Operation Condor: How Pinochet eliminated exiled dissidents

"The UN official only left the plane at Santiago airport moments before the door closed. We never felt safe. Even when our plane landed in Rio we were very scared as people had been abducted there in the past and disappeared."

These are the words of Rodrigo Sanchez, who fled Chile with his mother for England in 1976. He escaped a maelstrom of repression unleashed after General Pinochet's coup of the democratically elected Allende government in 1973.

Rodrigo escaped the regime into exile with his life, many others thinking they were safe from the clutches of the Chilean death squads once they had begun a new life abroad, were not so fortunate.

This is the story of the trans-national terror network known as 'Operation Condor.' It is a sequence of events known of in the past but only brought into the public eye by Spanish Judge Balthazar Garzon's recent indictment and attempted extradition of Chile's General Pinochet to Madrid to answer to charges of genocide.

The accusation that Chile's former dictator personally authorised the termination of leading figures in exile - not only in Latin America but also in the US and Italy - suggests a degree of influence far beyond Pinochet's fiefdom of South America.

The examination of the origins of 'Operation Condor' and the widely held belief of US involvement in its paramilitary network has led to speculation that a Pinochet trial could reveal embarrassing disclosures about US foreign policy during the 1970s.

The British government has been put under considerable diplomatic pressure by the Clinton administration to release Pinochet according to human rights groups.

It has also been alleged that 'Operation Condor' was the initiative of the head of the CIA station in Chile, special operative Raymond Warren, during the early 1970's. Certain quarters have also suggested the sheer scope of 'Condor's' operations could only have been executed with the degree of logistical support and intelligence afforded by the CIA. It is certainly true many of the leading military figures who orchestrated the assassinations received US military training either in Panama or in closer to home in Fort Benning, Georgia.

During the height of the Cold War, America found valuable allies in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia in its war against communism. Some of the favoured generals who received American largesse in the form of military aid were obscure tyrants of impoverished land-locked countries like Bolivia and Paraguay, ruled by sons of German immigrants, in the case of these countries: colonel Hugo Banzer and General Alfredo Stroessner, respectively.

Others were more infamous and sinister leaders of junta's whose ruthlessness made them international pariahs; strutting figures in dark glasses like Jorge Videla of Argentina and, of course, Augusto Pinochet in Chile. These characters were united by their feverish anti-communist campaigns. Pinochet once described church soup kitchens as a "Marxist invention." Their collective ideologies often translated into internal wars against their own populace.

Another issue the military in each country could agree on was what to do with the defiant voices of protest coming from exiles, infuriatingly just across the border. This had become a permanent thorn in the sides of the dictatorships who feared their stability would be threatened. By mutual agreement it was decided that the secret services in the regions affected would engage in methods of reciprocal repression, weaving a spider's web of simultaneous surveillance, abduction and murder of high profile political refugees.

One of the first instances of this plan being orchestrated was the case of General Carlos Prats, one of the few generals who refused to join in Pinochet's coup of Allende in Chile. He subsequently went into exile in Argentina. General Prats and his wife were assassinated by car bomb in Buenos Aires exactly a year after Pinochet's bloody seizure of power. This attack was carried out by the extreme rightist terrorist group, Patria Ewing Hodar. Sympathetic officers in the Argentine security forces who had lent their assistance were to stage a coup of their own within two years.

Uruguay, which had been described as "the Switzerland of South America" for its history of democratic institutions, fell under military rule in the 1970's and was later described by US Senator Frank Church as: "the biggest torture chamber in Latin America." It was here that DINA - the Chilean secret police - came for their most recent victim. Eugenio Berrios, a former chemist for DINA, disappeared in November 1991 after he was ordered to testify in court regarding his relation to another former DINA agent. In April 1995, Berrios' body was found on a beach in Uraguay with bullet wounds in the head. This occurred after both countries had returned to at least normal civilian government but suggests some level of military co-operation regardless of democratic notions.

In the West, similar fates awaited outspoken foes of Pinochet who believed their sanctuaries were unreachable.

The leading Christian Democrat leader, Bernardo Leighton, was lobbying in Europe for a return to democracy in Chile. In Rome, on 6 October 1975, both he and his wife were subjected to a bungled assassination bid carried out under contract by a shadowy Italian neo-fascist group. Leighton was badly injured and barely survived. The two named in connection with plotting the attack: Stefano Delle Chiaie and Prince Veterio Borghese had visited Chile in October 1973 only a month after the coup and when the country was extremely difficult to enter.

Borghese, a notorious Italian war criminal who later developed excellent NATO contacts, was found to have planned a coup in the feverish political climate of 1970 Italy. When news broke of his scheming he fled to Francos, Spain.

Perhaps the murders that caused the most international controversy were those of the exiled Allende government foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, and his US secretary, Ronni Moffit who perished in a devastating car bomb attack in Washington DC's embassy district in 1976. What is distinctive about this case is the pressure the US government brought to bear on the Chilean military for murdering opponents next to the Capitol Building. The US demanded the extradition and prosecution of the two individuals involved, imprisoning the US-born DINA agent, Michael Vernon Townley, and achieving a first for Chile when the head of DINA, Manuel Contreras, was jailed in Santiago. However, his detainment is more akin to that of a Columbian drugs baron resembling a cushioned 'house arrest' set-up complete with communications links.

Evidence later emerged that the FBI knew the two bombers were entering the US on a mission, yet refused to intervene. A group of anti-Castro Cubans were instead implicated in planting the device that blew up Letelier and Moffiti. The Cuban 'émigrés' had received CIA weapons training.

The revelations concerned with 'Operation Condor' are soon to become widespread as Pinochet prepares to stand trial in Spain.

Though the international extent of state terror the ex-dictator presided over may be of some surprise, difficult questions regarding the degree of tacit Western compliance with the methods involved remain unanswered.