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Well-researched, but serious production problems
on 13 July 2015
In 1970, a socialist called Salvador Allende became the president of Chile. He came to power by democratic and constitutional means, but was overthrown in a military coup in 1973. This marked the beginning of a long period of right-wing dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. Allende is believed to have committed suicide during the coup. The United States administration had tried to undermine the Allende government. Whether or not it played a direct role in the coup, it certainly didn’t oppose it. Pinochet was seen by Washington as an anti-communist ally. Democracy was restored in Chile in 1990, but Pinochet retained some power, by holding the position of commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces until 1998.
From the outset, the Pinochet regime initiated a crackdown on leftist elements and others who were perceived to be a threat to the new government. It’s estimated that this cost the lives of over 3,000 people in Chile during the Pinochet years. In March 1976, there was a military coup in neighbouring Argentina, which meant that all six countries of the 'Southern Cone' of South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) had right-wing, military dictatorships. In Chile, the crackdown on opponents had been conducted quite openly – at first, at least. But the new Argentine regime relied almost exclusively on secret detention centres and 'disappearances'. According to John Dinges’s book, the death toll in Argentina was, at a minimum, 22,000 (p. 262), with the 'disappearances' actually beginning before the 1976 military coup (p. 138).
In August 1973, leftist revolutionary groups in the Southern Cone set up a body to co-ordinate their activities, the Junta Coordinadora Revolutionaria (JCR). In 1975, Manuel Contreras, the head of Chile’s Dirección de Intelligencia Nacional (DINA), instigated 'Operation Condor', a secret alliance of the military and intelligence services of the Southern Cone regimes. It aimed at destroying the JCR and associated revolutionary movements, and neutralizing other perceived threats. It came into being in November 1975, although Brazil didn’t formally join until the following year. In 1978, Ecuador and Peru also joined. The 'war on terrorism' was accompanied by assassinations of pro-democracy campaigners who had little or no association with the JCR.
Dinges’s well-researched book provides a detailed history of Operation Condor. Its activities fell into three categories: (1) the gathering and exchange of information (for which computer technology was provided by the CIA); (2) 'operations' within the member countries (e.g. the elimination of terrorists); (3) surveillance and assassinations outside Latin America. Regarding the second element, the Condor alliance permitted intelligence and security personnel from member countries to operate in one another’s territory. But not all of the member countries participated in assassinations conducted outside Latin America.
Operation Condor had success in breaking up the JCR and capturing and killing members of the associated leftist revolutionary movements in the Southern Cone. Its methods were brutal and included the use of torture to extract information from prisoners. However, it was responsible for a relatively small proportion of the total deaths and violence in the region during the time of the military dictatorships. The CIA generally had good access to information about Condor activity. Overall, the Nixon and Ford administrations in the USA were happy to give Condor a green light, despite some qualms on the American side about human rights violations. But the third element of Condor activity – operations conducted outside Latin America – aroused concern. A notable instance was the assassination of Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC, in 1976. Letelier had been a member of Allende’s government, and had served as the Chilean ambassador to the USA. He was targeted by Condor because he was a prominent critic of the Pinochet regime. A remotely-controlled bomb was attached to the underside of Letelier’s car. It killed him and another person, with a third occupant of the car being injured. Dinges (Chapter 11) argues that the assassination could have been prevented if the US had been more forcible in expressing its disapproval of such operations by its South American allies. Operation Condor seems to have continued into the early 1980s, although Condor-linked assassinations or attempted assassinations outside Latin America ceased by the end of 1976.
With the passing of the military dictatorships, there were moves, at both a national and an international level, to bring to justice people who had been involved in human rights violations in the Southern Cone. For example, Manuel Contreras, the former head of DINA, who had been instrumental in setting up Operation Condor, was imprisoned in Chile. However, Dinges’s book is inconsistent regarding the number of times that Contreras was jailed there. At the time of his death, in December 2006, Pinochet himself was facing charges.
PROBLEMS WITH THE BOOK
The book contains a substantial number of endnotes, but there are no linking superscript numbers (or numbers in brackets) in the main text. This is a major fault, because it renders the endnotes more or less useless. Another oddity is that the endnotes start with the number 12 rather than 1! I don’t know whether these problems were present in Dinges’s submitted manuscript, or whether they arose at the publishers.
I think that the book would have benefited from an appendix giving a concise timeline of the principal events. It might also have helped if there’d been a glossary, giving the meanings of the various abbreviations used throughout the book.
The index is incomplete. There are two entries pertaining to a woman called Luz Arce (pp. 108-9, 164), but she’s also mentioned on p. 142. In a couple of places, at least, I noticed slight inconsistencies in the book.