Operation Condor: The Cold War US Conspiracy That Terrorized South America
LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN, 7 Sep 2020
During the 1970s and 80s, eight US (Henry Kissinger)-backed right wing military dictatorships jointly plotted the cross-border kidnap, torture, rape and murder of hundreds of their left wing political opponents. Now some of the perpetrators are finally facing justice.
3 Sep 2020 – The last time Anatole Larrabeiti saw his parents, he was four years old. It was 26 September 1976, the day after his birthday. He remembers the shootout, the bright flashes of gunfire and the sight of his father lying on the ground, mortally wounded, outside their home in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his mother lying beside him. Then Larrabeiti remembers being taken away by armed police, along with his 18-month-old sister, Victoria Eva.
The two children became prisoners. At first, they were held in a grimy car repair garage that had been turned into a clandestine torture centre. That was in another part of Buenos Aires, the city that their parents had moved to in June 1973, joining thousands of leftwing militants and former guerrillas fleeing a military coup in their native Uruguay. The following month, in October 1976, Anatole and Victoria Eva were taken to Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and held at the military intelligence headquarters. A few days before Christmas, they were flown to a third country, Chile, in a small aircraft that climbed high above the Andes. Larrabeiti remembers looking down on snowy peaks from the plane.
Young children do not usually make epic journeys through three countries in as many months without parents or relatives. The closest thing they had to family was a jailer known as Aunt Mónica. It was probably Aunt Mónica who abandoned them in a large square, the Plaza O’Higgins, in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, on 22 December 1976. Witnesses recall two young, well-dressed children stepping out of a black car with tinted windows. Larrabeiti wandered around the square, hand-in-hand with his sister, until the owner of a merry-go-round ride spotted them. He invited them to sit on the ride, expecting some panicked parents to appear, looking for their lost children. But nobody came, so he called the local police.
No one could understand how the two children, whose accents marked them as foreign, had got here. It was as if they had dropped from the sky. Anatole was too young to make sense of what had happened. How does a four-year-old who finds himself in Chile explain that he does not know where he is, that he lives in Argentina, but is really Uruguayan? All he knew was that he was in a strange place, where people spoke his language in a different way.
The next day, the children were taken to an orphanage, and from there they were sent on to separate foster homes. After a few months, they had a stroke of luck. A dental surgeon and his wife wanted to adopt, and when the magistrate in charge of the children asked the surgeon which sibling he wanted, he said both. “He said that we had to come together, because we were brother and sister,” Larrabeiti told me when we met earlier this year in Chile’s capital, Santiago.
Today, he is a trim, smartly suited 47-year-old public prosecutor with hazel eyes and a shaven head. “I have decided to live without hate,” he said. “But I want people to know.”
What Larrabeiti wants people to know is that his family were victims of one of the 20th century’s most sinister international state terror networks. It was called Operation Condor, after the broad-winged vulture that soars above the Andes, and it joined eight South American military dictatorships – Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador – into a single network that covered four-fifths of the continent.
It has taken decades to fully expose this system, which enabled governments to send death squads on to each other’s territory to kidnap, murder and torture enemies – real or suspected – among their emigrant and exile communities. Condor effectively integrated and expanded the state terror unleashed across South America during the cold war, after successive rightwing military coups, often encouraged by the US, erased democracy across the continent. Condor was the most complex and sophisticated element of a broad phenomenon in which tens of thousands of people across South America were murdered or disappeared by military governments in the 1970s and 80s.
Most Condor victims disappeared for ever. Hundreds were secretly disposed of – some of them tossed into the sea from planes or helicopters after being tied up, shackled to concrete blocks or drugged so that they could barely move. Larrabeiti’s mother, Victoria, who was last seen in an Argentinian torture centre in 1976, is one of them. His father, Mario, who was a leftwing militant, probably died in the shootout when they were snatched by the police. Enough victims have survived, however, to tell stories that, when matched against a growing volume of declassified documents, amount to a single, ghastly tale.
In the past two decades, Larrabeiti’s story has been told and retold in half a dozen courts and tribunals around the world. In the absence of a fully formed global criminal justice system, the perpetrators of Condor are being taken to court through a piecemeal process. “The trouble with borders is that it is easier to cross them to kill someone than it is to pursue a crime,” says Carlos Castresana, a prosecutor who has pursued Condor cases and the dictators behind them in Spain. Those seeking justice have had to rely on a judicial spider’s web of national laws, international treaties and rulings by human rights tribunals. The individuals they pursue are often decrepit and unrepentant old men, but a tenacious network of survivors, lawyers, investigators and academics, rather like the postwar Nazi-hunters, has taken up the challenge of ensuring that such international state terror does not go untried.
