The Undead Ghost of Operation Condor

J. Patrice McSherry


When Chilean former minister Orlando Letelier and his U.S. colleague Ronni Moffitt were killed in a powerful car bombing on a Washington D.C. street in September 1976, few realized that the double assassination was the work of Operation Condor.  Condor was a Cold War-era covert network of U.S.-backed Latin American military regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, later joined by Ecuador and Peru in less central roles.  The secret Condor apparatus enabled the militaries to share intelligence--and to seize, torture, and execute political opponents across borders.  Condor agents also assassinated key opposition leaders around the world.  Today, as shadowy U.S. forces use “disappearance,” torture, and illegal cross-border transfers of prisoners in the “war on terror”--practices that evoke Condor in the 1970s--an examination of Operation Condor and its methods is as instructive as it is unsettling. 

During the Cold War, when anticommunism often overrode human rights in Washington’s policy calculus, U.S. military and intelligence forces worked closely with the Latin American intelligence agencies--such as the SS-like Directorate of National Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, DINA), Chile’s secret police--that made up the nucleus of Condor.  One of the key organizers of Operation Condor was DINA commander Manuel Contreras.  In 2000 the CIA acknowledged that Contreras had been a paid CIA agent between 1974 and 1977, a period when the Condor network was planning and carrying out assassinations in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.   The ramifications of state terror have not subsided in Latin America.  Indeed, investigations and judicial cases have multiplied in recent years, proving once again that war crimes and crimes against humanity create wounds that cannot be simply forgotten or forgiven, even after generations. 


Latin America during the Cold War

At the close of World War II Latin America was (as it still is) the world region with the most unequal distribution of wealth and income, and patterns of land ownership, in the world.  Tiny land-owning elites owned vast tracts of land while rural workers and peasants owned only small plots, if anything.  Praetorian militaries were common in many countries.   Autocratic and elitist governments that remained indifferent to the plight of their poor also contributed to persisting inequality. Millions of people among the rural and urban laboring classes lived in bad housing, in conditions of illiteracy, malnutrition, and high infant mortality, with little opportunity to express grievances politically or effect peaceful reform. Movements for change were often met with repression. Foreign governments also played a role, especially the United States, which had long supported “friendly” dictators in the region and often sent in the Marines to secure expanding U.S. economic and political interests.

Social dissatisfaction grew after World War II, combined with nationalism. Prominent Latin American leaders and intellectuals began to draw links between underdevelopment in their countries and neocolonial practices by the major Western states.  Progressives and nationalists called for social, economic, and political reform in the 1940s and 50s, many citing FDR as their inspiration.  But U.S. policy-makers, guided by anticommunist Cold War assumptions, increasingly interpreted social mobilization in the developing world as communist-inspired.  Control of Third World countries was a key strategic objective in a zero-sum game.  The Cold War came to Latin America in 1954, when the CIA organized a coup against progressive Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz, who had implemented a land reform in that impoverished country.  It was the first CIA destabilization in the region.


Continental Anticommunism

Beginning in the late 1940s, the United States took the lead to establish or reorient hemispheric security structures to advance its anticommunist agenda and to interlink the Latin American militaries with U.S. military and intelligence forces.  U.S. policy goals were strategic, economic, and political, and a new Cold War national security doctrine intertwined all three.  Internal enemies in Latin America were the key threat, according to the doctrine: local reformers, socialists, or revolutionaries who sought structural change or challenged U.S. interests.  The new security doctrine encouraged the hemisphere’s military-security forces to view domestic social conflicts through the prism of the East-West struggle, effectively internationalizing them.  Washington cultivated anticommunist allies in the region who shared U.S. strategic interests: to prevent nationalist or socialist economic models, promote U.S.-style capitalism, and secure strategic resources and investments.  Politically, the U.S. government worked to draw the Latin American armed forces into the orbit of the United States.  Particularly after the 1959 Cuban revolution, a major challenge to U.S. hegemony in Latin America, U.S. policy-makers backed leaders who were anticommunist and pro-U.S., qualities that were more highly prized than democratic principles. 

