IX. Operation Condor
Argentina. Reluctant Partner - Human Rights Watch, December 2001
During the mid-1970s Argentina participated in Operation Condor, a plan to coordinate intelligence activity between the military dictatorships of Chile (whose secret police chief Manuel Contreras set up the operation from Santiago), Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. Its purported purpose was to exchange information on the activities of government opponents and exiles. However, the plan went much further than the exchange of information and intelligence. It also led to scores of assassinations, the secret detention and transfer of exiles to their home country, and, in many cases, their subsequent "disappearance." The security forces of the governments involved worked jointly in one another's territory, often covering up cross-frontier transfers by making it appear the detainee had been arrested locally, or had died abroad. To cover up transfers and assassinations, it stage-managed incidents that were then "reported" in the local media, making it appear that the victims had been killed in political disputes.
Some of the most notorious crimes attributed to Operation Condor, especially kidnappings and "disappearances," took place in Argentina and are now under active investigation by Argentine courts. At this writing, requests for the extradition of retired military officers who participated in human rights crimes in Argentina are awaiting decisions by Uruguayan and Chilean courts. In the case of Chile, they include Manuel Contreras and General Pinochet himself, who is wanted for his role in coordinating the operation, as well as for the murder in Buenos Aires of retired army general Carlos Prats.
The governments of the
region have been just as averse to granting extradition requests from the courts
in neighboring countries as they have to requests from European courts. In 1985
an Argentine court investigating the May 1976 assassination in Buenos Aires of
the former President of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, Hector Gutiérrez
Ruiz, and fellow congressman Zelmar Michelini, requested the extradition of four
infamous Uruguayan torturers, José Nino Gavazzo, Manuel Cordero, Jorge
Silveira, and Hugo Campos Hermida. These officers, working from Automotores
Orletti, Operation Condor's base in the Argentine capital, were responsible for
the secret detention, torture, and "disappearance" of dozens of
Uruguayans. The request got "lost" in the Argentine Foreign Ministry.
President Menem included Gavazzo and the other Uruguayan officers in his 1989
pardons, reportedly at the personal request of Uruguayan President Julio María
Sanguinetti. As a quid pro quo, Sanguinetti allegedly allowed two members
of the Montonero movement, wanted in Argentina on terrorism charges, to remain
unmolested in Uruguay, allowing Menem to benefit them, too, with a pardon.102
The Condor Case in Argentina
On June 20, 2001, Videla, already under house arrest in the "babies" case, appeared in an Argentine court to be questioned on charges of illicit association, illegal arrest, and torture in connection with Operation Condor.103 Two months previously, investigating judge Rodolfo Canicoba had issued an international warrant for the arrest and extradition of former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, now in exile in Brasilia, and of Manuel Contreras, the former chief of the National Intelligence Bureau (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, DINA), Pinochet's secret police. Contreras had been released from prison in January after completing a seven-year sentence in Chile for Operation Condor's most notorious crime, the 1976 murder in Washington D.C. of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronni Moffitt. However, he was immediately placed under house arrest as a suspect in the abduction and "disappearance" of a former Chilean copper mine official. On July 3, 2001, in response to Canicoba's warrant, Judge Alberto Chaigneau of the Chilean Supreme Court ordered Contreras's arrest pending consideration of the Argentine extradition request. This was the first time a Chilean judge had ordered the preventive detention of a former military official pending an extradition hearing since the Letelier case made international headlines in the 1970s. The Argentine prosecutor in the Condor case, Miguel Angel Osorio, has also requested Uruguay to extradite Gavazzo, Cordero, Silveira, and Campos.
In Chile, the Prats family has waged a long legal battle to obtain the extradition to Argentina of General Pinochet and former intelligence officials of the Chilean military regime for the murder in Buenos Aires of Pinochet's immediate predecessor as army commander-in-chief, Gen. Carlos Prats, and his wife Sofía Cuthbert. The couple, who were living in exile in Buenos Aires, died when a bomb laid by the DINA exploded under their car on September 30, 1974. On November 19, 2000, the Sixth Federal Oral Court in Buenos Aires sentenced the only defendant present in Buenos Aires, former DINA agent Enrique Arancibia Clavel, to life imprisonment as an accomplice in the crime.
On October 26, 2000, Argentine Judge Juan José Galeano requested Interpol to arrest Pinochet pending his extradition and that of four senior DINA officials: Gen. Manuel Contreras, Brig. Pedro Espinoza Bravo, Brig. José Zara Holger, Gen. Raúl Iturriaga Neumann, and two civilian agents, Jorge Iturriaga Neumann, and Mariana Callejas. The judge accused Pinochet, Contreras, and Espinoza as instigators and conspirators, the Iturriaga brothers as accessories, and Callejas as co-author of the Prats crime. Supreme Court Judge Luis Correa Bulo gave orders for them to be prevented from leaving Chile, but stopped short of ordering their arrest. Correa Bulo, whose career was in tatters due to charges of professional misconduct, was removed from the case. Since then the extradition request has run afoul of procedural objections by the Chilean Supreme Court.
102 The impending arrest of Gavazzo on human rights charges led to a civil-military crisis in Uruguay which culminated in the introduction of an amnesty law in December 1986, of which Gavazzo and the other three officers were beneficiaries. On May 13, 1996, then-Uruguayan President Sanguinetti issued a statement denying having persuaded Menem to concede pardonsto the questioned Uruguayan officers. Sanguinetti later appointed Silveira advisor to army commander-in-chief Gen. Fernando Amado, ignoring protests from the opposition and human rights groups. See Samuel Blixen, "Menem y Sanguinetti: las culpas en la nuca," Brecha (Uruguay), May 17, 1996; Juan Gelman, "El Cóndor no se entrega," Página 12, March 19, 2000.
103 The investigation, conducted by Federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba, concerned eight victims of Operation Condor: Cristina Carreno Araya, a Chilean woman who "disappeared" in Argentina on July 26 1978; Federico Tatter, a Paraguayan who disappeared in Argentina on October 15, 1976; Mónica Grinspon, of Argentine nationality, her husband Claudio Logares, and their two-year-old daughter, Paula, who were abducted in Montevideo on May 18, 1978; María Esther Ballestrino, Paraguayan, kidnapped in a Buenos Aires church on December 8, 1977, and Sara Méndez, Uruguayan, abducted from her home in Buenos Aires on July 13, 1976 with her infant son Simón Riquelo, and taken to Automores Orletti. Her captors returned Sara Méndez to Uruguay, where a military court sentenced her to five years of imprisonment. Since her release in 1981 she continues to search for Simón, who if still alive, would now be twenty-five. See Sara Méndez's website: www.simonriquelo.org.uy. On the Riquelo case, see Americas Watch, Uruguay: Judiciary Bars Steps to Identify Child Kidnapped during Military Regime, September 1, 1991.