The process is painfully slow. The first major criminal investigation focusing on Condor – with victims and defendants from seven countries – began in Rome more than 20 years ago. It still has not ended. On a sweltering day in July 2019, a judge in the Rome case handed life sentences to a former president of Peru, a Uruguayan foreign minister, a Chilean military intelligence chief and 21 others for their role in a coordinated campaign of extermination and torture. The defendants are appealing, and a final verdict is due within a year.
Much of what we now know about Condor has been unearthed or pieced together in Rome, Buenos Aires and in dozens of court cases – large and small – in other countries. Further evidence comes from US intelligence papers dealing with Argentina that were declassified on the orders of Barack Obama. In 2019, the US completed its handover of 47,000 pages to Argentina. These documents show how much the US and European governments knew about what was happening across South America, and how little they cared.
When he was seven, Anatole Larrabeiti discovered his true identity, thanks to his tenacious paternal grandmother, Angélica, who tracked the siblings down. Stories had appeared in the Chilean press when they vanished in 1976, though headlines claimed they were abandoned by unidentified “red terrorist parents”. Over the next few years, word of the missing children’s whereabouts spread from one humanitarian organisation to another, before eventually reaching the Brazilian human rights group Clamor, which had activists in Valparaíso, the city in Chile where Larrabeiti and his sister were living. After a tipoff, the activists secretly photographed the children on their way to school and sent pictures to Angélica. She immediately recognised her grandchildren. “My sister was a replica of my mother as a child,” explained Larrabeiti. “And I have her lips.”
By agreement with their biological grandparents, the children remained with their adopted parents in Chile. When Victoria Eva turned nine, she was told about her true identity, and the children started to make family visits to Uruguay. “They were good parents,” said Larrabeiti, of the couple who adopted them. “They kept the links with Uruguay and we had psychological support, which I needed when I became a very angry adolescent.”
The crimes committed by Latin America’s military regimes during the cold war continue to haunt the continent. Only a perverse combination of power and paranoia can explain why these regimes awarded themselves the right not just to murder and torture, but also to steal children such as the Larrabeitis. The men perpetrating such crimes saw themselves as warriors in a messianic, frontierless war against the spread of armed revolution across Latin America.
Their fantasies were overblown, but not entirely baseless. In 1965, the Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara had waved an emotional goodbye to his comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro, leaving Cuba. He vowed to initiate a new phase of revolutionary activity, extending guerrilla warfare across Latin America. Che was killed while carrying out his mission in Bolivia in 1967, but the US by then viewed revolution in Latin America as an existential threat – recalling how Russian nuclear weapons had reached Cuban soil during the 1962 missile crisis. In a bid to strengthen anti-communist forces, the US pumped money and weapons to armed forces across the region, vastly increasing the power of the military within these states and eventually, as the American journalist John Dinges has written, ending up in an “intimate embrace with mass murderers running torture camps, body dumps, and crematoriums”. In the 70s, as rightwing military coups and state terror swept the continent, an attempt at coordinating an armed response was made via a loose network known as the Revolutionary Coordinating Junta (JCR). Formed by groups from Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia in 1973, the JCR had grandiose plans to pursue Che’s continental uprising, but lacked funds, friends and firepower. Meanwhile, South America’s military regimes began to collaborate more closely, initially striking bilateral agreements that allowed operatives to carry out their work on foreign soil.
Aurora Meloni, a Uruguayan who had gone into exile in Argentina with her husband, Daniel Banfi, and two young daughters, was one of the first to suspect that South America’s violent right was plotting an international network of terror and rendition. At 3am on 13 September 1974, Meloni and Banfi were at home in a suburb of Buenos Aires when about half a dozen armed men burst through their door. Meloni, then aged 23, immediately recognised one of them as the notorious Uruguayan police inspector Hugo Campos Hermida. Back in Uruguay, Hermida had once questioned Meloni and Banfi – then students of literature and history respectively – after they had taken part in a demonstration back home in support of the leftwing Tupamaro guerrilla movement, to which Banfi belonged. “I remembered how he [Hermida] had hit me,” Meloni told me. “He was very aggressive.”
Meloni could not understand why Hermida was working freely in a foreign country. At that time, Argentina was still a democracy, with rule of law. (The military takeover came later, in March 1976.) Foreign policemen had no right to act there. After their apartment had been ransacked for clues as to the whereabouts of other exiled Tupamaros, Hermida took Banfi away. Aurora assumed she would soon discover which police station or jail he had been taken to, but there was silence.
In September 1974, this was still a bizarre event. “We had never heard of people disappearing in Argentina before. I was sure I would find him,” Meloni told me. Eventually she called a press conference. How could someone vanish like that? The answer came five weeks later, when three bodies bearing torture scars were discovered by police 75 miles away. Car headlights and a group of men had been seen in a remote spot at night, and pile of fresh earth had been left behind. Daniel Banfi was one of three murdered Uruguayans found in the hastily dug grave.
The following month, Meloni left Argentina, and eventually moved to Italy, where, since her father was Italian, she had dual nationality. She returned to Uruguay for three spells over the next 25 years, seeking justice. But, just as in Chile and Argentina, the price of ending dictatorship in Uruguay in 1985 was an amnesty, which ruled that state representatives could not be charged with crimes committed during the regime’s 12 years in power. It seemed nothing could be done.
It wasn’t until the end of the century that cracks in the legal status quo began to appear. In the late 90s, a Spanish judge named Baltasar Garzón began testing a previously ignored law that obliged Spain to pursue any alleged human rights abusers anywhere in the world, if their own countries refused to try them. Garzón and a group of progressive prosecutors opened investigations for genocide and terrorism against Argentina’s former military junta and Pinochet’s regime, and “a criminal conspiracy” between them.
Since the accused did not live in Spain, Garzón’s quest was viewed as quixotic. “People laughed at us,” the Spanish prosecutor who brought these cases, Carlos Castresana, told me in Madrid recently. On 16 October 1998, however, Pinochet was arrested by police at a London clinic after a minor hernia operation. He was a frequent visitor to the city, taking tea at Fortnum & Mason and popping in on his old friend and ally Margaret Thatcher.
Amid the headlines and the flurry of paperwork sent to London over the following days, few people noticed that the initial warrant for Pinochet’s arrest was based on a Condor case. It named a Chilean victim who disappeared in Argentina, Edgardo Enríquez, and stated that “there is evidence of a coordinated plan, known as Operation Condor, in which several countries took part”.
Pinochet was held for 17 months while Britain’s law lords twice approved extradition to Spain. Labour party home secretary Jack Straw stymied the extradition, instead sending Pinochet home to Chile on health grounds. On his return, the former dictator made a mockery of that justification by stepping out of his wheelchair to wave joyfully at supporters. Yet something major had changed, as prosecutors, judges and activists realised that South America’s dictators and their henchmen were no longer untouchable.
In 1999, inspired by Garzón, Aurora Meloni brought a murder case in Italy against Uruguayan security officials who were suspected of killing Banfi and others. Families of other Condor victims with Italian citizenship joined Meloni, and the case broadened to cover Condor crimes in several countries. From her home in Milan, Meloni – now aged 69 – has kept the case alive ever since. “It has taken a long time,” she told me. After last year’s sentencing in Rome, the plaintiffs were delighted, but Meloni points out that until we know the outcome of the appeals, the story isn’t over.
When Daniel Banfi was murdered in late 1974, Condor did not yet formally exist. His death can be seen as a precursor, or trial run. Hermida Campos was one of a handful of Uruguayan security officials who were secretly testing ways of hunting down exiles with their Argentinian counterparts.
Another of those preparing the rendition programme with Argentina, which would later be absorbed into Condor, was the Uruguayan navy lieutenant Jorge Tróccoli. Now a grey, jowly 73-year-old, Tróccoli was the only defendant present at the Rome trial. He had moved to Italy and was arrested in Salerno, near Naples, in 2007. In the 90s, Tróccoli wrote two semi-autobiographical novels about how Uruguay’s military had embraced torture, murder and repression. In La Hora del Depredador (The Predator’s Hour), a torturer who appears to act as a proxy for the author (though Tróccoli insists this is fiction) declares: “When this is over, we will have to make peace. And that won’t happen if we use methods like this … What’s more, you will begin to feel bad about it as the years go by.” Yet, in court, Tróccoli showed no remorse, claiming innocence. “He sat beside me one day,” Meloni told me. “He was angry, not ashamed.”
