Operation Condor

The Beginnings - Operation 40

On 11th December, 1959, Colonel J. C. King, chief of CIA's Western Hemisphere Division, sent a confidential memorandum to Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. King argued that in Cuba there existed a "far-left dictatorship, which if allowed to remain will encourage similar actions against U.S. holdings in other Latin American countries."

As a result of this memorandum Dulles established Operation 40. It obtained this name because originally there were 40 agents involved in the operation. Later this was expanded to 70 agents. The group was presided over by Richard Nixon. Tracy Barnes became operating officer of what was also called the Cuban Task Force. The first meeting chaired by Barnes took place in his office on 18th January, 1960, and was attended by David Atlee Phillips, E. Howard Hunt, Jack Esterline, and Frank Bender.

On 4th March, 1960, La Coubre, a ship flying a Belgian flag, exploded in Havana Bay. It was loaded with arms and ammunition that had been sent to help defend Cuba's revolution from its enemies. The explosion killed 75 people and over 200 were injured. Fabian Escalante, an officer of the Department of State Security (G-2), later claimed that this was the first successful act carried out by Operation 40.

Operation 40 was not only involved in sabotage operations. In fact, it evolved into a team of assassins. One member, Frank Sturgis, claimed: "this assassination group (Operation 40) would upon orders, naturally, assassinate either members of the military or the political parties of the foreign country that you were going to infiltrate, and if necessary some of your own members who were suspected of being foreign agents... We were concentrating strictly in Cuba at that particular time."

Over the next few years Operation 40 worked closely with several anti-Castro Cuban organizations including Alpha 66. CIA officials and freelance agents such as William Harvey, Thomas Clines, Porter Goss, Gerry Hemming, E. Howard Hunt, David Morales, Carl E. Jenkins, Bernard L. Barker, Barry Seal, Frank Sturgis, Tosh Plumlee, and William C. Bishop also joined the project.

Cuban figures used by Operation 40 included Antonio Veciana, Luis Posada, Orlando Bosch, Rafael Quintero, Roland Masferrer, Eladio del Valle, Guillermo Novo, Rafael Villaverde, Carlos Bringuier, Eugenio Martinez, Antonio Cuesta, Hermino Diaz Garcia, Barry Seal, Felix Rodriguez, Ricardo Morales Navarrete, Juan Manuel Salvat, Isidro Borjas, Virgilio Paz, Jose Dionisio Suarez, Felipe Rivero, Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo, Nazario Sargent, Pedro Luis Diaz Lanz, Jose Basulto, and Paulino Sierra.

Michael Townley was another CIA agent who was involved in organizing assassinations of political opponents. He became associated with a Cuban group called the Chicago Junta. This group included Frank Sturgis, Orlando Bosch, Antonio Veciana and Aldo Vera Serafin. According to Peter Dale Scott, this operational hit team was disbanded on 21st November, 1963, the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The CIA also used the International Development's Office of Public Safety (OPS) to help establish right-wing military dictatorships. This included Daniel Mitrione who helped to overthrow President João Goulart in Brazil in 1964. According to Franco Solinas, Mitrione was also in the Dominican Republic after the 1965 US intervention.

In 1967 Daniel Mitrione returned to the United States to share his experiences and expertise on "counterguerilla warfare" at the Agency for International Development (AID), in Washington. In 1969, Mitrione moved to Uruguay, again under the AID, to oversee the Office of Public Safety. At this time the Uruguayan government was led by the very unpopular Colorado Party. Richard Nixon and the CIA feared a possible victory during the elections of the Frente Amplio, a left-wing coalition, on the model of the victory of the Unidad Popular government in Chile, led by Salvador Allende.

In 1969 the CIA arranged for Michael Townley to be sent to Chile under the alias of Kenneth W. Enyart. He was accompanied by Aldo Vera Serafin of the SAO. Townley now came under the control of David Atlee Phillips who had been asked to lead a special task force assigned to prevent the election of Salvador Allende as President of Chile. This campaign was unsuccessful and Allende gained power in 1970. He therefore became the first Marxist to gain power in a free democratic election.

On July 31, 1970, the Tupamaros kidnapped Daniel Mitrione and an Agency for International Development associate, Claude L. Fly. Although they released Fry they proceeded to interrogate Mitrione about his past and the intervention of the U.S. government in Latin American affairs. They also demanded the release of 150 political prisoners. The Uruguayan government, with U.S. backing, refused, and Mitrione was later found dead in a car. He had been shot twice in the head but there was no evidence that he had been tortured.