In 1960 U.S. military officers organized the first yearly Conference of American Armies, assembling military and intelligence personnel from Latin America and the United States to share tactics and intelligence on the “subversive threat,” establish combined intelligence organizations, develop a hemispheric security strategy, and otherwise cooperate with one another to control and repress leftist movements.  U.S. military and police training programs combined a political socialization process with instruction in counterinsurgency operations, including ruthless French counterrevolutionary methods honed in Algeria.  “Unconventional” counterterror methods such as kidnapping and assassination were considered legitimate tactics in a total war against subversion.  In centers such as the Army School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone, instructors diffused these methods to thousands of Latin American officers, and the militaries of the hemisphere became more closely interrelated technically, socially, and ideologically under the leadership of the United States.  These inter-American relations provided the setting in which the top-secret Condor system was later formed, and declassified U.S. military and intelligence documents from the 1970s reflected implicit approval of Condor as a counterinsurgency organization.

In the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s, U.S.-backed armed forces carried out military coups throughout Latin America, moving to obliterate leftist forces and extirpate ideas of progressive social change. Even in the long-standing democracies of Chile and Uruguay, anticommunist zealots--who believed that democracy could not be permitted if leftists or nationalists could gain power-- overpowered constitutionalist sectors of the militaries.  The armed forces installed a new form of rule, which I have previously termed the national security state, founded on the new security doctrine.  Washington, in almost all cases, continued to support and assist the military regimes as partners in the anticommunist crusade.


Origins of Operation Condor

Rightist Bolivian officer Hugo Banzer, a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, organized a coup in 1971 that ousted nationalist general and president Juan José Torres.  Banzer received assistance from Argentine and U.S. forces in planning and executing the coup.  In Uruguay, the Brazilian regime secretly intervened in the 1971 election in order to undermine the leftist Frente Amplio coalition.  In 1973, with CIA encouragement, the Chilean military overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratic socialist president.  Brazilian units participated in the torture of Allende supporters and Brazilian exiles in the Santiago national stadium where thousands of political prisoners were held after the coup.

The Condor prototype began to take shape in 1973, even though it was not code-named and formalized until late 1975.  The multinational system fused together special covert intelligence and operations units of the countries of the southern cone of South America.  It was the first time that these countries—some of which had been historical adversaries or even enemies—had joined forces in supranational repressive operations.  As Condor coalesced, a terrifying new wave of disappearances and murders took place across a vast region of South America.  Hundreds of exiles who opposed the military dictatorships in their countries were pursued across borders and eliminated with pitiless effectiveness.

CIA officers had helped to lay the groundwork for Condor in the early 1970s by setting up meetings of right-wing Latin American military and police officers and death squad torturers such as Sergio Fleury of Brazil.  U.S. forces encouraged them to coordinate their countersubversive operations and to share repressive techniques with their counterparts.  The CIA station chief in Chile helped to organize DINA in 1973-74 and specifically asked his Brazilian military contacts to train DINA operatives in “unconventional” tactics.  Brazilians instructed DINA officers in torture techniques, and DINA officers collaborated with Argentine right-wingers, civilian as well as military, to assassinate exiled constitutionalist Chilean general Carlos Prats and Sofía Cuthbert, his wife, in in Buenos Aires in 1974.  Pinochet had feared Prats’s influence as an opponent of the Chilean dictatorship.  It was an early assassination by the as-yet unnamed Condor prototype.

In 1973 abductions and “disappearances” bearing the mark of Condor collaboration began to occur.  A Bolivian named Jorge Ríos Dalenz was detained-disappeared in Santiago in that year in an operation coordinated by Bolivia and Chile. Ríos had been a leader of the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (Movement of the Revolutionary Left—MIR) in Bolivia (separate from the Chilean organization of the same name) until General Banzer’s 1971 coup prompted him to flee to Chile. He lived there quietly until the September 1973 coup, when he was kidnapped by a military commando. In another case in November 1973, four armed men, two in military uniform, abducted the former Bolivian interior minister under Juan José Torres, Jorge Gallardo Losada, from his home in Santiago, where he had lived since the 1971 coup in his country. Gallardo had written a critical book detailing the multinational conspiracy that overthrew Torres. He was transported to Bolivia and then to Argentina, at a time when all air traffic was tightly controlled by the Chilean junta. In another 1973 case, Brazilian police abducted Joaquim Pires Cerveira and João Batista Rita, two Brazilian exiles living in Buenos Aires.  These cases indicated that the Condor system was operational long before the 1975 meeting that institutionalized it.

