Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, by J. Patrice McSherry

reviewed by
Silvia Borzutsky

It has taken almost thirty years for human rights activists, judges, historians, and social scientists to begin documenting the history of long-known abuses in Latin America, as well as to plumb the exact role played by the U.S. in these sordid events. It appears that a generation had to pass before key archives opened and any real progress could be made in this field, but now as a result we have seen in the last couple of years a plethora of excellent books dealing with human rights issues. J. Patrice McSherry’s book occupies a central place in this new literature as it successfully analyzes the extent of the U.S. involvement in the region and the connections between the U.S. Cold War policies and some of the most egregious human rights abuses that took place in the region.

McSherry discusses the nature and actions of Operation Condor, placing it in the context of modern counterinsurgency warfare and U.S. foreign policy goals for Latin America. The origins of Condor can be traced back to the 1960s and the U.S. commitment to deter “another Cuba” and to protect political and economic interests in the hemisphere. The resulting National Security Doctrine assigned the Latin American military the mission of eliminating the so-called “internal enemy” and led to the creation of what McSherry aptly labels the National Security State - determined to obliterate every trace of  leftist ideas and forces. 

But fighting a supposedly sinister and elusive enemy could not be limited by mere geography, and so the Condor system soon became the vigilant transnational arm of this doctrine. Thus, “the Condor system linked together secret units within the military intelligence forces of member countries into one transnational group, focused on extraterritorial action” (p.4). The declared goal of counterinsurgency policies – as in South East Asia - was to transform the minds of recalcitrant members of  society, or in the ambitious words of Argentina’s general Villegas to win “the war in the terrain of the mind through the conquest of peoples’ psyches”[1]

McSherry’s analysis of Operation Condor is especially valuable because it is based on a trove of newly released documents. Her central argument is that the operation was part of what the author calls “the parallel state,” that hidden part of the state which includes paramilitary and parapolice forces with ample access to secret budgets, secret detention camps and cemeteries, unmarked cars and aircraft, and secure communication systems. These hidden structures allowed the military and their allies to torture and kill while keeping an appearance of “certain legitimacy” (p.8). The concealed nature of these operations enabled the military rulers to enjoy the ideological bonus of blaming the deaths and disappearances on either the victims or “out of control paramilitary groups.” Condor gave them a license to roam throughout the world to exterminate their appointed enemies.

Although these aggressive policies were largely developed as a response to the Cuban Revolution, McSherry traces their actual origins to the later years of World War II and the immediate post war period. Her analysis of government documents reveals that the U.S. efforts to maintain and advance its hegemony in the region always were pursued through a number of different policies, including secret operations. McSherry’s analysis certainly is not and cannot be limited to Latin America. Chapter 2 contains a very interesting discussion of U.S. clandestine commando operations in Europe right after World War II, including covert paramilitary networks such as Gladio in Italy, Operation Stay Behind in the United Kingdom, and Sheepskin in Germany.

In Germany the U.S. freely employed former Waffen S.S. members and reorganized a Nazi espionage network under the leadership of former Nazi spy chief General Reinhard Gehlen. As McSherry notes, Henry Kissinger served in the U.S. Army Counter-intelligence Corp (CIC) in Europe. The CIC rather more notoriously employed war criminal Klaus Barbie from 1946 to 1951 because of his expertise on French communists (a fetid link scrutinized in Marcel Ophuls’ 1988 documentary Hotel Terminus).  Moreover, Barbie was protected from the French judicial system and later moved to Bolivia in order to teach his repressive techniques in South America. The chapter also covers clandestine operations of similar character in Greece, Turkey and Portugal. Moreover, the author traces the connections between Condor and Gladio’s Italian operations.

U.S. intervention in Latin America during the Cold War had two dimensions: the open training of military leaders through military missions and the School of the Americas (SOA), and the covert intelligence operations. While the actions and criticism of the SOA have been effectively documented, U.S. covert operations, such as the plot to overthrow Brazil’s president Joao Goulart though widely suspected and speculated about, have until recently remained beyond the reach of most scholarly analysts. While McSherry’s central goal is to analyze Condor, Predatory States also discusses a whole array of relevant operations carried out by different branches of the U.S. government in Latin America, including project Camelot  - widely known after its exposure in the 1960s - sponsored by the U.S. Army’s Office of Research and Development, which had vast implications in Chile.

Condor began in 1973 as a bilateral arrangement between the Argentine and Chilean military intelligence organizations with the encouragement of Central Intelligence Agency  (CIA) officers in Uruguay. McSherry documents and discusses the role played by the CIA and DINA (Chile’s Directorate of National Intelligence); the connections between DINA (known as Chile’s Gestapo) and former Nazis harbored by the Chilean government; the role of the Argentine security agencies and their seamy connections with U.S. and French counterinsurgency doctrines; and the role played by the military government in Uruguay. Newly declassified documents allow the author to trace U.S. involvement in Condor’s history back to a CIA National Intelligence document dated June 23, 1976 (p. 78). A 1976 cable from Henry Kissinger to all Latin American and some European missions states, for example, that  “two years ago security officials from Southern Cone countries except Brazil met in Buenos Aires to facilitate information exchanges and the movement of security officials on government business” (p. 79).