Most of what we know about Operation Condor only emerged years after it was over. Formal coordinating offices existed in several countries, and the network generated considerable paperwork as documents and encrypted cables were sent back and forth over a dedicated communications network called Condortel. But at the time the victims did not understand the scale of the international conspiracy.
For more than a decade, public knowledge of Operation Condor was largely limited to an obscure FBI note quoted in a book, published in 1980, by John Dinges and fellow journalist Saul Landau. They were investigating the murders of a former Chilean ambassador and his American assistant, who were killed in Washington DC in 1976 by Pinochet’s agents. In a cable sent shortly after the killings, an FBI officer wrote: “Operation Condor is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning leftists, communists and Marxists which was recently established between the cooperating services in South America.” The note went on to mention “a more secret phase” of Condor, which “involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to carry out sanctions, [including] assassinations”.
Beyond that, relatively little was known. It was in Paraguay where the first major breakthrough took place. In 1992, a young magistrate, José Agustín Fernández, received a tipoff on the whereabouts of the secret police archive of the country’s former strongman Gen Alfredo Stroessner, who grabbed power in 1954 and stayed until 1989. At dawn, three days before Christmas, Fernández made a surprise visit to a police station outside the capital city, Asunción. With a caravan of television cameras as company, but armed only with a warrant signed in his own hand, the magistrate forced Paraguay’s once-untouchable police to hand over the documents. “The journalists had to lend us a truck to take it all back to the court house,” Fernández told me. “Perhaps the most shocking thing were the photographs. They included people who were disappeared by Condor.”
Fernández’s haul became known as the Archive of Terror. Here, buried among half a million sheets of paper detailing three decades of domestic repression under Stroessner, was the story of how Operation Condor was created, and by whom. It was not what Fernández had originally sought, and he was shocked. “We had heard the stories about it, but here was written proof,” he told me.
The documents established that Condor was formally created in November 1975, when Pinochet’s spy chief, Manuel Contreras, invited 50 intelligence officers from Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil to the Army War Academy on La Alameda, Santiago’s central avenue. Pinochet welcomed them in person. “Subversion has developed a leadership structure that is intercontinental, continental, regional and sub-regional,” Contreras told them, referring to organised resistance from opponents of the continent’s military regimes. He proposed a sophisticated network linked by “telex, microfilm, computers, cryptography” to track down and eliminate enemies.
The club, with the first five countries as members, came into existence on 28 November. Brazil joined the next year, while Peru and Ecuador joined in 1978. At its height, Condor covered 10% of the world’s populated land mass, and formed what Francesca Lessa of Oxford University calls “a borderless area of terror and impunity”.
The Archive of Terror documents were revealing, but they were largely dry, bureaucratic records. Behind them lay a reality of the kidnap, torture, rape and murder of at least 763 people, according to a database that Lessa is building. Yet it was only after the archive was found – and especially after Condor was named in Garzón’s Pinochet case – that the disconnected stories of the victims began to cohere into a bigger story.
Laura Elgueta lives in a small house in La Reina, a tranquil suburb of Santiago where purple jacaranda trees blossom. She is one of Condor’s survivors. Her friend Odette Magnet – whose 27-year-old sister, María Cecilia, disappeared in Argentina in 1976 – lives a five-minute walk away. “When I was looking for somewhere to move to, I wanted to live near her,” Magnet explained as we made the walk to Elgueta’s home. Together, the two women have long shouldered the burden of explaining Condor to Chileans at human rights conferences and in the media.
Although Condor operatives hunted down targets in all member states, their work focused on Argentina in particular, which was a refuge for exiles escaping military dictatorships across the continent before it, too, fell under military control. Condor squads dispatched to Argentina from Uruguay and Chile used a series of makeshift jails and torture centres provided by their hosts. The first was the abandoned car repair garage, Automotores Orletti, where Anatole Larrabeiti was held and his mother Victoria was last seen alive. Larrabeiti still recalls seeing a jar of glittering metal in the garage, in which victims’ wedding rings were kept.
Later, Condor victims were taken to Club Atlético, a codename for the basement of a police warehouse in Buenos Aires. This is where a blindfolded, 18-year-old Laura Elgueta arrived in July 1977 with her sister-in-law, Sonia, after armed Chileans and Argentinians snatched them from her home nearby. At the time, Elgueta’s Chilean family – part of which was now exiled in Argentina – was still searching for her activist brother, Kiko, who had disappeared in Buenos Aires the previous July. “We knew he had been kidnapped, but that was all,” Elgueta told me.
