State-sponsored terrorism. The phrase conjures up any number of images: religious fundamentalist nations training young zealots to attack infidels abroad; authoritarian regimes launching false-flag attacks at home; enemy nations backing violent insurgencies on each other’s soil. As author Christopher Hitchens put it, “Terrorism works better as a tactic for dictatorships, or for would-be dictators, than for revolutionaries.”1 Indeed, terrorism is a tool not just for disenfranchised ideological extremists at the fringes of a society, but also for those seeking to hold onto their power through fear and destruction.
Cut to South America, 1974. As communism and capitalism battled for supremacy across the world, the United States had just barely dodged the bullet of a communist Chile, and as any number of other leftist movements in the area searched to grow their political influence, the USA responded harshly. The CIA built itself into the center of an international terror network stretching across South America, under which Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Bolivia all conspired to track down anyone who would dare challenge their respective regimes. Though these countries were often public adversaries, with the help of the Americans, they worked together to send death squads onto each other’s soil, and deal with the real and suspected enemies of authoritarianism across the continent. Kidnapping, torture, and murder, by brutal military juntas and dictatorships, with the funding, training, and direction of the United States.
This is Operation CONDOR.
Part 1: Backdrop and Inception.
To understand why Operation CONDOR ever existed in the first place, we must understand the regional and global context into which it was conceived. Named after a type of vulture common in mountainous regions of Latin America, CONDOR was an effort by the United States to essentially lock down the hemispheric south, and ensure that no friend of communism—or of the Soviet regime, specifically—would be allowed to flourish there.
As early as 1954’s Doolittle Report, the United States had decided that around the world, the Cold War would have them playing dirty, and that the end would justify the means. The report read, in part: “There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered… We must learn to subvert, sabotage, and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us”. In short, the United States saw a state of total war, not against a single invader but a whole ideology, and one that the US believed was hungry for blood.2
Nowhere was that more true, and for longer, than Latin America. With the threat of Cuba already looming large on American minds, the prospect of a divided hemisphere motivated the United States to take an active approach to the region. It was from this central fear that Operation CONDOR was born.
For well over a decade before this time, the Central Intelligence Agency had been getting comfortable with paramilitary and communist-control efforts in Europe. In Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Germany, the playbook was essentially the same: offer support to anti-leftist political leaders in the country, and then work as hard as possible to obstruct communist sentiment from taking root, no matter what violence might be needed. Right-wing political and military forces would be linked together by United States intelligence and on-the-ground support, creating a coordinated effort that would cover an entire region of the world.3
This strategy was transplanted to Latin America after Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist and career politician in Chile, was elected president in 1970. The CIA was well-aware that Allende had ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, and though Allende had made campaign promises for moderate governance, he quickly set to work nationalizing industry, seizing land and property, and redistributing wealth within his country. By 1973 Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and other political leaders had made their decision: Allende would be ousted, one way or the other. On September 11, 1973, Allende was overthrown in a military coup and reported dead, most likely executed, with General Augusto Pinochet installed in his place. Shaken by the prospect of socialism becoming entrenched in a major South American nation, the CIA leveraged their existing connections and plans in the region, and put Operation CONDOR into action.4
Part 2: The Mission.
In the early months of 1974, representatives of the Argentinian, Chilean, Bolivian, Uruguayan, and Paraguayan governments had a meeting in Buenos Aires which ended in agreement: Working together, they would target, surveil, and root out suspected subversives, with plans that typically involved kidnapping, and often ended with murder.5 For the time, this was surprising—all five nations, and others in the region, were headed by powerful authoritarian regimes, many of which operated at odds with each other. But with CIA mediation and coordination efforts to help them along, an eventual total of eight countries agreed to look past their differences and snuff out leftist opposition. With loose border control in the area, leftists from one country had previously been able to flee to another, becoming exiles and expatriates, when they began to suspect that their country’s regime was on to them. After all, these weren’t dictatorships with a history of international cooperation, certainly not centered on individual citizens. But now, the countries who received these exiles were more than willing to help their home nations drag them back, or ensure they never came home.6
By this point, individual US-allied Latin American dictatorships had been working with US Southern Command, SOUTHCOM, and the School of the Americas, a program that had trained soldiers across the hemisphere in intelligence and counterinsurgency tactics. Under Operation CONDOR, the proportion of trainees coming from Latin America skyrocketed.7 Trainees were educated on communist ideology, psychological warfare, guerilla warfare, and fields that would help them nation-build—agriculture, education, medicine, infrastructure. They also learned how to torture, both to extract information and to terrify both their victims and the broader populace.
The goal for the CIA was to build on strategies used in the Vietnam War, where South Vietnamese death squads would carry out operations based on intelligence, supervision, financing, and interrogation assistance that the United States provided. In the US military’s interpretation of national law, US citizens risked prosecution at home if they carried out many brutal or repressive acts themselves, but if they taught and directed foreign nationals to do the dirty work for them, they would be immune from legal responsibility.8
This all blended in nicely with the work of individual secret-police organizations in Latin America, who had built a robust infrastructure to identify, target, and track potential subversives at home. The CIA organized meetings between representatives of each nation’s government, with the express intent of sharing that knowledge with each other. With a common list of potential or suspected dissidents, each CONDOR-participant country was able to turn its own political surveillance toward expatriates from other nations. Perhaps even more significant, each regime now had better access to its opponents abroad, who had been exiled from their home nations and now worked elsewhere as activists organizing a global opposition. These exiles had ties to the United Nations, other governments, organized labor and religion, education, popular culture, and human rights groups, and if a dictatorship wanted to maintain its good relations with the world, its expatriates could not be allowed to speak. This was a particular source of concern for Chile’s Pinochet regime, given the massive population of Chilean refugees scattered across the globe, but many of the CONDOR nations shared the same fears on a smaller scale.9
When one of those dissidents began to pose a threat, they would find themselves in the crosshairs of covert squadrons of operatives, typically working in teams that combined agents from multiple countries. From there, two possibilities emerged: In the first, the dissident would be promptly intercepted, detained, and disappeared—typically spirited back to their own nation, with their families, friends, and political allies completely unaware of their fate. They would be imprisoned, probably tortured, and eventually, they would die by their captors’ hands.
The second option was quicker, but led to the same end: in this case, a dissident turned out to be at the bad end of one of CONDOR’s teams of assassins, who traveled around the world to eliminate subversives, with a particular eye toward political and ideological leaders. All the while, the governments responsible would happily sit behind a veneer of plausible deniability, sometimes even expressing their public condolences and ordering police inquiries when a high-profile “political opponent” was killed.10
The eventual goal? Well, for each CONDOR-participant nation, that was a severe, totalitarian idea of ‘security’. The dictatorships in each country were, generally speaking, ideologically aligned to each other along the far political right, though their actual diplomatic relations were variable. As such, underground counter-ideological movements constituted a much greater threat than neighboring nations. Waging a low-grade war on one’s own people isn’t an effective way to keep popular support, but it does allow a repressive government to stay one step ahead of a potential opposition party, by ensuring that the opposition can never organize fully enough to pose a threat. Add to that the existential dread that seeps through a population when people are disappeared off the streets and cadavers are found with clear evidence of brutal torture, and it becomes clear why Operation CONDOR was considered a good idea for these nations at the time.
Part 3: The Structure.
To make Operation CONDOR happen, intelligence sharing was absolutely critical. In each participant nation, secret police organizations operated outside the typical political-military chain of command, and it was these groups that formed the backbone of the CONDOR network.