The declassification of a letter written by DINA’s chief Manuel Contreras, a close associate of General Pinochet, helps us to understand the key role of this infamous organization.  Among the most important functions of Condor were coordination of information through a centralized data bank, special communication channels, and permanent working meetings. Santiago was official headquarters, but the technical personnel came from all participating countries. Thus, Condor entailed mutual cooperation among military intelligence services, coordination of political surveillance of dissidents, and exchange of information. Condor operatives conducted covert operations across member countries in order to detain, disappear or kill targeted exiles.

The U.S. eagerly provided Condor with both intelligence data and access to state of the art communication systems. In June 1976, Henry Kissinger signaled warm U.S. approval for the operation in discussions with Condor officials. McSherry offers a detailed discussion of Kissinger’s role in this process, and of his energetic efforts in later years to cover up U.S. involvement. But Secretary Kissinger’s role in covert operations was not limited to Latin America. In fact, he also authorized U. S. intervention in Angola using Cuban meddling in Angolan affairs as a “post facto” excuse. He gave the green light to Indonesian dictator Suharto to invade east Timor, while denying doing so, and he used his power and influence to block access to information about U.S. activities in Latin America.

As has been argued elsewhere, Letelier and Moffitt's assassination, in the heart of Washington, D.C., during Ford's administration in 1976, could not have been carried out without CIA support, or a turning of a blind eye.  We know that the CIA shielded General Pinochet during the subsequent trial.  The Carter administration's loud emphasis on human rights issues did not end Condor's activities.  Even as the actions of Condor were portrayed to the President and the Secretary of State in a very benign light, hundreds of people were kidnapped, detained and killed anyway.  In fact, some of Condor's most villainous operations occurred under the watch of the Carter administration. 

In the last two chapters McSherry discusses how ordinary people are molded into torturers, and Condor’s Central American connections. While the discussion of the Central American connections helps readers to grasp the nature of Condor’s operations, the chapter on the personnel of Condor provides personal profiles of operatives and their motivations. But to truly understand the motivations of torturers and killers requires an in-depth analysis of psychological and emotional issues that fall outside the scope of this kind of book. As a result, this is the weakest chapter.

From an analytical perspective, McSherrys book offers a critical new concept through which to understand the actions of the Latin American military: the parallel state. There is little doubt that all states have a hidden side characterized by secret, unlawful operations[2], but what happened in Latin America signals a particularly foul situation in which this parallel state dominated the open state. In Latin America, the parallel state was structured to protect the interests of the military and those sectors of civil society and the international economic system concerned foremost with serving economic interests of the upper class and of US investors. Despite all the recent literature, a lot more needs to be accomplished in order to uncover the full extent of these parallel operations, and their baleful effects on society. From a political standpoint, it is clear that the guarantee of impunity best explains the reckless actions of the Latin America military, the policies of the U.S. in the region, and the behavior of many political leaders in the U.S. and Latin America. Impunity will end only by uncovering the truth of what took place. McSherry makes a critical contribution to our knowledge of those issues and as a result contributes to ending impunity by revealing identities of those responsible for atrocious acts performed all over South America. To the degree that repressive policies were associated with the adoption of neoliberal economic policies and the protection of  U.S. interests it helps us comprehend current anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.

In brief, McSherry’s careful analysis of newly declassified documents allows her to  unveil the role that the U.S. played in aiding and abetting criminal regimes to conduct extraterritorial operations to kill their “enemies” throughout the globe. What this book, as well as others on this subject,[3] also reveals is that the actions of the military, and many politicians, in the U.S. and Latin America were geared to protect the criminals and ignore the depth of the crimes. Why did the U.S have to prevent Latin America from rule by freely elected leftist regimes? What can one expect of policies toward Latin America in the future? We know that the U.S had questionable political and economic motives that justified support for these criminal regimes. The end of the Soviet Union provided a ray of hope and an expectation that U.S. policies would be more inclined toward the protection of human rights, but there is little doubt that today the U.S. is using the war against terrorism as the new overarching foreign policy principle, and there is little doubt also that these policies undermine democracy.



[1] Cited by  Antonius  C.G.M. Robben, Political Trauma and Violence in Argentina, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, p 189

[2] Revelations about secret spying and detention centers shows that the US is no exception to this rule

[3] See my forthcoming “Politics of Impunity” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 42, No 1, 2007


Silvia Borzutzky is Director of the Political Science program and Teaching Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of Vital Connections: Politics, Social Security and Inequality in Chile (Notre Dame University Press, 2002) and co-editor of After Pinochet: The Chilean Road to Capitalism and Democracy (University Press of Florida, 2006).