In the car, the sexual, physical and verbal abuse began. It continued at Club Atlético – where the women were stripped, handcuffed, hooded and given their numbers, K52 and K53. “Whoever walked past would insult you, or beat you, or throw you to the ground,” Elgueta recalled. They could hear fellow prisoners walking in chains. The Chilean torturers made no attempt to disguise their nationality, and Elgueta and Sonia’s interrogation focused solely on Chile’s exile community in Argentina. The women were taken to the torture room by turns. Beatings, more sexual abuse and electric shocks followed. “They’d say: ‘Now the party can really start.’ Despite all we know and have read, you cannot imagine what human beings are capable of. It was a house of horrors,” Elgueta told me. “When my sister-in-law came out of one session, they had given her such strong electric shocks that she was still trembling.”
After eight hours, Elgueta and her sister-in-law were released. Their torturers had realised the two women knew nothing about Pinochet’s political or armed opponents. “As I left, the one [torturer] who had decided I was his girlfriend was there shouting: ‘Don’t take her away. I want to be with my girl!’” Elgueta was still blindfolded when she was driven away and dumped on a street corner near her home.
Although Elgueta and Magnet had campaigned for Operation Condor to be investigated in Chile for years, they say that the media and politicians there only became interested after Pinochet was arrested in London. “Countries did not want to recognise that they had allowed armed units from other countries to operate on their territory,” Elgueta told me. “The ignorance about Condor here was incredible.”
Awareness of Condor is now more widespread, and many deaths are finally being investigated by the courts, but that does not mean all Chileans think it was a bad idea. In fact, just as in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, a small but significant part of Chilean society defends the dictatorship and its enforcers.
One March afternoon in Santiago, I walked to La Alameda, the broad main avenue, which is officially called Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, where daily battles were raging between rock-throwing protesters and teargas-armed police. Protests demanding reforms to the neoliberal state and constitution imposed by Pinochet had rumbled on since October 2019, reflecting broad anger at hangovers from that era – including allegations of police abuse under the conservative government of billionaire president Sebastián Piñera – the country’s fifth-richest man, whose brother served as a minister under Pinochet. Alleged victims, many of whom were demonstrators, talk of torture, rape, killings and attempted killings. “We never thought we would have to come back to Chile under these circumstances,” declared José Miguel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch, when it presented a report that counted injuries to more than 11,000 people in protests up to November 2019. “We thought this was history.”
On the avenue, an empty teargas canister lying among freshly-hurled stones bore, by coincidence, the name “Condor” – a company that has long supplied the Chilean army and police. Protesters claimed these were being shot directly at people’s faces, helping account for more than 400 eye injuries. Piñera at first condemned protesters as being “at war against all good Chileans”, but has since ordered investigations and replaced his interior minister Andrés Chadwick (a former Pinochet supporter and cousin of Piñera), who was then punished by parliament with a ban from holding public office for five years. A referendum on constitutional change, which had been postponed because of Covid-19, is now scheduled for 25 October.
On the outskirts of the city, Magnet took me to Villa Grimaldi, a detention centre in a former restaurant complex where victims were sometimes locked for days inside tiny wooden boxes. It is now a museum that includes drawings by the English doctor Sheila Cassidy, who was tortured there after treating a wounded leader of the armed opposition to Pinochet. Cassidy later told of how women prisoners were given electric shocks to the vagina and raped, including by dogs. On display at Villa Grimaldi is one of the concrete beams to which victims were tied before they were taken to be dropped into the sea from helicopters.
Magnet and I looked for her sister María Cecilia’s name among the 188 small ceramic plaques set down beside rose bushes to commemorate each of Pinochet’s female victims. Magnet’s sister had been an active part of the exiled opposition. “Sometimes I wish she hadn’t been so brave, and had fled from Argentina before this happened, as others did,” said Magnet. Eventually we found María Cecilia’s plaque, beside a bush of pale yellow roses.
Although many of the men who carried out Operation Condor were alumni of the US army’s School of the Americas – a training camp in Panama for military from allied regimes across the continent – this was not a US-led operation. Recent revelations, however, show just how much western intelligence services knew about Condor.