Chile, especially the Pinochet regime’s National Intelligence Directorate (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional), or DINA, supplied a large portion of the operation’s manpower, especially its agents and international operatives. Brazil pitched in with logistical support and supplied interrogators and torturers. The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, or Triple A, supplied death squads made up of gangsters, criminals, police, and military extremists, and Argentinian territory hosted an outsize proportion of detention and torture centers. And Uruguay supplied substantial backing in the form of trained operatives and intelligence. Peru, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador all contributed through their own secret police infrastructures, as well. Each nation then utilized their broader repression networks in unison, to help each other instead of just themselves.11
Five key elements set the mission structure of Operation CONDOR apart from the internal repression within each participant nation: Cross-border targeting of exiles; Multinational cooperation; Precise targeting of dissidents; Para-statal structure; and the use of advanced technology.12
CONDOR squads not only crossed borders to follow those exiles, but received international support to do so; operatives from one country would be supplied anything from visas to personnel to cars and aircraft. Political asylum essentially ceased to exist in the region—if someone had been marked for detainment, or worse, then it didn’t matter how far they ran.13
Parallel to this, CONDOR explicitly built multinational cooperation into its organizational doctrine. Squads included representatives of at least two nations, pulling together individual operatives with backgrounds in all aspects of counterinsurgency. Psychological warfare, disinformation, and deception all became easier as the repressors shared their strategies.14
CONDOR’s mission objective was “decapitation” of the opposition; leaders and powerful or dangerous members of the opposition were specifically targeted, as well as perceived ‘dissidents’ in civil society: union leaders, social democrats, former generals and political leaders, and even former presidents. CONDOR’s covert “Phase III” assassination squads traveled around the world to eliminate high-profile subversives.15
Crucially, CONDOR member groups didn’t work as part of any official government branches, but operated as paramilitary entities, feeding off of government funds and information but with none of the pesky ‘ethical standards’ or ‘responsibility’ that government representatives were held to. CONDOR utilized secret prisons, unmarked cars and aircraft, and hidden grave sites. Subversives from one nation, targeted by another nation, were often killed by teams from a third nation, which had no prior interest in them. This all allowed CONDOR agents to circumvent national and international law and avoid accountability.16
And finally, CONDOR was unusually sophisticated for its time. A secure communications network called Condortel enabled agents to share data, track targets internationally, and communicate with other squads. Condortel also connected operatives to the operation’s overwatch station, a US base on the Panama Canal. CONDOR used a computerized database, likely supplied by the CIA, as well as a vast archival system that included everything from psychological profiles to background investigations to network maps for suspected leftists. According to one Bolivian former CONDOR operative, the CIA even built a special machine to encode and decode messages within Condortel, much like the Nazi Enigma machine of World War II.17
Also crucial was the Chilean DINA’s close ties with Colonia Dignidad. We’ve already done a video on the subject, which can be found here. At Colonia Dignidad, Nazi expatriates from Germany trained DINA agents in interrogation and torture, exchanged lists of subversives, and participated in the torture of DINA detainees, though it is unclear whether specifically CONDOR-related detainees were sent there.18
Part 4: The Impact.
In practice, CONDOR’s tactics were terrifying. Whether an exile or refugee was arrested legally, or snatched off the street or from their home, that was the last the outside world would see of them. With no paper trails and plenty of ways to smuggle people from country to country, the program’s targets would be taken to underground prisons and torture chambers, often using abandoned buildings or military bases. Buenos Aires found itself host to several underground detainment and torture facilities, most notable—and horrifying—being Orletti Motors, an abandoned garage that had been turned into a one-stop shop for torture. At Orletti Motors, experienced Argentinian torturers worked in concert with Bolivian, Chilean, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan military officials to enact horrible things upon many hundreds of alleged dissidents, many of whom died there.19 Prisoners were drugged and disoriented, before being subjected to sadistic sexual tortures. Collaboration was rewarded with water; failure to collaborate was punished with beatings. Sometimes, prisoners would eat only twice or thrice in a span of multiple weeks. Survivor accounts describe one man being hung from a hook and repeatedly dunked into filthy water, even past the point of delirium, and the man’s sister being forced to read news accounts of his death, before being tortured and horrifically raped.20
Many dissidents would be killed on what were termed “death flights”—after their capture and extensive periods of torture, they would be drugged and loaded onto a plane or helicopter. From there, they would be dropped over bodies of water, usually oceans or large rivers, and drowned without a trace.21 Others would be burned, or buried in unmarked graves.22
The key piece to understand in all this is that although we have used the terms ‘dissident’ and ‘subversive’ thus far to describe the victims of CONDOR, this is how they were described by the nations targeting them. The simple label of “subversives” does nothing to actually represent who the victims of Operation CONDOR actually were: these were people, they had lives and families, and in their new home nations, they were often simply trying to start a new, quiet life. Some were leftists or guerrillas, but others were students, intellectuals, unionists, artists, constitutionalists, or even children.23
