The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents, by John Dinges, NEW PRESS; 322 Pages; $25.95
Reviewed by Paul McLeary
March 14, 2004
Led by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Condor was a highly organized anti-terrorist, anti-communist military intelligence operation carried out by six "Southern Cone" countries (Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil), roughly between 1973 and 1980. During that time, anywhere from 15, 000 to 30,000 people were tortured or murdered by the group, all in the name of keeping communist forces from gaining a foothold in South America -- and keeping corrupt military dictatorships in power.
The ball started rolling with the 1970 election of Salvador Allende as the president of Chile. Allende immediately took steps to socialize the country's economy, taking business ownership away from several large U.S. corporations and handing them over to local workers. Kissinger and President Nixon, hardly amused by a country in the Western Hemisphere "going communist," gave the nod to the CIA to stage a military coup, resulting in the kidnapping and (possibly mistaken) murder of Chilean chief of staff Rene Schneider. By 1973, under pressure from militant groups on the right and left, and buckling under a U.S. embargo, the Allende government was overthrown by Gen. Pinochet's forces. Allende was killed in a firefight.
Soon after installing himself in power, Pinochet reached out to other like-minded military dictatorships in South America and set up Operation Condor, a far-reaching operation that shared information and coordinated action against leftist groups, and -- through a process of intimidation, arrest, torture and murder -- attempted to break the back of the opposition. Although the U.S government didn't officially support Condor, it tended to turn a blind eye to some of its more violent -- and illegal -- actions.
Kissinger, like any master of realpolitik, refrained from making any overt comments about the situation, instead using the CIA and U.S. embassies in South America to communicate his wishes by gesture, inference and inaction. "Under the leadership of Henry Kissinger," Dinges writes, "first as Richard Nixon's national security adviser and later as secretary of state, the United States sent an unequivocal signal to the most extreme rightist forces that democracy could be sacrificed in the cause of ideological warfare. Criminal operational tactics, including assassination, were not only acceptable but supported with weapons and money."
Dinges brings to light all manner of recently declassified CIA and State Department memos and communications, including one in which the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, alarmed by the human rights abuses he was witnessing, made the mistake of broaching the subject to Pinochet during a meeting, the result of which was a quick Chilean protest to Kissinger, who shot back a memo to the embassy saying, "Tell Popper to cut out the political science lectures." Unsurprisingly, this curt reprimand doesn't exactly place Kissinger on the right side of history.
The abuses Condor perpetrated against leftist groups remained largely ignored for years, but thanks to the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with former officials and those who escaped the carnage alive, Dinges is able to go into remarkable detail in exposing the actions of both the opposition groups and the military strongmen who battled them. One often-overlooked nugget Dinges includes in the book is one of the most brazen acts of terrorism Condor ever attempted -- in Washington, D.C., of all places.
Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean ambassador to Washington and a Pinochet opponent, was assassinated when his car was blown up near Sheridan Square by a remote-control bomb in September 1976. Several men working for Condor were later arrested, and it was soon discovered that the group also had its sights on then-New York Rep. Ed Koch for a brief period of time.
Operation Condor fell victim to its own internal tensions in the late 1970s and broke apart soon after. By the early 1990s, none of the participating governments were still in power, and few involved had ever been brought to justice. But in 1996, Joan Graces, who at the time of the 1973 Chilean coup was an adviser to Allende, and by the 1990s was working as a lawyer in Spain, started work to bring charges against Pinochet, alleging that Chile and Argentina were participants in a conspiracy to commit human rights crimes.
At the same time, in a separate case, a court in Spain had begun proceedings to prosecute former members of Argentina's military junta for human rights abuses carried out in the '70s. Using contacts at the FBI, Graces unearthed thousands of Department of Justice, FBI and CIA documents outlining what the U.S. government knew about Condor and its crimes, and in October 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London.
There are more than 200 international warrants for the arrest of military officials who took part in Condor, but the U.S. government has remained mum on the issue. Kissinger has refused to testify in criminal proceedings related to Condor, and Dinges says that there is ample evidence of "cooperation, liaison, acquiescence, and even complicity" between the United States and Condor.
The Cold War, like the current war on terrorism, made for strange bedfellows. Nixon and Kissinger were willing to overlook human rights abuses and fund the overthrow of a democratically elected socialist government in the name of containing communism. Dinges' book, dense with fact and personal account, goes a long way toward finally bringing the truths of that dark time into the light.
Paul McLeary is a New York writer.