Shortly before I travelled to Chile in March, startling news emerged about a Swiss company that had, for decades, supplied cryptography machines to military, police and spy agencies around the world. The company, the Washington Post revealed, had been secretly owned by the CIA and West Germany’s BND intelligence service. Any messages sent via its cryptography machines could, unbeknownst to the users, be read by the US and West Germany. Among the company’s clients were the regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. As the Washington Post put it, the CIA “was, in effect, supplying rigged communications gear to some of South America’s most brutal regimes and, as a result, in [a] unique position to know the extent of their atrocities”.
The new information about the rigged cryptography machines follows the revelations, from a declassified document handed to Argentina by the US last year, that West German, British and French intelligence services even explored the possibility of copying at least part of the Condor method in Europe. A heavily redacted CIA cable from September 1977 is headed: “Visit of representatives of West German, French and British intelligence services to Argentina to discuss methods for establishment of an anti-subversive organization similar to Condor”. The visit coincided with cross-frontier terror campaigns by Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigades and the Irish Republican Army. According to the cable, the visitors explained that “the terrorist/subversive threat had reached such dangerous levels in Europe that they believed it best if they pooled their intelligence resources in a cooperative organization such as Condor”.
There is no evidence that this plan went any further, but we know that by that point, Condor countries were planning a Europe-wide assassination campaign. Chile had already independently carried out attacks in Europe, including an assassination attempt in Rome, in October 1975, on the exiled Chilean politician Bernardo Leighton. Now Condor teams were to kill people of any nationality living in Europe who they deemed terrorist leaders – though “non-terrorists also were reportedly candidates”, a CIA report from May 1977 reveals. The report states that “leaders of Amnesty Internation[al] were mentioned as targets”.
Fortunately for those on the hit list, the blustering nationalism of generals in different Latin American countries, who had spent much of their careers preparing to fight each other – rather than “subversives” at home – came to a head in 1978, when Chile and Argentina fell out over their maritime frontiers in the Beagle Channel. The quarrelling made military cooperation between them impossible, and eventually provoked the collapse of the wider Condor network, putting paid to the campaign in Europe. Just a few years later, Chile would secretly assist Britain in the Falklands war, which would, in turn, lead to the fall of Argentina’s military junta in 1983.
The dictatorships fell, one by one, during the 80s. In the wake of these upheavals, attempts to prosecute human rights abusers in Condor countries were either nonexistent, or easily stalled, amid widespread fear that the military would rebel and reimpose dictatorship. Argentina’s former junta leaders were tried and found guilty of human rights abuses in 1985, but soon pardoned – and an amnesty law introduced. In Uruguay, an amnesty was approved in 1986, hours before Condor officers and others were due in court for the first time. It seemed that some of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century were destined to go unpunished.
That began to change with Pinochet’s arrest in London. “It was Garzón who woke the world up to this,” Laura Elgueta told me. As Pinochet’s arrest highlighted, amnesty laws did not provide universal protection, and Condor was a weak spot. In retrospect, those who expected lifelong impunity for their involvement in Condor made three key mistakes. First of all, they stole children, a crime that even amnesties did not cover. Second, they wrongly assumed that amnesties would cover crimes committed on foreign soil. Finally, they hid their killings by making victims disappear – thereby turning those crimes into ongoing, unresolved kidnappings, which, unlike a murder where a body is found, cannot be covered by a statute of limitations or an amnesty for past events. These errors allowed a bold group of prosecutors and judges to bypass amnesty laws in a handful of carefully selected cases. These, in turn, revealed such ghastly truths that some governments were shamed into voiding the amnesty laws.
In Argentina, the trial of one of Elgueta’s Chilean kidnappers, for a separate assassination in 1974, produced a 2001 court ruling that statutes of limitations did not apply to crimes against humanity – which include torture, murder and kidnapping. As these were crimes routinely committed by a military regime that had “disappeared” more than 20,000 of its citizens during the so-called dirty war, this ruling undermined the Argentinian amnesty laws, and they were annulled in 2003. Uruguay’s amnesty law, meanwhile, was voided in 2011 at the behest of the Inter-American court of human rights in Costa Rica, after it had investigated the case of a kidnapped baby who had been held with Anatole Larrabeiti and his sister at the military intelligence headquarters in Montevideo.
Chile’s amnesty law still stands but, by 2002, a series of court decisions had left it almost toothless, declaring that it could not be applied to operations abroad, forced disappearances or cases with child victims. Of the major Condor countries, only Brazil conserves its amnesty law intact, and it remains the country where least progress has been made in pursuing crimes committed by its military dictatorship.