In 1974 the CIA reported to the Nixon administration that DINA and its partners were seeking to establish a covert operations center in Miami to link up with the anticommunist Cuban exile community. It was the nascent Condor organization.  State Department officials proposed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the United States formally and directly protest to the military governments involved, but Kissinger rejected that option. Instead, the CIA passed a secret message to DINA through intelligence channels, countering the idea but taking no other action to deter the repressive alliance.  The Argentine military dictatorship’s Extraterritorial Task Force did set up an intelligence and operations center in Florida later in the 1970s, however, apparently with the assistance of the CIA. It was used for Condor support operations including money laundering, arms shipments, and transfers of funds to Argentine officers engaged in covert counterinsurgency warfare in Latin America.

One key 1975 case illustrated U.S. coordination with the Condor militaries. Paraguayan police seized Chilean Jorge Isaac Fuentes Alarcón as he crossed the border from Argentina to Paraguay.  Fuentes Alarcón, a leftist sociologist affiliated with the Chilean revolutionary group MIR, was attempting to make his way to Europe.  The Paraguayan police extralegally transferred Fuentes to Chilean military officers, who brought him to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious DINA detention center in Santiago. Survivors last saw him there, savagely tortured.  

Chile’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission later reported that the capture of Fuentes was a collaborative effort by Argentine intelligence services, personnel of the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, and Paraguayan police. The legal attaché in the U.S. Embassy informed the Chilean military of Fuentes’ interrogation and noted that the FBI was conducting an investigation of three of Fuentes’ contacts in the United States.  This letter, among others discovered in recent years in Paraguay and elsewhere, confirmed that U.S. officials and agencies were cooperating with the military dictatorships and acting as a link in the Condor network.

The Formal Founding of the Condor System

The Condor prototype was institutionalized and code-named in a November 1975 meeting of military delegates in Santiago.  Documents found in the Paraguayan police archives known as the Archives of Terror, discovered by Paraguayan educator and torture survivor Martín Almada in 1992, provided documentation of the conference.  DINA commander Contreras invited General Francisco Britez, chief of the Paraguayan police, to “a Working Meeting of National Intelligence” to be held in Santiago under “strict secrecy.” The purpose of the meeting was to formalize “an excellent coordination and improved action to benefit National Security.”  Contreras noted in the invitation that previous combined operations had taken place on the basis of “gentlemen’s agreements” and that more sophisticated structures were needed to confront “the psychopolitical war with subversion.”  Officers representing Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay signed the closing act of this meeting, dated November 28, 1975: it was, essentially, the secret charter of Operation Condor.

U.S. military and intelligence forces were well informed of Condor operations, and the United States played a key covert role in modernizing and extending the Condor apparatus.  An Argentine military source told a U.S. Embassy contact in 1976 that the CIA had been deeply involved in setting up computerized links among the intelligence and operations units of the six Condor states. A former Bolivian Condor agent told a journalist in the early 1990s that an advanced system of communications had been installed in the Ministry of the Interior in La Paz, along with a telex system interlinked with the five other Condor countries. He said that the CIA had made a special machine to encode and decode messages especially for the Condor system.

U.S. forces also gave the Condor organization access to the U.S. continental communications system based in the Panama Canal Zone.  A declassified 1978 cable from U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay Robert White to the Secretary of State, uncovered by this author in 2001 among thousands of declassified State Department files, revealed that Condor operatives made use of a U.S. facility in the Canal Zone for secret communications and intelligence coordinationGeneral Alejandro Fretes Dávalos, commander of Paraguay’s armed forces, told White that intelligence chiefs from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay used “an encrypted system within the U.S. telecommunications net[work],” which covered all of Latin America, to “coordinate intelligence information.” Essentially, U.S. military and/or intelligence forces put the official U.S. communications channel at the disposal of Operation Condor.  It was a collaboration reflecting high-level executive approval of Condor.  In his cable, White advised the Carter administration to reconsider whether this linkage with Condor was in the U.S. interest.  He never received a response.

