Author:McSherry, J. Patrice


Operation Condor was a covert countersubversive system in Latin America born of the Cold War. The Condor partners--the military regimes of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay--developed a transnational organization for eliminating so-called subversives, exiles who had fled extralegal and violent coups in their own countries. While state violence was not new in Latin America and there had been some earlier collaboration among police and military forces of different countries, (1) Condors vast, continentally coordinated system of extralegal cross-border violence and terror was unprecedented in the region.

Through Operation Condor, a wave of transnational state repression against political exiles extended throughout Latin America and beyond, to Europe and the United States, undermining traditional concepts of sovereignty and political asylum. Why were the regimes so obsessed with political exiles? How did the Condor system pursue them? What was the role of the United States, the hegemonic power in the hemisphere? While important studies of Operation Condor have been published in English and Spanish, new details have emerged that need to be presented and analyzed. This article seeks to contribute a deeper analysis of the military regimes' preoccupation with political exiles, blending new research on exile communities with recent data on Condors targets and functioning. It builds upon my previous work and advances scholarly knowledge by shedding new light on the hidden history of Cold War covert operations, drawing upon newly declassified US documents and little-studied Chilean, Argentine, and Uruguayan archives, a historic University of Warwick collection on solidarity with Chile in England, recent testimonies, new quantitative research on Condor victims, and Chilean court rulings from 2018.

The article first presents an overview of Operation Condor in the Cold War context, and reviews recent literature on this repressive system. It then presents new research on exiled activists around the world and considers how, and why, the dictatorships sought to silence them. Finally, it analyzes the perceived political threat represented by the exiles and the measures taken by the dictatorships, especially in Chile, to neutralize that threat.


During the Cold War, powerful right-wing and military sectors in Latin American countries that were linked to their US counterparts shared an ideological view of the dangers of "the subversive threat" and "the internal enemy." Under various versions of national security doctrine, Latin American countries that had previously been adversaries, even enemies, united to different degrees within Condor's covert countersubversive system. As the commander of the Uruguayan Joint Chiefs, Luis Queirolo, declared at the October 1975 preparatory meeting of the Conference of American Armies, "The only thing separating us is our uniforms, for the men of the armies of America, I believe, have never before understood one another as we do at this moment.... There exists a coordination among the armies of the continent to combat and impede Marxist infiltration or whatever other form of subversion." (2)

Operation Condor was a covert, multinational black-operations program that targeted exiles. It was organized by six Latin American states (that were later joined by Ecuador and Peru in less central roles) and had secret logistical, financial, and intelligence support from Washington. In the Cold War climate of the 1960s and 1970s, when US leaders and Latin American militaries regarded popular movements and political dissidents as threats and internal enemies, ruthless methods were considered legitimate in the war against subversion. Politicized military officers defined "subversives" by their ideas rather than illegal acts; they considered the countersubversive war to be an ideological and cultural war (World War III). National security doctrine propagated a messianic role for the armed forces in their nations and beyond, as the front line in a global holy war against subversion, saviors of the homeland who were above the law. US advisors energetically promoted an anticommunist ideological framework and counterinsurgency orientation in inter-American facilities and via US Mobile Training Teams. The doctrine, filtered through each military's national experience, drew from French, US, and Brazilian practices and understandings (e.g., anticolonial counterinsurgency wars in Algeria and Vietnam) of the 1950s and 1960s. (3) Military instructors indoctrinated conscripts to see ordinary citizens, especially the poor and working classes, as subversive enemies, traitors, and Marxists. (4)

While there were some guerrilla organizations in Latin America, many of the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s were indigenous nationalist, leftist, socialist, or radically democratic forces that were fighting to represent the voiceless and the marginalized. These popular movements demanded national development, an end to repression and political exclusion, democratization, control of national resources, and full social, economic, and political rights for workers, peasants, shantytown dwellers, teachers, and students, among others. Military documents referred to these sectors as the legal face of subversion. Counterinsurgency officers regarded not only those they considered to be subversives as targets but also their families, friends, and "sectors of support" (as one Argentine military document put it).

As leftist and nationalist leaders won elections throughout Latin America in the 1960s and early 1970s and new revolutionary and progressive movements gained strength, local elites feared the loss of their traditional political dominance and wealth. US security strategists saw a communist-inspired threat to US economic and political interests in the hemisphere and the world. After the Cuban revolution, programs and training in the School of the Americas changed to focus primarily on the purported subversive threat, and the school introduced new countersubversive courses for military officers. (5) French and US instructors imparted counterinsurgency training in subversion, sabotage, psychological warfare, deception operations, abduction, and assassination. The School of the Americas was one of the transnational sites where military officers from the United States and Latin America continually discussed the threat of communist subversion, strategized about counterinsurgency programs, and planned the countersubversive war in Latin America. In the 1960s, army commanders, in secret meetings of the Conferences of American Armies, resolved to create a continental doctrine to fight "communist aggression," exchange intelligence on suspected subversives, establish a permanent inter-American intelligence committee based in the Panama Canal Zone, set up intelligence schools in all countries, create an encoded telecommunications network among all the armies, and provide training for armies in countersubversion, counterrevolution, and internal security. (6) This was the counterinsurgency matrix from which Operation Condor emerged in the 1970s.

The member countries of Operation Condor conducted surveillance of one another's exiles and cooperated with their foreign counterparts in operations to seize targeted people. Beyond an exchange of intelligence and surveillance of exiles among Condor countries and joint covert action (e.g., disappearance, torture, and extralegal "rendition"), Condor also had a top-secret third phase: a global assassination capability. In Phase III, Condor assassinated or attempted to assassinate key political opposition leaders in exile around the world. Special teams of assassins from member countries were formed to travel worldwide to eliminate influential political leaders who could organize and lead prodemocracy movements against the military regimes. One such assassination targeted constitutionalist Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofia Cuthbert, who were killed in a car bombing in Buenos Aires in 1974. Chilean Christian Democrat leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife, Ana Fresno, were shot and severely wounded in Rome in 1975 in a Condor operation. Two Uruguayan legislators and opponents of the Uruguayan military regime, Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutierrez Ruiz, were disappeared, tortured, and killed in Buenos Aires in 1976. Former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, a prominent critic of the Pinochet regime, and his US colleague Ronni Moffitt were murdered in a 1976 car bombing in Washington, DC. The Condor regimes and Washington feared elected leftist leaders as much if not more than revolutionary guerrillas in the region. (7)

Beyond eliminating exiled dissidents, political opponents, or guerrillas, Operation Condor sought to instill fear in broader exile communities, as did the regimes of state terror each of the member countries established. National security doctrine justified, even glorified, the use of lawless methods and harsh repression to combat the so-called internal enemy. E. V. Walter's classic 1969 study of political terror helps us understand how state elites use fear as a means of controlling society and maintaining power. (8)


Walter shows that state elites use terror to produce compliant behavior not only among the victims but also in a broader target population, society as a whole. He posits that they do so to enforce social integration and subservience and to eliminate potential contenders for power. Walter shows that the rulers of a system of terror "consciously design a pattern of violence to produce the social behavior they demand." (9) This type of terror involves three actors: a source of violence, a victim, and a target. The victim and the target are not the same. The victim is killed (or tortured, or disappeared), but...

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