Latin America: Impunity in Plan Condor’s Shadows

“The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.” – Dan Mitrione,United States government security advisor for the CIA in Latin America, and instructor in the art of torture teaching techniques in Uruguay during the nation’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship.

US intervention continues to haunt Latin America, a region overrun with brutal military dictatorships during the 1970’s and 80’s. Dictatorships coordinated torture, assassinations and disappearances under a US-backed program in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The program, called Plan Condor, was a shared strategy in Latin America’s Southern Region during the 1970s and 80s and had Washington involvement.

Human rights groups claim that tens of thousands were killed during South America’s darkest period during the 1970’s and 1980’s under the military dictatorships. Military governments came to power via well planned coups in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. In Argentina alone, an estimated 30,000 people were forcefully disappeared.

Now nearly 30 years later, long standing impunity has overshadowed efforts for regional integration and return to democratic rule. Throughout the region, the road to justice has been slow. Argentina has taken the lead in trying former military and police after amnesty laws protecting military have been overturned in 2005. However, Uruguay and Brazil still uphold amnesty laws preventing human rights trials from taking place. While in Chile justice is possible, the nation grapples with dictator supporters in government who continue to hold up legal proceedings.

Operation Condor on trial in Argentina

A human rights trial in Argentina is looking into a crimes committed under Plan Condor and sheds light into how other countries are lagging behind in looking into crimes of the past. The current trial focuses on one Buenos Aires location that served as a detention center. Six former military and police face 65 charges of kidnapping, torture and murder while they worked at a clandestine detention center called Orletti auto-garage.  Inside the functioning repair shop, located in a residential neighborhood, hundreds were tortured and killed.

Human rights Lawyer Pablo Llanto says the events at the garage provide detailed information on the inter-workings of Plan Condor.  “People ask how did Plan Condor operate, well, this is how it operated. It was the coordinated efforts in Orletti, in this case between Uruguayan and Argentine security forces. But in Orletti, Chileans and Cuban citizens were also detained, which demonstrates that the repressive apparatus wasn’t limited to Argentines, it targeted citizens from other nationalities in Latin America.”

Relatives and survivors waited for more than 30 years for military members to face trial, due to amnesty laws that protected the officers. The impunity laws were overturned in 2005. More than 10 high-profile trials are underway to prosecute dozens of military, police, and civilians accused of participating in the systematic plan to disappear so-called “dissidents.”

Regionally, Argentina has taken the lead in revisiting these human rights abuses and bringing those responsible to justice through trials. But Giselle Temper, a human rights activist from the group HIJOS says that countries such as Chile and Uruguay have blocked all possibilities for justice for crimes committed during the nations’ dictatorships.

“Plan Condor included Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and other countries. But Argentina is the only country putting the people who carried out genocide on trial. In Chile, Pinochet died without being tried, in impunity. Uruguay didn’t win the vote to annul the amnesty for military officers. Argentina has expressed their social condemnation for what happened during the dictatorship, without that these trials wouldn’t be occurring.”

Uruguay’s ‘State of Siege

The Orletti trial will investigate why and how Uruguayan prisoners were brought to Argentina and held at the Orletti auto-garage. However, Uruguay will not try military officers who participated in the torture and forced disappearance of dissidents during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. Uruguay’s military junta came to power three years before Argentina’s junta. Many Uruguayan activists were exiled to Argentina before the 1976 military junta. After Argentina’s dictatorship led a coup in 1976, both regimes secretly cooperated in the torture and disappearance of each others’ citizens with CIA assistance.

This assistance came in the form of training from U.S. Department of State officials. The scene depicted in Constantin Costa-Gavra’s 1972 film State of Siege, set in Uruguay in the early 1970s reflects the role the US had. In an unforgettable scene, a US official from the Office of Public Safety teaches a room full of cadets the technique of the picana or “electric prod.”

Declassified U.S. Department of State documents have provided evidence of Plan Condor’s broad scope and Washington’s involvement. Stella Calloni is a leading expert on Plan Condor – she has written two books detailing Plan Condor’s scope and US participation. “The US, under the Washington consensus used criteria to unify the dictatorship in South America to prosecute important leaders. Under Plan Condor, the military could prosecute and murder dissidents. Another crime was to kidnap an activist from one country and bring them to another country to disappear them after torturing them.”