Condor Assassinations

The most secret level of Condor operations was known as “Phase III”: its worldwide program of assassinations of democratic and progressive leaders.  Phase III proved that Condor’s targets were not only “subversives” or guerrillas, but also progressive leaders contesting military rule and the anticommunist crusade.  The Condor prototype murdered Carlos Prats and his wife in 1974 by blowing up their car, and in 1975 attempted the assassination of Chilean Christian Democrat leader Bernardo Leighton and his wife, Ana Fresno, in Rome, Italy.  The couple was severely wounded, but survived.  Condor units kidnapped and assassinated exiled Uruguayan legislators Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz in Buenos Aires in May 1976, Bolivian ex-president Torres in Buenos Aires in June, and Letelier and Moffitt in September.  The assassinations of such prominent democratic figures caused shock waves in the region and the world.

Michelini had been one of the founders of the center-left Frente Amplio in Uruguay, formed in 1970 to seek progressive change through the electoral system. Michelini became a senator representing the Frente. In the Senate, he was a fierce critic of the slow-motion coup in that country and the use of torture by security forces. After dissolving Congress in 1973, the military declared him a seditious subversive. Gutiérrez Ruiz had been a member of the National (or Blanco) Party who had been president of the House of Representatives.  Both left Uruguay under death threat in 1973 and moved to Argentina.

Heavily armed men in plain clothes seized both men on the same day in May 1976.  Their apartments were ransacked and their families terrorized.  The squadrons behaved with military precision, communicated via radios to their superiors, and showed no concern about acting in broad daylight.  The Argentine military junta did not respond to repeated requests for help from the legislators’ families.  The bullet-ridden, tortured bodies of the two men were discovered in a car several days later.  Police documents recovered in Argentina and declassified by President Néstor Kirchner in 2004 provided evidence that the Uruguayans had been under surveillance coordinated between the regimes of Argentina and Uruguay. 

In June 1976, when Kissinger learned that in May the U.S. Embassy in Argentina had delivered a formal protest to the Argentine junta regarding the human rights situation, he was infuriated.  Kissinger strenuously objected to criticism of the pro-U.S. military regimes in the region.  “In what way is it compatible with my policy?” he fumed to Harry Schlaudeman, Assistant Secretary for Latin America.  “How did it happen?…What do you guys think my policy is?…You better be careful.  I want to know who did this and consider having him transferred.”1           

U.S. officials had information through several channels about Condor’s targeting of Letelier in Washington D.C.  Two Condor assassins, one Chilean and one U.S. expatriate, had approached the U.S. ambassador in Asunción, Paraguay, to obtain U.S. visas to enter the United States.  They already had Paraguayan passports falsely depicting them as Paraguayans, provided by the Stroessner dictatorship.  It was a routine method of camouflaging the perpetrators of Condor operations.  The assassins told the U.S. ambassador that CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters knew of their secret mission in Washington.  The ambassador provided the visas, but then became suspicious and contacted Walters, who denied knowledge of the operation.  The ambassador cancelled the visas, but the agents entered the United States a short time later with different documents.  Michael Townley, the U.S. expatriate, recruited right-wing Cuban exiles, and the group constructed a bomb and carried out the assassination.  It is worth quoting at some length a 1988 interview with former Acting Assistant Secretary of State Hewson Ryan, who discussed this case:

I know of one case, which has never come to public attention, of the fact that we knew fairly early on that the governments of the Southern Cone countries were planning, or at least talking about, some assassinations abroad in the summer of 1976.  I was Acting Assistant Secretary at the time and I tried to get a cable cleared with the 7th Floor instructing our ambassadors to go in to the Chiefs of State, or the highest possible level in these governments to let them know that we were aware of these conversations and to warn them that this was a violation of the very basic fundamentals of civilized society.  Unfortunately that cable never got out and about a month later former Chilean Ambassador Letelier was assassinated on the streets of Washington.  Whether there was a direct relationship or not, I don’t know.  Whether if we had gone in, we might have prevented this, I don’t know.  But we didn’t.  We were extremely reticent about taking a strong forward public posture, and even a private posture in certain cases, as was this case 2