Michael Townley continued to try and undermine the government of Salvador Allende. The CIA attempted to persuade Chile's Chief of Staff General Rene Schneider, to overthrow Allende. He refused and on 22nd October, 1970, his car was ambushed. Schneider drew a gun to defend himself, and was shot point-blank several times. He was rushed to hospital, but he died three days later. Military courts in Chile found that Schneider's death was caused by two military groups, one led by Roberto Viaux and the other by Camilo Valenzuela. It was claimed that the CIA was providing support for both groups.

David Atlee Phillips set Townley the task of organizing two paramilitary action groups Orden y Libertad (Order and Freedom) and Protecion Comunal y Soberania (Common Protection and Sovereignty). Townley also established an arson squad that started several fires in Santiago. Townley also mounted a smear campaign against General Carlos Prats, the head of the Chilean Army. Prats resigned on 21st August, 1973. His replacement as Commander in Chief was General Augusto Pinochet.

On 11th September, 1973, a military coup removed Allende's government from power. Salvador Allende died in the fighting in the presidential palace in Santiago. General Augusto Pinochet replaced Allende as president. Soon afterwards Michael Townley was recruited by General Juan Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA, the new secret police.

Townley's main task was to deal with those dissents who had fled Chile after General Augusto Pinochet gained power. This included General Carlos Prats who was writing his memoirs in Argentina. Donald Freed argues in Death in Washington: The Murder of Orlando Letelier that: "On September 30, 1974, shortly after the first anniversary of the violent overthrow of the Allende government, Townley and a team of assassins murdered Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires. Their auto was exploded by a bomb."

James Abourezk, who represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate, discovered that the Office of Public Safety had been training Latin America police to torture left-wing activists for many years. Abourezk made this information public and in 1974, Congress banned the provision by the U.S. of training or assistance to foreign police and the OPS was closed down.

The CIA continued to fund the activities of agents like Michael Townley. Promoted to the rank of major by General Juan Manuel Contreras, chief of DINA (the Chilean secret police). Townley made regular visits to the United States in 1975 to meet with Rolando Otero and other members of the White Hand group. In September 1975, Townley's death squad struck again. Former Chilean vice-president Bernardo Leighton and his wife were gunned down in Rome by local fascists working with DINA.

Operation Condor is Born

On 25th November 1975, leaders of the military intelligence services of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay met, with Juan Manuel Contreras in Santiago de Chile. The main objective was for the CIA to coordinate the actions of the various security services in "eliminating Marxist subversion". Operation Condor was given tacit approval by the United States which feared a Marxist revolution in the region. The targets were officially leftist guerrillas but in fact included all kinds of political opponents. For example, in Argentina an estimated 30,000 socialists, trade-unionists, relatives of activists, etc. were murdered by the military government.

The US supplied the secure communications network to support Operation Condor and substantial funding.

Donald Freed claims that on 29th June, 1976, Michael Townley had a meeting with Bernardo De Torres, Armando Lopez Estrada, Hector Duran and General Juan Manuel Contreras Sepulveda. The following month Frank Castro, Luis Posada, Orlando Bosch and Guillermo Novo established Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU). CORU was partly financed by Guillermo Hernández Cartaya, another Bay of Pigs veteran closely linked to the CIA. He was later charged with money laundering, drugs & arms trafficking and embezzlement. The federal prosecutor told Pete Brewton that he had been approached by a CIA officer who explained that "Cartaya had done a bunch of things that the government was indebted to him for, and he asked me to drop the charges against him."

One Miami police veteran told the authors of Assassination on Embassy Row (1980): "The Cubans held the CORU meeting at the request of the CIA. The Cuban groups... were running amok in the mid-1970s, and the United States had lost control of them. So the United States backed the meeting to get them all going in the same direction again, under United States control." It has been pointed out that George H. W. Bush was director of the CIA when this meeting took place.

Frank Castro told the Miami Herald why he had helped establish CORU: "I believe that the United States has betrayed freedom fighters around the world. They trained us to fight, brainwashed us how to fight and now they put Cuban exiles in jail for what they had been taught to do in the early years."

On 18th September, 1976, Orlando Letelier, who served as foreign minister under Salvador Allende, was traveling to work at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington when a bomb was ignited under his car. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, a 25 year old woman who was campaigning for democracy in Chile, both died of their injuries.

The director of the CIA, George H. W. Bush, was quickly told that DINA and several of his contract agents were involved in the assassination. However, he leaked a story to members of Operation Mockingbird that attempted to cover-up the role that the CIA and DINA had played in the killings. Jeremiah O'Leary in the Washington Star (8th October, 1976) wrote: "The right-wing Chilean junta had nothing to gain and everything to lose by the assassination of a peaceful and popular socialist leader." Newsweek added: "The CIA has concluded that the Chilean secret police was not involved." (11th October).

