Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president in a bloody coup and ruled this Andean nation for 17 years, died Sunday, dashing hopes of victims of his regime’s abuses that he would be brought to justice. He was 91.
The first time Orlando Letelier lived in Washington was from 1971-73, as Salvador Allende’s Chilean ambassador to the United States. Upon returning home to Chile, Allende named him foreign minister and then defense minister. He was serving in the latter capacity when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973. Letelier was arrested, imprisoned on Tierra del Fuego, and tortured. His fingers were broken, twice. In late 1974 Pinochet ordered him released, and a few years later he was back in Washington, D.C., living in exile, working as a fellow at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies.
On the morning of Sept. 21, 1976, Letelier drove into Washington as usual, via River Road, then 46th Street and finally Massachusetts Avenue. In the car with him were IPS colleagues Ronni and Michael Moffitt, recently married. Ronni was a fundraiser, Michael was Letelier’s research assistant. She sat in the front seat, he in the back.
The trio only made it far as Sheridan Circle on Embassy Row, when the car exploded.
Michael was thrown clear and watched as Letelier’s vehicle slammed into a double-parked Volkswagen. Traffic came to a halt; police and ambulances raced to the scene. Letelier lost both legs. Ronni’s carotid artery was severed. Her husband sustained nothing worse than a minor head injury. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were rushed to the hospital. They died of their injuries within the hour.
The assassination of Orlando Letelier, in which Ronni Moffitt was an incidental casualty, would become the best-known crime associated with a wave of assassinations known as Operation Condor.
On March 6, 2001, The New York Times reported the existence of a recently declassified State Department document revealing that the United States facilitated communications among South American intelligence chiefs who were working together to eliminate left-wing opposition groups in their countries as part of a covert program known as Operation Condor.
The document, a 1978 cable from Robert E. White, the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, was discovered by Professor J. Patrice McSherry of Long Island University, who has published several articles on Condor. She called the cable “another piece of increasingly weighty evidence suggesting that U.S. military and intelligence officials supported and collaborated with Condor as a secret partner or sponsor.”
In the cable, Ambassador White relates a conversation with General Alejandro Fretes Davalos, chief of staff of Paraguay’s armed forces, who told him that the South American intelligence chiefs involved in Condor “keep in touch with one another through a U.S. communications installation in the Panama Canal Zone which covers all of Latin America.” This installation is “employed to co-ordinate intelligence information among the southern cone countries.” White, whose message was sent to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, is concerned that the U.S. connection to Condor might be revealed during the then ongoing investigation into the deaths of former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier and his American colleague Ronni Moffitt who were killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C. “It would seem advisable,” he suggests, “to review this arrangement to insure that its continuation is in U.S. interest.”
Operation Condor allowed the Latin American militaries to put into practice a key strategic concept of national security doctrine: hemispheric defense defined by ideological frontiers. The more limited concept of territorial defense was superseded. To the U.S. national security apparatus–which fostered the new continent-wide security doctrine in its training centers, such as the Army School of the Americas in Panama–and most of the Latin American militaries, the Cold War represented World War III, the war of ideologies. Security forces in Latin America classified and targeted persons on the basis of their political ideas rather than illegal acts. The regimes hunted down dissidents and leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns, intellectuals, students and teachers–not only guerrillas (who, under international law, are also entitled to due process).
Condor specialized in targeted abductions, disappearances, interrogations/torture, and transfers of persons across borders. According to a declassified 1976 FBI report, Condor had several levels. The first was mutual cooperation among military intelligence services, including coordination of political surveillance and exchange of intelligence information. The second was organized cross-border operations to detain/disappear dissidents. The third and most secret, “Phase III,” was the formation of special teams of assassins from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to carry out assassinations of “subversive enemies.” Phase III was aimed at political leaders especially feared for their potential to mobilize world opinion or organize broad opposition to the military states.
Two of the most explosive discoveries about U.S. links to Condor have emerged in the past few months. First is a 1978 Roger Channel cable from Robert White, then Ambassador to Paraguay, to the Secretary of State, discovered by this researcher in February 2001. This declassified State Department document links Operation Condor to the former U.S. military headquarters in the Panama Canal Zone.
In the cable, White reported a meeting with Paraguayan armed forces chief General Alejandro Fretes Davalos. Fretes identified the Panama Canal Zone base of the U.S. military as the site of a secure transnational communications center for Condor. According to Fretes Davalos, intelligence chiefs from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay used “an encrypted system within the U.S. telecommunications net[work],” which covered all of Latin America, to “coordinate intelligence information.” In the cable, White drew the connection to Operation Condor and questioned whether the arrangement was in the U.S. interest–but he never received a response.
The Panama base housed the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the U.S. Special Forces, and the Army School of the Americas (SOA), among other facilities, during most of the Cold War. Tens of thousands of Latin American officers were trained at the SOA, which used the infamous torture manuals released by the Pentagon and the CIA in the mid-1990s. Latin American officers trained in Panama have confirmed that the base was the center of the hemispheric anticommunist alliance. One military graduate of the School said, “The school was always a front for other special operations, covert operations.” Another officer, an Argentine navy man whose unit was organized into kidnap commandos (“task forces”) in 1972, said the repression was part of “a plan that responded to the Doctrine of National Security that had as a base the School of the Americas, directed by the Pentagon in Panama.” A Uruguayan officer who worked with the CIA in the 1970s, said that the CIA not only knew of Condor operations, but also supervised them.
The second astonishing piece of recently-released information is the admission by the CIA itself in September 2000 that DINA chief Manuel Contreras was a CIA asset between 1974 and 1977, and that he received an unspecified payment for his services. During these same years Contreras was known as “Condor One,” the leading organizer and proponent of Operation Condor. The CIA never divulged this information in 1978, when a Federal Grand Jury indicted Contreras for his role in the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations. Contreras was sentenced to a prison term in Chile for this crime, and convicted in absentia in Italy for the Leighton attack. The CIA claims that it did not ask Contreras about Condor until after the assassinations of Letelier and Moffitt in September 1976. This assertion is hardly credible, less so when one considers that the CIA was privy to earlier assassination plans by Condor. Moreover, the CIA helped organize and train the DINA in 1974, and retained Contreras as an asset for a year after the Letelier/Moffitt assassinations. The CIA destroyed its file on Contreras in 1991.