            [emphasis added]

Ryan was apparently confirming that the State Department had advance warning of this Condor assassination--and raised no objection.  In fact, the State Department released this 1976 cable on assassinations, to be conveyed to the Condor militaries, in a recent declassification.  The cable was dated a month before Letelier and Moffitt were killed, August 23, 1976, and carried Kissinger’s signature.  It instructed the U.S. ambassadors of the six Condor countries to communicate Washington’s concern to the military regimes regarding “rumors” of assassination plans through Operation Condor.3  None of the ambassadors actually acted on the cable, a very odd way to respond to the secretary of state.  According to ambassador White, instructions from a secretary of state cannot be ignored unless there is a countermanding order received via a secret (CIA) backchannel.4  In my book on Condor I raised questions about whether the cable was a sincere attempt to warn the regimes, especially because it was never implemented and was then rescinded in September.  In this interview, which I saw afterward, Ryan claimed that the cable was never sent at all.  This series of events showed Washington’s reluctance to deter the crimes of the military regimes—and Operation Condor.



Why did Washington support the military dictatorships of the Cold War era and lend sustenance to Operation Condor?  Clearly, top U.S. decision-makers considered such policies to be in the U.S. interest.  U.S. promotion of right-wing forces and counterinsurgency wars in the developing world was more than an anti-Soviet project.  Washington acted to retain and advance U.S. hegemony in Latin America and elsewhere, and considered anticommunist forces to be the most reliable allies in preserving U.S. political, economic, and strategic interests.  Operation Condor was a top-secret component of a larger inter-American counterinsurgency strategy—led, financed, and overseen by Washington—to prevent and reverse social and political movements in Latin America demanding structural change. 

Washington approved covert operations and counterinsurgency campaigns particularly in countries where power seemed to be shifting from elite, pro-capitalist, and pro-U.S. forces to non-elite social sectors with an interest in restructuring political and economic power.  As leftist and nationalist leaders won elections throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, and new revolutionary and progressive movements emerged, U.S. security strategists feared that the informal U.S. economic and political empire in the hemisphere was threatened. Localized elites similarly feared the threat to their traditional dominance. U.S. policy served, in most cases, to strengthen traditional elites and military-security forces, while leftist and progressive social movements and individuals were routed.  Counterinsurgency war was a means to demobilize leftist or nationalist movements, terrorize societies, and keep U.S. areas of interest under control.

Operation Condor holds many sobering lessons for the current “war on terror”—which is, again, much more than an antiterrorist project.  Washington has promoted a ruthless, “ends-justifies-the-means” strategy to extend U.S. military power and political-economic dominance around the globe.  As documented by Seymour Hersh5 and others, in the “war on terror” U.S. leaders authorized extralegal methods that recalled Condor: the creation of secret units to cross borders surreptitiously in search of suspects; blanket approval for those units to kidnap and imprison suspects, incommunicado; the use of methods of torture and coercive interrogation; and the establishment of secret prisons around the world where prisoners could be "disappeared.”  In March 2005 Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to condemn “disappearances, torture and other mistreatment of detainees by the United States.”  Human Rights First, the American Civil Liberties Union, and military lawyers brought a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld in March as well, accusing him of direct responsibility for the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. 

In Latin America numerous Condor officers have been charged and some have been imprisoned in recent years, although many Condor crimes remain shrouded in mystery.  The role of the U.S. government in the Condor network remains largely hidden from view, and the undead ghost of Operation Condor still haunts Latin America and the world. 



1         See transcript (TELCON) of Kissinger and Schlaudeman telephone conversation on the State Department web site of declassified documents.  TELCON dated 6/30/76.  State Department number 347 at

3         U.S. Secretary of State. “Operation Condor.” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secretary of State, August 23,  1976, message number 209192.  Available at

4         Author telephone interview with Robert While, April 8, 2003.

5.    Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).


J. Patrice McSherry, a political scientist at Long Island University in Brooklyn, has spent well over a decade researching Condor in seven countries and has authored many works on the Condor system.  This article draws from her book, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005).