Operation Condor: Ask the DEA

Daniel Brandt
December 10, 1998

Last January, Spanish judge Manuel Garcia Castellon, who started the investigation of Augusto Pinochet, travelled to Washington after the U.S. indicated it was willing to cooperate. But all he got for his trouble was information that was already in the public domain. Of particular interest in the Spanish case is something called "Operation Condor."

The current Spanish judge on the case, Baltasar Garzon, plans to try again. And once again, there are hints that U.S. officials will search for some records, and other hints that they aren't eager to find anything that isn't already public.

[Cartoon] The CIA isn't likely to cough up any documents. That leaves the Justice Department and the FBI. The FBI enjoys a "job well done" reputation for its work in the Orlando Letelier investigation. One of the investigators, Robert Scherrer, retired from the FBI in 1988. He is something of a hero among those who had an interest in breaking the case, and was closely involved in debriefing Michael Townley. Townley is now in the federal witness protection program, and Garzon will ask U.S. officials to produce him for questioning.

Scherrer, who was stationed in Buenos Aires when Letelier was assassinated in Washington DC in September, 1976, knew about Operation Condor. He had been involved with collecting information on leftists and sharing this information with Paraguayan police, which was one aspect of Operation Condor. Apparently Scherrer's politics were beginning to change, as he sent a cable on September 28 to FBI headquarters that blew the whistle:

Subject: Operation Condor, possible relation to Letelier assassination.

Operation Condor is the code name for the collection, exchange and storage of intelligence concerning leftists, communists and Marxists which was recently established between the cooperating services in South America in order to eliminate Marxist terrorists and their activities in the area. In addition Operation Condor provides for joint operations against terrorist targets in member countries.... Chile is the center for Operation Condor, and in addition it includes Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. Brazil has also tentatively agreed to supply input for Operation Condor.

A third and more secret phase of Operation Condor involves the formation of special teams from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions, [including] assassination, against terrorists or supporters of terrorist organizations from Operation Condor member countries. For example, should a terrorist or a supporter of a terrorist organization from a member country be located in a European country, a special team from Operation Condor would be dispatched to locate and surveil the target. When the location and surveillance operation has terminated, a second team from Operation Condor would be dispatched to carry out the actual sanction against the target. Special teams would be issued false documentation from member countries of Operation Condor.
Scherrer was put on the case, and eventually he bagged Townley from Chilean authorities. His star status among Letelier's supporters at the Institute for Policy Studies was now assured. Another notorious Operation Condor assassin was identified as Stefano Delle Chiaie, who had met Townley in 1975.

The Scherrer memo was pretty much the extent of public information on Operation Condor until 1992. Chile turned over Townley in 1978 only after the U.S. agreed to keep larger secrets out of the press. The U.S. also sought the extradition of several others from Chile, and years later, after Pinochet stepped down, Chile began proceedings of its own. But the window of opportunity to explore the CIA's involvement in Condor was slammed shut with that first agreement in 1978, as the judge and prosecutor in the U.S. case went along with the understanding that broader issues of conspiracy were irrelevant.

The Letelier investigation, then, was proscribed by matters geographic and jurisdictional, as well as by the narrow focus of Letelier's friends and supporters. Two decades later, this means that we know next to nothing about the genesis of Operation Condor, and the extent to which the CIA encouraged or signed off on it. (We know that the CIA was aware of Condor's operations before the Letelier assassination, even though they say they were unaware that a U.S. operation was in the works in 1976.) This is one of the "conspiracy" aspects of the case that interest the Spanish judges, and this is the question that U.S. officials should address today.

In December 1992, a judge in Paraguay walked into a police station in a suburb of Asuncion looking for files on a former political prisoner. Instead he found the "Horror Archives," as they were called, detailing the fates of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Latin Americans secretly kidnapped, tortured, and killed by cooperating security services of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Some of these countries have since used portions of this archive to prosecute former military officers.

A year before these archives were discovered in Paraguay, a chemist who worked for Augusto Pinochet's secret service (and developed methods for using Sarin nerve gas from a spray can), was wanted for questioning by a Chilean court in the Letelier case. His name was Eugenio Berrios, and he probably helped Michael Townley build the bomb that killed Orlando Letelier. To avoid testifying, Berrios was escorted from Chile to Uruguay by Operation Condor agents, who had inside help from Chilean officials and Uruguayan officials.

In November, 1992, Berrios climbed through a window and went to a neighbor, saying that he was about to be killed because he knew too much. Then he recanted, and was returned to Uruguayan army officers, who reportedly escorted him into Brazil. Berrios used four false passports -- Chilean, Argentine, Uruguayan, and Brazilian. This case attracted a lot of attention, because it suggested that Operation Condor was still in operation. (The Brazil trip may have been a ruse; Berrios was never seen alive again. In 1995 his body was found on the beach in Montevideo, four bullets in the chest and one in the back of the head, with the face and hands stripped off in an effort to prevent identification.)

Just for fun, try the DEA

This is obviously the same Operation Condor that bears on the Pinochet case. But there are two additional "Operation Condors" that involve some degree of CIA complicity. These two are drug eradication programs. One was in Peru in 1985. It involved the DEA, CIA, and the Guardia Civil. This one is not suspicious; in fact, it appears that it was the Colombians and Peruvians who dubbed it Operacion Condor.

The other Operation Condor is more curious. It was a drug eradication program in Mexico that began in 1975 and continued until 1985. Mexico's DFS was completely corrupt, and its chief, Miguel Nazar Haro, was a crucial CIA asset. Mexico contracted with Evergreen International Aviation, which had CIA connections too numerous to count, to fly the planes for herbicidal spraying, and two CIA people put together the contract. The program was overseen by the narcotics office at the U.S. State Department, but it was such a boondoggle that Mexico refused to let the U.S. fly over the spray zones to verify eradication.

This is suspicious because the CIA was starting to disguise some of its counterinsurgency efforts with drug programs during the 1970s. In 1971, there was talk of secret BNDD assassinations authorized and budgeted from Nixon's White House (BNDD was the forerunner of DEA). A CIA legend, Lucien Conein, was helping E. Howard Hunt, another CIA legend, with White House dirty tricks in 1971. After Watergate, Conein was shunted off to the BNDD. He hired a number of former CIA officers and agents, and was widely reported to be organizing an assassination program. In 1974, Conein went shopping for assassination equipment with his old friend Mitchell Werbell III. Hunt recruited Cuban exiles in 1972 to "waste" Omar Torrijos in Panama, ostensibly because he protected heroin traffickers, but really because of his position on the Panama Canal.

In the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, Congress voted to abolish all Public Safety programs. The Office of Public Safety, ostensibly under the Agency for International Development, had become notorious in Vietnam as a cover for CIA operations. In Latin America, OPS was widely involved in assisting security services in their war against leftists. But the 1974 Act did not affect overseas operations of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which by 1975 had 400 agents overseas -- about the same number that OPS had deployed. So the DEA's programs suddenly became attractive for CIA operations that required the cover of "plausible deniability."

Could this have been the real reason for the "Operation Condor" program in Mexico? Are the identical names a coincidence, or is it possible that one was intended as cover for the other?

One of the agents hired by Conein in 1975 was Hugo E. (Hugh) Murray, who worked for the CIA for 16 years. In 1967 he helped the CIA track down Che Guevara in Bolivia. By 1984 he was still a federal drug agent in Tucson, Arizona, and was briefly in the newspapers when it looked like he'd be called to testify in a murder trial. Genaro Celaya was on trial for shooting a Tucson narcotics agent, and his lawyers were playing the classic "get out of jail free" card by emphasizing his intelligence connections. In a court document, they stated that after several years of working for U.S. agents, Murray and others tried to persuade Celaya to take over command of Mexico's Operation Condor. This defense document says that despite the official version of what this Mexican eradication program was all about, Condor was in fact "the conduit" that U.S. intelligence agents used to funnel money, weapons and other support to Central American groups friendly to the United States.

There might be no connection to the Operation Condor that operated farther south, even though the two operated at the same time. But the DEA must have files about the Mexican Condor, and the involvement of the CIA. Relations between DEA and CIA finally went to pieces after the murder of another agent, Enrique Camarena, in 1985.

We know the CIA had the best possible information on Mexico's Condor. And there are hints that the CIA was also well-informed about the Operation Condor that was operating in South America. Manuel Contreras, the chief organizer behind Condor, claims that he was always following Pinochet's orders. In 1974 he travelled to Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Venezuela to promote intelligence cooperation. Then in August 1975, Contreras travelled to Langley, Virginia under an assumed name and met with Vernon Walters, Deputy Director of the CIA. The following month he wrote to Pinochet to request an increase of $600,000 in the intelligence service's budget. The money would be used, among other things, "to neutralize the Government's principal adversaries abroad, especially in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, the United States, France and Italy."

It would be surprising, given the coincidence in timing, if the DEA never wondered if there was any connection -- via the CIA -- between the two Operation Condors.

Spanish authorities won't get anything out of the CIA. And the State Department looks hopeless, with Madeleine Albright (not to mention Kissinger) sympathetic with Pinochet. The Justice Department might ask the FBI what it knows, but the FBI probably can't help much. They were not a big player in 1970s Latin American politics; Scherrer's role was mostly a stroke of good luck for Letelier's friends. However, Justice could produce Michael Townley for questioning, assuming that he's not afraid to talk. Despite the left's admiration for Scherrer, Townley's story has yet to be told.

Why not approach the DEA? They don't trust the CIA anyhow, and are always quick to insist that they don't provide cover for them. Let them make the case, by releasing what they know, that Mexico's Operation Condor had nothing to do with the Operation Condor organized by Chile. There appears to be a CIA finger in each Condor pie, and it wouldn't hurt to try.

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