By 2011, with most amnesties cancelled or deemed largely inapplicable, Condor cases could finally be investigated more freely – and information began to flow between investigators in multiple countries. Two long-running cases – the one instigated by Aurora Meloni in Italy, along with another in Argentina – have come to sentencing in the past five years. In 2016, the trial in Argentina, which centred on 109 Condor victims from six countries, ended with 15 prison sentences – including for former junta president Reynaldo Bignone, who was then 87. Seven other accused men died during the three-year trial. The sentence was the first to recognise “a transnational, illegal conspiracy … dedicated to persecuting, kidnapping, forcefully repatriating, torturing and murdering political activists.” Argentina, it added, had become “a hunting ground”.
The Rome case extended the investigation to suspects from Peru, Bolivia and Chile. As in Argentina, it required unprecedented – if sluggish and sometimes failed – collaboration between countries, but the conclusion was the same: Condor was an illegal international network of state terror. Both sentences provided not only justice but, in their detailed investigation and description of what had happened, a telling of history as well.
Thanks also to dozens of smaller cases across eight countries, many Condor victims have had their day in court. Francesca Lessa has counted a total of 469 Condor victims during its most coordinated phase, between 1976 and 1978, and a further 296 in the years of more bilateral operations immediately prior to and after the main Condor period. They include 23 cases involving children, and at least 370 murders. Almost 60% of those cases have gone through court, or are in the process of doing so – with 94 people handed jail sentences (though often to men who can’t be extradited from their home countries to serve them).
By the standards of human rights investigations, where progress is often slow and halting, that is good work. Yet given the enormity of the crimes, it is hard to feel that justice has truly been served. Only a few dozen people – mostly elderly men who are already in jail – have been found guilty. Many others, such as Campos Hermida, died without having to justify their actions. No one has begged forgiveness or revealed where bodies are buried. “Nobody here has confessed,” said Uruguayan prosecutor Mirtha Guianze, whose country has the most victims but only a handful of convictions.
Fear of rightwing extremist violence still stalks South America, especially among survivors. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s defence of his county’s dictatorship is especially worrying. The idea that a network similar to Condor might one day reappear is not fanciful. The best shield against that is to ensure perpetrators of state terrorism go to jail, even if that takes decades. “It would be presumptuous to claim that tyranny will stop because of this,” Pablo Ouviña, the prosecutor who led the Buenos Aires trial, told me. “What we can show, however, is that if it does reappear, it will be probably be tried in court later on.” That is the gift victims of Operation Condor can leave for future generations.
Anatole Larrabeiti is nearing the end of his personal judicial marathon. “It has been continuous over almost my whole adult life,” he said. He and his sister first took their case to a civil court in Argentina in 1996, as a way of determining the truth of what had happened to them and receiving compensation. After two decades of fruitless attempts to find redress, and constant rebuffs from Argentinian courts, in 2019 their case was taken up by the Inter-American court of human rights – which can call on states to pay compensation and change laws. “I’m pretty sure we will win,” Larrabeiti said. The court’s decision could oblige Argentina to change the way it handles cases like this, and set precedent for other countries. It may also mean that Larrabeiti and his sister finally receive compensation. But that is not what matters most to him. “Up to now, the task of finding evidence has too often been on us. We want that changed,” he said.
As we finished talking, Larrabeiti admitted that he had felt his voice cracking while he delved through his memories, thinking of his parents or the other stolen children. “Did you notice? It was in my throat,” he said. “My sister was very young, and unlike me she has no concrete memories of our parents, but that does not mean there are no emotional scars.” Justice in court is important for preventing a repeat of the past, he believes, but so too is memory. “We can contribute to that,” he said.
Anatole himself has chosen to live without bitterness, swallowing down the rage that he once felt – even towards his biological parents and the dangers to which they exposed the family. “I was furious. Why did they have children? Then I realised – it was an act of faith,” he told me. “Just as it is an act of faith to talk about it now, even though people may think it impossible that something like this could ever have happened.”
Giles Tremlett is a correspondent based in Spain. He is the author of Ghosts of Spain, and biographies of Catherine of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.
Tags: Anglo America, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Communism, Hegemony, Henry Kissinger, Imperialism, Latin America Caribbean, Marxism, Operation Condor, Paraguay, Peru, South America, USA, Uruguay
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