William F. Buckley also took part in this disinformation campaign and on 25th October wrote: "U.S. investigators think it unlikely that Chile would risk with an action of this kind the respect it has won with great difficulty during the past year in many Western countries, which before were hostile to its policies." According to Donald Freed Buckley had been providing disinformation for the General Augusto Pinochet government since 1974. He also unearthed information that William Buckley's brother, James Buckley, met with Michael Townley and Guillermo Novo in New York City just a week before Orlando Letelier was assassinated.

In October, 1976, the midair explosion of Cubana Flight 455 flying out of Barbados killed all 73 people aboard. This included all 24 young athletes on Cuba's gold-medal fencing team. Police in Trinidad arrested two Venezuelans, Herman Ricardo and Freddy Lugo. Ricardo worked for the security agency owned by Luis Posada in Venezuela. He admitted that he and Lugo had planted two bombs on the plane. Ricardo claimed the bombing had been organized by Posada and Orlando Bosch. When Posada was arrested he was found with a map of Washington showing the daily route of to work of Orlando Letelier.

It later emerged that George H. W. Bush, the director of the CIA, warned U.S. Congressman Edward Koch, in October, 1974, that his sponsorship of legislation to cut off U.S. military assistance to Uruguay on human rights grounds had provoked secret police officials to "put a contract out for you." According to documents and interviews obtained by John Dinges for his book, The Condor Years (2004), the CIA station chief in Montevideo received information in July 1976 that two high-level Uruguayan intelligence officers had discussed their ability to have Chile's secret police, DINA, send agents to the United States to kill Koch. The station chief, identified in the book as Frederick Latrash, reported the conversation to CIA headquarters but recommended that the Agency take no action because the officers had been drinking at a cocktail party when the threat was made.

Only after the assassination of Orlando Letelier did the CIA warn Edward Koch about the planned assassination and share the intelligence with the FBI and the State Department. Recently released documents show that the CIA had close contact with members of the Chilean secret police, DINA, and its chief Juan Manuel Contreras, who was the head of Operation Condor. In fact, Contreras was on the CIA pay-roll (it was later stated this was an adminstrative mistake).

A 1978 cable from the US ambassador to Paraguay, Robert White, to the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, was was released in November 2000 by the Bill Clinton administration under the Chile Declassification Project. In the cable Ambassador White reported a conversation with General Alejandro Fretes Davalos, chief of staff of Paraguay's armed forces, who informed him that the South American intelligence chiefs involved in Condor kept "in touch with one another through a U.S. communications installation in the Panama Canal Zone which covered all of Latin America". White feared that the US connection to Condor might be publicly revealed during the investigation into the murder of Letelier.

John Dinges argues that "The paper trail is clear: the State Department and the CIA had enough intelligence to take concrete steps to thwart Condor assassination planning. Those steps were initiated but never implemented." Hewson Ryan, who worked for Henry Kissinger, later admitted 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… Whether if we had gone in, we might have prevented this, I don't know. But we didn't."

The FBI eventually became convinced that Michael Townley was organized the assassination of Orlando Letelier. In 1978 Chile agreed to extradite him to the United States. Townley confessed he had hired five anti-Castro Cubans exiles to booby-trap Letelier's car. Guillermo Novo, Ignacio Novo, Virgilio Paz Romero, Dionisio Suárez, and Alvin Ross Díaz were eventually indicted for the crime.

Michael Townley agreed to provide evidence against these men in exchange for a deal that involved him pleading guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to commit murder and being given a ten-year sentence. His wife, Mariana Callejas also agreed to testify, in exchange for not being prosecuted.

On the 9th January, 1979, the trial of Guillermo Novo, Ignacio Novo and Alvin Ross Díaz began in Washington. General Augusto Pinochet refused to allow Virgilio Paz Romero and Dionisio Suárez, two DINA officers, to be extradited. All three were found guilty of murder. Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ignacio Novo received eighty years. Soon after the trial Michael Townley was freed under the Witness Protection Program.

Details of Operation Condor was not fully exposed until 1992 when José Fernández, a Paraguayan judge, discovered what became known as the "terror archives", detailing the fates of thousands of Latin Americans secretly kidnapped, tortured and killed by the security services of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. The archives provided details of 50,000 people murdered, 30,000 "disappeared" and 400,000 imprisoned.