Even though documents have shed light into the extent of the crimes, Uruguayan military continue to be exempt from justice.  In 2009 the country revisited the controversial Ley de Caducidad, or impunity law that protected many Uruguayan officials from prosecution for human rights abuses. Human rights groups, unions and representatives from the Frente Amplio government coalition worked to overturn the law in 2009 via a plebiscite. Nearly 46 percent of the adult population voted to overturn the law, however in order to end impunity more than 50 percent was needed. However, human rights groups continue to work to undo the amnesty law.

More than 10,000 marched in silence in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo to demand truth and justice for the crimes committed during the nation’s dictatorship. “We are looking for truth, because reconciliation is only possible when the truth is known. We’ve said it in other marches and we’ll say it again: the truth continues to be abducted while we don’t know what happened and while our relatives continue disappeared,” said Marta Passelle, leader of the Association of Mothers and Relatives of Disappeared speaking at the march.

Part of the nation’s silence is reflected in the fact that the Uruguayan state only recognizes 37 disappeared, while human rights organizations report more than 200 disappeared – all of which will never be investigated due to Uruguay’s impunity law.

Human Rights in Chile and Brazil

Human rights groups in Chile and Brazil have criticized their respective governments for obstacles and disregard of international human rights laws to carry out investigations. During Chile’s 1973-1990 military dictatorship, 3,000 disappearances took place. Augusto Pinochet, the nation’s US-backed dictator, died without standing trail and continues to cast a shadow over Chile.

As of October 2009, 559 former military personnel and civilian collaborators were facing charges for enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture, according to Human Rights Watch. Nearly 277 had been convicted, and 56 were serving prison sentences. Pinochet was under house arrest and faced prosecution at the time of his death in 2006, but judicial proceedings came too late and he was left unpunished.

Proceedings progressed in 2009, when a judge indicted 129 former members of the DINA, the dictator’s secret police for disappearances. In 2009, for the first time, a court declared torture a systematic practice to be a crime against humanity. This led the Supreme Court to rule that an amnesty decreed by the military government is inapplicable to war crimes or crimes against humanity. However, judges may use discretion about whether the amnesty is applicable.

“Chile hasn’t seriously progressed in the trials because there is no political compliance to do so. There haven’t been more than mere symbolic gestures,” says Leonardo Ortega, a Chilean graduate student in sociology at FLACSO. Many of the military up for trial were low-rank officers, while higher ranking officials who gave orders have been protected by the criminal code. Currently, Congress has evaluated a bill to amend the code so that crimes against humanity are not subject to amnesties or statutes of limitation, but it has been deadlocked since 2005.

Brazil’s government has faced serious criticism from international human rights organizations for its failure to convict military officials for crimes committed during the dictatorship. The 1979 amnesty law remains unchanged, blocking prosecution against former officials for human rights violations committed under the 1964-1985 dictatorship. Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court upheld the amnesty law in a decision in 2010.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded in 2009 that the amnesties and statutes of limitations cannot be applied to crimes against humanity that were committed during the dictatorship. “Brazil has had neither trials nor even a truth commission to address the very serious crimes that took place, and is lagging behind the region in accountability for past abuses,” said José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s been nearly a quarter century since the transition to democracy. The victims and their families have waited too long for justice.”

Nunca Mas – Never Again

The slogan “Never Again” was adopted with the hope that Argentina and other countries in the region, including Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, ruled by violent military dictatorships would never repeat that dark chapter in history.  Decades have passed since the end to the dictatorships in the region and much heralded “return to democracy.” But many of the old systems of repression remain. In Argentina a key human rights witness, Julio Lopez remains missing after his 2006 disappearance. Survivors in the region continue to face threats and security issues on the brink of their testimonies in trials.  Much of the files and top-secret information has yet to be released about the crimes the military coups committed.

Plan Condor united the nations in a plan to wipe out dissidents regionally through state imposed terror. Now, governments in the Southern Cone have the opportunity to work together to revisit the past and investigate the crimes which continue to be a social stigma scarring the respective countries. Without justice and with outstanding impunity, history is likely to repeat itself.

Marie Trigona is a writer and radio producer based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog