The Miami Herald, March 14, 2004

THE CONDOR YEARS: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. John Dinges.
The New Press. 322 pages. $25.95.


John Dinges lifts the lid on Operation Condor in this compelling and shocking account of the no-holds barred cooperative international antiterrorist campaign by six military-ruled member governments of South America's Southern Cone against Communist guerrilla groups operating within their borders during the decade of the 1970s.

Condor - which first surfaced publicly in 1979 - has been known to all but the most dedicated observers of Latin America as a rather murky and somewhat sinister joint operation by several South American military dictatorships to combat regional insurgencies during the Cold War. But as Dinges reveals, Condor was far more sinister than once thought. "As a secret treaty," he says, "Condor elevated human rights crimes to the highest level of state policy, under the direct control and manipulation of the heads of state and ministers of government." And he backs it up.

Condor was not formalized by treaty until November 1975 at a secret gathering in Santiago Chile, of intelligence officers from the Southern Cone; a meeting initiated by Chile's military ruler, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. However, Dinges dates the informal beginning of the "Condor Years" from Pinochet's bloody Sept. 11, 1973, military coup against Socialist President Salvador Allende.

The six countries ultimately encompassed by Condor were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. Headquartered in Chile and dominated by Pinochet's newly minted and powerful intelligence unit, the Directorate of National Intelligence [DINA], Condor's initial focus - Phase One - was the establishment of a central data bank to which all member countries could contribute information on real or suspected individual or organizational "subversives." Phase Two and Phase Three operations, which peaked after the March 1976 military coup in Argentina, would be far more ominous. Phase Two called for actions against targets inside member countries. Phase Three would include surveillance and assassination elsewhere of "violent or non-violent enemies residing outside their own country at the time they were attacked."

Orlando Letelier, Chile's former foreign minister under Allende, became Condor's most high profile victim on Sept. 21, 1976, when DINA agents brazenly carried out his car-bomb murder as he drove to work in downtown Washington, D. C. Letelier was targeted, as Dinges describes it, not as a "violent terrorist" but a "a dangerous democrat." Political assassinations or attempts under the Condor banner also occurred in Europe.

Then-U.S. Congressman Ed Koch, later to become New York City mayor, was among those cited as a potential Condor assassination target for his attempt to cut off military aid to Uruguay. The threat could well have been only a rhetorical one made by an alcohol-fueled Uruguayan military officer at a cocktail party. But it was taken seriously enough that then CIA Director George Bush personally called Koch to warn him.

Even before Condor was formalized, DINA's chief, Col. Manuel Contreras, had recruited a makeshift team of Italian fascists and Cuban exile extremists to carry out such activities in Europe and the United States. Several of the Cubans, trained by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs, participated in the Letelier assassination.

As onerous and brutal as Condor and DINA's activities were, they occurred during turbulent times in the region. The Cold War was at high pitch and military dictatorships ruled throughout Latin America, most of which, if not all, had come to power with the support of the United States. To counter the Communist threat, real or perceived, governments kidnapped, murdered and tortured thousands of their own citizens, all in the name of anti-communism, with such activities were the most pervasive in Argentine, Chile and Uruguay.

Communist guerrillas from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia, inspired by Cuba and the late Che Guevara's call for more Vietnams in Latin America, had created their own revolutionary coordinating council two years before Condor. If not on the same scale, their methods were often as sadistic and inhumane as they governments they were trying to topple.

As the dirty war raged against real or perceived subversives, and despite the often brutal methods employed, Washington - and particularly then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger - seemed to be sending signals to the Condor countries.

Dinges cites as a prime example Kissinger's June 1976 visit to Chile for a speech on human rights. A meeting with Pinochet was on the agenda before the speech. Excerpts from a transcript of the meeting have Kissinger telling Pinochet that "in the United States we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here. I think the previous government [Allende] was headed toward communism. We wish your government well."

Kissinger then noted that he was going to speak about human rights later and wanted Pinochet to "understand my position;" that "the speech is not aimed at Chile" even though Chile and Cuba were the only countries singled out. Thus, in his public statement Kissinger turned on the red light, but his private message reflected a green light. A month later, Pinochet gave the go-ahead for Letelier's assassination.

Whether one agrees with all of its conclusions, The Condor Years reflects an exhaustive amount of research by its author - who lived in Chile at the time of the 1973 coup - including more than 200 interviews and a review of mountains of once-secret documents from Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, United States and elsewhere that have become available in recent years.

Don Bohning is a former Herald Latin America editor.

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