juan Guzman in

In the current “war on drugs,” “terrorism,” “sub- version,” or “narcoterrorism,”
the United States continues to militarize the Andean region and Latin America
as a whole. In 1998 U.S. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen argued in
the Defense Ministerial III in Bogotá, Colombia that, in his opinion, “In
order to interdict the terrorist before they set off their weapons, you
have to have that king of intelligence-gathering capability, but it runs
smack into Constitutional protection of privacy. And it’s a tension which
will continue to exist in every free society—the reconciliation of the
need for liberty and the need for law and order…. Because once the bombs
go off—this is a personal view, this is not a governmental view of the
United States, but it’s my personal view—that once these weapons start
to be exploded, people will say protect us. We’re willing to give up some
of our liberties and some of our freedoms, but you must protect us.” 

Challenging constitutional protections in a region whose antecedents in
fighting “terrorism” include Op- eration Condor can have detrimental results,
to say the least. The U.S. government has continued (successfully) to blur
the line between drug-trafficking and terrorism for many years. In 2001
the majority leader of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, argued
that “by cracking down on the illegal drug trade we weaken terrorists’
ability to strike the United States and other democracies.” He later claim-
ed, “The illegal drug trade is the financial engine fueling many terrorist
organizations around the world.” Similarly, Francis X. Taylor, the State
Department’s coordinator for the Office of Anti-Terrorism made the claim
that, “Today, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are the
most dangerous international terrorist organization based in the hemisphere…[n]ow
more than ever it is time to build coalitions against terrorism which are
founded on pro-active diplomacy, strict application of the law, financial
controls, intelligence sharing and a fierce resolve to achieve justice.” 

Washington had long been trying to find a way to combat the guerrilla movements
(mainly FARC and ELN) in the region. After the September 11 attacks, in
August 2002, with the cover of “new” threats and under the name of “cooperative
security,” the U.S. Congress authorized the use of lethal assistance for
counterterrorism along with counterdrug measures. (Prior to August 2002,
the funds from Plan Colombia and the Andean Regional Initiative could only
be used to combat the drug trade. Covert policies tell a different story,

Illustrating this “new” concept of “cooperative security,” in November
2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained, “Next May, the Organization
of American States will meet to review the hemisphere’s security architecture.
Our objective should be to strengthen those institutions and develop new
areas for concrete operation. I hope that this week’s conference will consider
two such initiatives. First is an initiative to foster regional naval cooperation.
The objective would be to strengthen the operational and planning capabilities
of partner nations, upgrade national command and control systems, and improve
regional information-sharing. This could potentially include cooperation
among coast guards, customs, and police forces. I suggest we consider a
round-table as a good way to consider and pursue this initiative. Second
is an initiative to improve the hemisphere’s peace keeping capabilities.
Many of you are already leaders in this field—you are sending skilled and
experienced forces with specialized capabilities to global hot spots. We
should explore the possibility of integrating these various specialized
capabilities into larger regional capabilities—so that we can participate
as a region in peacekeeping and stability operations.” 

Latin American specialist Brian Loveman argues that military leaders around
Latin America “also saw opportunities in the melding of antiterrorism and
the drug war.” As Loveman explains, a month after Rumsfeld’s speech, the
commander of the Argentine army explained how, “defense must be treated
as an integral matter.” 

Loveman concludes that, “The focus on counterterrorism and intelligence
pushed the militaries of the region increasingly back into surveillance
of civilians and participation in domestic politics….” It is a shame
that Washington officials don’t remember the blowback from the first war
on terrorism 30 years ago. As Operation Condor specialist John Dinges explains,
“The Letelier assassination in Washington, DC was blowback. It was orchestrated
by a close ally, a dictator the United States helped install, maintain,
and defend in power; it was planned by an intelligence official [Manuel
Contreras] who had been on the CIA payroll and who traveled frequently
for consultation with CIA officials in Washington; it was carried out by
DINA, a newly created security organization whose personnel were trained
in Chile by a CIA team; it was detected in its initial operational stages
not by alert spycraft, but by the very chumminess of CIA officials with
those planning the crimes.” 

This time around the potential “blowback,” suffering, and devastation are
clear. According to the U.S. government there are identified terrorist
threats in virtually every country in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil,
Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela all
supposedly contain some type of Middle Eastern “terrorist cells” within
their country. In addition since the United States also sees “narcoterrorism”
and illegal immigration as national security threats, the U.S. also incriminates
Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba (the U.S. also considers Cuba a “state-sponsored”
terrorist nation), the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras,
Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru. If the United States continues to push its
hegemonic, aggressive, and militaristic policies, and if the Latin American
militaries agree with the U.S. and decide to once again eliminate “internal
terrorist threats,” we might once again witness the flight of the Condor
throughout Latin America.


Arturo Jimenez is a political science graduate student from San Diego State
and is currently working on a masters thesis exploring Operation Condor.