During the Cold War hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans were tortured, abducted, or killed by right-wing military regimes as part of the US-led anticommunist crusade. Often they had been branded as “subversives” for their political ideas or activities rather than any involvement in armed groups (although clearly, persons accused of illegal acts are also due a fair trial under law). In Guatemala alone a savage counterinsurgency military killed some 200,000 persons, largely indigenous Maya, in horrific mass murders. In Argentina some 30,000 “disappeared” during the military dictatorship of 1976-83; under the regime of Pinochet in Chile some 3,000 were killed, and tens of thousands more suffered cruel torture. In Uruguay, although the number of persons murdered was fewer, tens of thousands were brutally tortured. Military squadrons in several countries seized hundreds of children from their parents and gave them to military or police families. Should such systematic, politically motivated violence and extermination be considered genocide? This chapter examines that question, particularly considering the targeted repression of political leaders and social activists by Operation Condor, a transnational organization that was a component of the broader state violence. Condor was a top-secret operations and intelligence system organized by the South American militaries to unify and extend their “dirty war” campaigns across the entire continent and beyond. The Condor system focused on exiles who had fled their own countries and used extralegal methods to eliminate them: cross-border abductions and illegal transfers (“renditions”) to their countries of origin; torture; murder; political assassination. The Condor system employed a highly sophisticated apparatus of command, control, and intelligence in the counterinsurgency wars against leftist and progressive forces. Operation Condor also had the covert support of the US government. Washington provided Condor with military intelligence and training, financial assistance, advanced computers, sophisticated tracking technology, and access to the continental telecommunications system housed in the Panama Canal Zone. It is important to understand the significance of Condor as a crucial component of the larger, continental counterinsurgency regime. While the militaries carried out massive repression within their own countries, the transnational
Condor system acted to silence individuals and groups that had escaped the dictatorships and prevent them from organizing politically or influencing public opinion outside of their own countries. Some of Condor’s targets were armed insurgents, but many were grassroots-level social or political activists, unionists, or student leaders; others were prominent pro-democracy figures. The Condor apparatus assassinated former Chilean minister Orlando Letelier, for example, who was living in Washington, DC, and who was a prominent critic of the Pinochet regime in Chile. The transnational Condor system thus impeded the possibility that such leaders could carry out effective work from safer havens outside their own countries by denying them sanctuary worldwide. Second, Condor combined the efforts of six to eight South American military states in covert intelligence operations across a vast geographical area, with the secret sponsorship of Washington, creating a powerful and lethally effective system of political persecution. Condor was, in essence, the transnational arm of the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, with Peru and Ecuador in less central roles. Condor operations consisted of three levels. The first was mutual cooperation among the military intelligence services, to coordinate political surveillance of targeted dissidents and exchange intelligence information. The second was covert action, usually cross-border “hunter-killer” operations as well as other forms of offensive unconventional warfare. The third and most secret level was Condor’s assassination capability, known as “Phase III.” Under Phase III, special teams of assassins from member countries were formed to travel worldwide to eliminate “subversive enemies.” Phase III was aimed at key political leaders who could organize and lead pro-democracy movements against the military regimes.
The question of genocide The evidence suggests that the regime of state repression, and Condor in particular, exemplified intent to destroy, a crucial element of genocide. Condor was a central part of a meticulously planned and executed system to eliminate opponents of the dictatorships, annihilate leftist, socialist, dissident, and nationalist ideology, and terrorize broader societies. The Condor apparatus was based on premeditated planning by both national and international elites, on national security ideology that targeted “internal enemies,” and on psychological warfare mechanisms to instill fear and dread in society.2 Moreover, some of the military states went beyond eliminating militants and activists to also attack their families, friends, and social and professional networks, and indeed, entire social sectors considered to be “subversive,” producing massive violence that touched every part of society. Yet under the letter of the Genocide Convention, these crimes did not constitute genocide because they targeted political human groups. As Daniel Feierstein has argued,3 why should groups murdered for their political beliefs be treated differently than, say, groups characterized by their religious ideology under the Genocide Convention? He contends that the crime of