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Operation Condor: U.S. and Latin America’s Dirty War

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J Scull writes biographies and historical articles. Occasionally, he writes about common social issues impacting people in general.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shaking hands with Henry Kissinger in 1976 By Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile. — Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shaking hands with Henry Kissinger in 1976 By Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Chile. — Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores

The Countries Involved

Eight Latin American countries led by either right-wing dictators or military juntas feared being overthrown by communist insurgencies. They created a pact with each other and with the aid of the CIA, fought back. In this article, we will explore what happened and the dire consequences their actions created. These countries are:

  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Peru
  • Ecuador
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Paraguay
  • Uruguay

Latin America and the Cold War

Sometime in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union began to use guerrilla insurgencies to overthrow governments that were friendly to the US. Their grand strategy was simply to encircle the U.S. with Soviet friendly regimes as a countermeasure to America’s influence in Europe and other parts of the world.

In as far as Latin America, the USSR was able to exploit the discontent and resentment many people in the region felt toward the US, specially dating back to the Banana Wars as well as other abuses. Those populations that lived under dictatorial regimes that were in many cases installed by the US, were particularly vulnerable, as well as those that felt economically, socially and politically disenfranchised.

In Latin America the first breakthrough for the USSR came with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Other successes soon followed. In Chile, Salvador Allende, a Socialist friendly to Cuba was elected president. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas were actively fighting the Somoza’s regime, eventually coming to power in 1979.

Other insurgencies were flaring in different countries throughout the region. Colombia was actively battling the FARC and ELN; Peru was dealing with Guzman’s Shining Path guerrillas; Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay had nascent urban guerrillas and jungle insurgent groups beginning to form.


The Big Scare That Launched Operation Condor

On November 3,1970, Salvador Allende became president of Chile in a close three-way race. A well known democratic socialist with over 40 years of involvement in Chile’s politics and the head of the Popular Unity alliance party, had previously run for president three times unsuccessfully.

Allende had a close relationship with the Chilean Communist Party which had previously endorsed him as the alternative to their own candidate. He also had a secret which he held close to his vest, but well known to the CIA and Chilean military insiders; he had been courted by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the USSR.

Almost immediately after being inaugurated, and contradicting previous commitments he had made to other political parties as well as to the legislature, he began a large scale nationalization of industries which included copper mining and banking. He expanded land and property seizures, began a program of agrarian reform, instituted some price controls, as well as began aggressive redistribution of wealth.

While the economy showed some initial signs of improvement, by 1972 it began to falter. Some claim the economy’s poor performance was due to CIA money being provided to the country’s main trucker union for them to strike. There are also claims that other money went to strategic sectors of the economy in order to buy allegiance against Allende. Whatever the causes for the economic downturn, shortages in food and other consumer products began to surface. All of these events created an extremely chaotic economic environment.

The thought of another Communist government in Latin America, specially at the height of the Cold War, was anathema to current U.S. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. National archives contain a CIA document which declared, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” The rest is history. The CIA quickly mobilized to make plans for a coup d’état with General Augusto Pinochet and other military leaders.

On September 11 1973 an attack on the presidential palace La Moneda took place. By that evening Allende laid dead, officially reported as an apparent suicide, however, it is widely believed he was executed.

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In 1971 Fidel Castro visited Chile and presented Salvador Allende with a AK-47 assault rifle as a gift. This overture was meant to be a message to the United States of America that another Communist government was being established in its back yard. However, the cast had been set a couple of years prior, when US Naval Intelligence, the CIA and the Chilean Military had agreed that Allende must be removed from power.


Augusto Pinochet Rises to Power

General Augusto Pinochet was installed as interim president and officially took over the presidency on December 17, 1974. He remained as president until March 11, 1990, at which time he resigned and allowed for free elections.

The period that followed the end of the Allende regime was one of brutal repression and political persecution. In the first few months of the new Pinochet government, thousands of people were rounded up and held in the national stadium, where many were executed. Thousands more were killed or disappeared during the period of Pinochet’s presidency.

The fact that Allende, a known hard line Socialist was able to rise to the presidency in Chile, shook the United States as well as all the other governments in the region. In their minds, this could not be allowed to happen again. Perhaps, this is the point at which Operation Condor became a reality.

Operation Condor (1975 to 1985)

Operation Condor began to take shape in 1968, when U.S. Army General Robert W. Porter described the need for a coordinated effort between the US and internal security forces of certain Latin American countries.

In 2016, newly declassified CIA documents dated June 23, 1976, reads: “in early 1974 security officials from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia met in Buenos Aires to prepare coordinated actions against subversive targets.” Subsequently, plans were made to conduct extensive surveillance as well as plans for the disappearance and assassination of anyone deemed a subversive.

The declassified documents point to the CIA acting as intermediary during Argentinian, Uruguayan and Brazilian death squad meetings where political refugees from Operation Condor countries were targeted for disappearance or assassination. Other activities of which the CIA and the U.S. government became aware and gave tacit approval were the infamous death flights, in which a detained and tortured suspect would be drugged, loaded onto an airplane or helicopter and dropped in the River Plate or the Atlantic Ocean.

Intelligence gathered on dissidents was shared among the members of the operation. Clandestine extraditions to countries of origin of any insurgent caught in a secondary country were summarily performed. Additionally, foreign dissidents captured in secondary countries also faced execution. In various occasions Bolivian citizens were assassinated in Argentina and Chile. Conversely, Uruguayans and Chileans were abducted and disappeared in Brazil and Argentina. The level of cooperation between these countries’ intelligence agencies was unprecedented up until that time.

Collections of photos from families whose children and grandchildren had disappeared — By Giselle Bordoy WMAR

Collections of photos from families whose children and grandchildren had disappeared — By Giselle Bordoy WMAR

The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A or AAA as it was known), founded by Isabel Peron in 1976 conducted planned assassinations in a particularly dispassionate manner. The members operated in a bureaucratic fashion in which a list of those possibly targeted for assassination and disappearance would be created. Each target would be discussed and if the final determination to go ahead with a final action was reached, the method for liquidation would also be discussed and determined.

Various degrees of support to the “Condor” countries was provided by the U.S. Some of the support ranged from training on harsh counterinsurgency techniques, to information that eventually was used to detain, torture and kill dissidents some of which were even found to be American citizens. Two known cases were Charles Horman, 31, a filmmaker and Frank Teruggi, 24 a student and antiwar activist who were arrested and executed on a tip provided by American naval office, Ray E. Davis.

The Number of Dead and Disappeared

The number of dead, disappeared and tortured are terrifying. The estimate of people missing or killed, as per Brazilian journalist Nilson Mariano is nothing less than atrocious. They are estimated at a minimum as follows:

  • Paraguay — 2,000
  • Chile — 10,000 or more
  • Uruguay — 297
  • Brazil — 1000 or more
  • Argentina 30,000–60,000
  • Bolivia — 600 or more
  • Total Disappeared — 30,000
  • Total Arrested and Imprisoned — 400,000


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