Take, for example, Anatole Larrabeiti: at the age of four years old, Larrabeiti and his 18-month-old sister were lucky to survive Operation CONDOR after their father was killed in a shootout, and their mother was disappeared at Orletti Motors. The children themselves were held there for a time, before being transported to Uruguay’s military intelligence headquarters, and then left by themselves in Chile. Students were targets too; look to Laura Elgueta, who at just 18 was snatched from her home, stripped, handcuffed, hooded, interrogated, and tortured by use of electric shocks, beating, and sexual abuse. Luckily, she and her sister-in-law survived, but only because their torturers had realized the two knew absolutely nothing about the political opposition in their native Chile. Other victims were locked in wooden boxes for days, raped by dogs, and forced into imprisonment in cells where their friends’ dead bodies had been left.24
From there, things only got worse. Mothers were kidnapped, brutalized, and forced to watch their infant children hang upside-down. Individual torturers gained reputations for particularly brutal tactics, often the same men who had been known as particularly dangerous police in their home countries. Dozens of leftists were tortured into compliance and participation in false-flag attacks that eventually saw them arrested, in elaborate plays manufactured by national authorities. Two Uruguayan legislators and a Bolivian former president were assassinated within a month’s time. As time went on, emboldened CONDOR operatives even began routinely seizing the children of parents killed by their missions, with those children often intentionally transferred into military and police families to minimize the chance of their growing up to be ‘subversive’ themselves. Other children were simply disappeared, along with their parents.25
Operation CONDOR didn’t spare the United States, either. Leftist journalists Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi were disappeared and later killed by some combination of CIA operatives and Chilean paramilitary operatives, with methods and a level of political shrouding that strongly suggests this occurred under the CONDOR umbrella. In 1976, prominent Chilean expat Orlando Letelier was killed by Cuban exiles in Washington DC with a car bomb, in an operation directly ordered by Augusto Pinochet.26 And US congressman Edward Koch was targeted for assassination within the United States, by Uruguayan intelligence leaders with the help of Chile’s DINA, though this was foiled due in part to the FBI’s increased scrutiny toward CONDOR after the Letelier assassination.27 Yet even as CONDOR operatives carried out actions against US targets and even on US soil, the CIA continued to reap the rewards of its existence, and by all accounts, took no issue with its plans for transcontinental assassinations and parastatal nature. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger even once gave his direct, secret approval to Argentinian leaders for their collaborative efforts with other Southern Cone nations, and on another occasion, reassured Chilean leaders that human-rights-focused speeches within the US were not meant for Latin America. All the while, the Kissinger State Department amplified CONDOR’s black propaganda to the press, and may have enjoyed advance knowledge for much of what took place during the operation.28
Part 5: Dissolution, and Repercussions.
Despite the clear severity and scope of Operation CONDOR, it couldn’t carry on forever, and the first cracks began to show in January of 1977, when US President Jimmy Carter was sworn into office. An avowed champion of global human rights, Carter placed pressure on the CIA to either admit the scope of their involvement with CONDOR, or reassure the rest of the government that things weren’t as bad as the Carter administration feared. The CIA chose the second option, and made statements that gave Cyrus Vance, the new Secretary of State, the impression that Operation CONDOR was in the process of downsizing. Indeed, while targeted torture and extrajudicial killings continued in large numbers until 1980, individuals with a high political profile appear to have had targets shifted off their backs.29
A second, more basic problem cropped up for the first time in 1978, when Chile and Argentina escalated tensions over the Beagle Strait, a disputed border waterway at the southernmost tip of the continent. While the idea of having extremely nationalistic, egotistical, and often violent generals work together for CONDOR somehow hadn’t failed earlier, a minor spat over the strait eventually led to a larger breakdown in relations between the two. With Chile’s DINA being the largest source of operatives and agents for CONDOR, but Argentina playing host to a massive share of the network’s logistical and torture infrastructure, CONDOR began to shake on its foundation. With increasing animus in their relationship, Chile would later work to secretly assist Britain in military activities against Argentina, setting off the Falklands conflict that would eventually topple the Argentinian regime in its entirety.30
So, too, did the other CONDOR nations’ dictatorships ultimately fall to ruin through the 1980s, with each successive collapse restricting CONDOR’s reach by massive swathes of territory. In Brazil, President Joao Figueiredo was able to slowly steer the nation away from military dictatorship, and toward state and national elections. Uruguay’s reigning junta began to move the nation back to civilian rule, and eventually folded to pressure from organized labor, economic crisis, and mounting political opposition.31 An intense, fast-moving political and military struggle in Bolivia nearly tore the country apart by 1982, but luckily, the last of a series of juntas chose to give up their power rather than continue a cycle of constant military coups.32 Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner was finally overthrown in a military coup in 1989, prompting massive reforms in the nation after three and a half decades of repression.33 And finally, in 1990, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet finally stepped down from the presidency, though he would maintain influence in the nation until 1998.34
The program was first exposed to the world in 1992, when a young Paraguayan judge named Jose Augustin Fernandez was able to compel the Paraguayan police to release the secret archives of former dictator Stroessner’s regime. The trove would later become known as the Archive of Terror, and included detailed descriptions of the last three decades of repression not just inside Paraguay, but across Latin America. Fernandez had stumbled onto pictures of CONDOR victims and comprehensive accounts of how the program was created, and by whom.35
The next major break in unraveling CONDOR came in 1998, when a Spanish judge named Baltasar Garzon brought charges against Augusto Pinochet based on the disappearance of a Chilean man, Edgardo Enriquez, in Argentina. Garzon was operating under an oft-ignored Spanish law, which mandated that Spain prosecute the violators of human rights not just within its own borders, but around the world. Garzon and his prosecutorial team had their sights set on investigations into the Argentinian and Chilean regimes for genocide, terrorism, and criminal conspiracy, and their arrest warrant for Augusto Pinochet included, among other things, one very, very important sentence: “There is evidence of a coordinated plan, known as Operation Condor, in which several countries took part.” Pinochet was arrested during a visit to Britain in October 1998, and though he was never extradited to Spain, Garzon’s case was enough to open the floodgates on CONDOR. Other legal cases sprung up, the families of CONDOR victims began to tell their stories, and in each CONDOR-participant nation and the United States, intelligence on the program finally started to be declassified.36
Unfortunately, efforts to prosecute those most directly involved in CONDOR have been slow at best. A common theme in each participant nation’s shift back to democracy was that human rights violations, major crimes, and other heinous acts by each military dictatorship were covered by amnesty agreements that made the perpetrators functionally impossible to hold to account. Many of those agreements have since been voided, but with decades now passed since the end of CONDOR, many of the perpetrators are elderly, some suffering from degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s, and many are dead. The international nature of most CONDOR litigation makes the task even harder, and human rights tribunals are basically powerless to hand out sentences without the cooperation of a convict’s resident nation.37
And yet, for the survivors of CONDOR and the families of those who were killed under the program’s auspices, there has been some justice. In 2016, a case focused on 109 CONDOR victims from six countries saw a former Argentinian junta president imprisoned at 87 years old, alongside fourteen other defendants. An Italian court sentenced 24 CONDOR perpetrators to life in prison in 2019, including a former president of Peru and high-ranking Chilean and Uruguayan former leaders.38 The United States’ Obama administration ordered the declassification of 47,000 pages of intelligence, which have since been transferred to Argentina and shared with the world. With more and more CONDOR agents brought to trial, their atrocities are not only on full display, but now verified as indisputable fact. And CONDOR victims themselves have carried on the fight, including Anatole Larrabeiti, the four-year-old boy we referenced earlier, who was held at Orletti Motors as his mother was disappeared. Larrabeiti grew up and became a lawyer himself, and he, his sister, and many other survivors have fought for their own cases to be examined by courts and human rights tribunals.39
Today, the full extent of CONDOR is still not entirely understood. A database maintained by Oxford research fellow Francesca Lessa counted 763 cases of human rights violations in the CONDOR years, with 116 defendants condemned for crimes against 227 victims.40 But if anything is certain, it is that this number of victims is an undercount, and probably a drastic one. Some estimates suggest that over sixty thousand people were killed under CONDOR, with tens of thousands more disappeared, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned.41 If lists of CONDOR’s victims exist, they remain classified—but more likely, there were many people who were tortured, disappeared, and killed over the course of CONDOR’s operations whose stories have been lost to history. They, their families, and their descendants are likely never to receive justice for what happened to them.
Operation CONDOR accounts for only a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Latin America during the Cold War era, but its impact was far greater. By unifying a region’s worth of brutal dictatorships, the CIA and the region’s intelligence networks saw to the targeted assassination, torture, and disappearance of anyone who dared to breathe in the direction of political opposition. When before, every individual junta and regime had been a self-contained instrument of repression, CONDOR wove them together, and created a shadow hand of authoritarianism that was all but inescapable. Families were destroyed, communities were torn apart, and people fleeing for their lives were hunted down. For the United States, the reward was that proxy conflicts like the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet-Afghan War never reached South American soil, and the United States’ hegemony remained undisturbed through the Cold War’s end.
But the cost was Operation CONDOR.
2 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
3 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
6 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
7 Gill, Lesley (2004). The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas.
8 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
10 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
11 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
12 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
13 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
14 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
15 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
16 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
17 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
18 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
19 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
20 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
22 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
25 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
28 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
29 J. Patrice McSherry. Predatory States.
32 Maria Luise Wagner. “Transition to democracy
41 Bevins, Vincent (2020). The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World.