The Untold Story of Manuel Contreras and the CIA

By John Dinges*

The man who designed and executed the massive human rights crimes of Chile’s military regime died last week.  Manuel Contreras remained a general in Chile’s Army even during the last 20 years in prison, with accumulated sentences of more than 500 years imposed by Chilean courts.  In the United States, his murky relationship with the CIA and masterminding of a shocking terrorist attack in Washington, dominate perceptions of his record.  Contreras, a nondescript, somewhat pudgy man who never tired of boasting about the effectiveness of his anti-subversive campaign, created a security police apparatus, DINA, independent of Chile’s military hierarchy.  He reported only to General Augusto Pinochet, with whom he met early each morning.  DINA was responsible for about half of the 3,200 killed by the Chilean military, and virtually all of the cases of desaparecidos – people detained, tortured and killed in secret interrogation centers, whose bodies were then disposed of in secret graves or dumped into the sea.

Chile was not the most brutal military dictatorship – more than 10,000 Argentines and 200,000 Guatemalans died during that era – but Contreras and Pinochet became the international face of Latin American state terrorism of the 1970s, for various reasons, including their intimate relationship with the United States and in particular with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  It is not quite true that the CIA organized the military overthrow in 1973 of socialist president Salvador Allende, but the U.S. embrace of the violent coup was enough to create the widely accepted narrative that the United States brought Pinochet to power and made him a creature of its anti-communist foreign policy, whose global architect was Henry Kissinger.  In addition to ruthlessly persecuting political opponents in Chile, DINA carried out a spectacular act of international terrorism in the heart of Washington, D.C. – the 1976 car bomb assassination of Allende’s former foreign minister Orlando Letelier, in a blast that also killed an American woman, Ronni Moffitt, and wounded her husband Michael.

Some were quick to see the hand of the CIA in that horrendous crime, a charge that is repeated even today among some writers in Latin America.  But these writers may not be aware that Contreras actually promoted the idea of CIA involvement in Chile as a way to mask DINA’s crimes.  Here, briefly, is what Contreras did to point the finger at the CIA:

  • Contreras was the first to reveal, in an interview, that the CIA had sent intelligence trainers to Chile to help in the formation of DINA, a fact belatedly confirmed by the CIA to a Congressional investigation.
  • As his chief international assassin, Contreras hired Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen who had tried to join the CIA as a clandestine agent – a fact unquestionably known to Contreras and now well established in U.S. declassified documents.
  • Contreras developed a close operational relationship with the CIA, agreeing to provide intelligence in exchange for payment.  He is known to have traveled to the United States to consult with top CIA officials at least five times, including with CIA deputy director Vernon Walters in August 1975 – after which he went on to Caracas to lay out his plans for an international assassination alliance, Operation Condor.  Whether Contreras briefed Walters on the assassination plans is buried in CIA secrecy.
  • Contreras used Operation Condor to obtain false documents for Townley and another DINA agent to use in the first phase of the Letelier assassination.  With the plot under way, in July 1976, he visited Walters again.  Whatever the nature of those conversations (the declassified record is vague), Contreras was again associating himself with the CIA in relation to the impending murder.

When charged with killing Letelier, Contreras pulled out this defense: that the CIA had infiltrated DINA to commit crimes for its own purposes, that Michael Townley was really taking his orders from the CIA, and that the CIA, not DINA, killed Letelier in Washington. That version of events is false, according to my investigations.  Nonetheless, the charge of CIA involvement in Operation Condor and Letelier’s murder has become a kind of dogma, both on the right and the left.  It can be found in the writings of some U.S. academics and is extremely common in narratives of the period in Latin America.  Although there is no direct evidence for the charge, the history of CIA intervention, complicity in human rights violations and defense of military dictatorships is enough to convince many people that it must be true.  Few of those who believe it are aware they are making common cause with General Contreras, perhaps the most emblematic human rights criminal in Latin America.

August 12, 2015

*John Dinges teaches journalism at Columbia University.  He sorts out the documented, fact-based truth about the U.S. role in “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents” (The New Press 2004).

U.S. Southern Command: Diminished Resources Affect Mission

By CLALS Staff 

General John F. Kelly Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

General John F. Kelly
Photo credit: Secretary of Defense / Foter / CC BY

In an annual posture statement to Congress and a press conference, SouthCom Commander John Kelly played up the successes of his command’s counternarcotics mission – particularly its “engagements” throughout Latin America – but emphasized that his effectiveness is threatened by budget cuts.  The General said that cooperation with Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and others was “very, very valuable,” and he boasted that the United States has trained over 5,000 Mexican soldiers over the past year.  But he warned that “severe budget constraints” are limiting the Command’s ability to build on the progress.  On Capitol Hill, he said, “Let me be frank: reduced engagement risks the deterioration of U.S. leadership and influence in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.”

Kelly had lots of praise for individual counternarcotics operations – specifically Colombia’s “unbelievable heroic efforts” with crop eradication and attacks on processing labs – and cited the effectiveness of his Command’s drug interdiction programs (capturing about 132 tons of cocaine in 2013) despite funding cutbacks.  But the General reported that his Command failed to intercept 80 percent of the drugs flowing out of Colombia and about 74 percent of all maritime flows.  Despite his praise for Colombia, his statements confirmed that it is still a major producer (reportedly third, after Peru and Bolivia) and the major exporter of cocaine to the United States.  SouthCom estimates that the cocaine industry is still worth $85 billion a year and has “franchises” in 1,200 U.S. cities.  Kelly also reported that heroin consumption in the United States is up 65 to 80 percent in the last several years – “and it all comes up through Latin America.”  He said that SouthCom has been directed to reduce the amount of drugs reaching the United States from Latin America by at least 40 percent – a goal he said he cannot achieve because of cutbacks.

Policymakers and program-managers always face a balancing act when speaking in Washington.  They understandably tout their successes; cite resource constraints as the reason for failure to attain mission objectives; and make a pitch for resources.  SouthCom, having a budget that dwarfs that of any other agency, traditionally has been primus inter pares in Latin America, but Kelly portrayed his Command as merely one of many in the U.S. interagency.  His praise of Colombia as a “regional security exporter” also hints at the unwillingness or inability of the Command to continue its investment in such operations.  When the best-funded U.S. agency operating in Latin America projects itself in this fashion, admitting that the vast majority of illegal narcotics still reach U.S. territory, it’s natural for U.S. taxpayers to wonder what they are getting for their many millions of dollars.  If the Obama administration cannot make a better case, U.S. counternarcotics policy would appear to lack direction and, absent a systematic review, will continue essentially on autopilot.

Will the U.S. Support Controls on Security Contractors in Latin America?

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

An upcoming conference in Switzerland will test U.S. willingness to make good on its rhetorical support for greater control over private contractors involved in wars or similar circumstances.  The “Montreux plus five” conference in December will discuss implementation of the Montreux Document, which lays out legal obligations and “best practices” for countries that hire “Private Military and Security Companies” (PMSCs) during armed conflict.  The process emerged in 2008 to reiterate state responsibilities after contractors were found to be deeply involved in incidents in Iraq – including the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and a confrontation at Nissour Square in which 17 civilians were killed.  The United States, which participated in discussions of the Document and endorsed it, has been developing its own “standards” based on it.

Although the PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their alleged involvement in human rights abuses – are most widely known, security contractors are deeply engaged in U.S. efforts in Latin America related to the “war on drugs.”  In the 2005-2009 period, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC collectively received counternarcotics contracts in Latin America worth a total of $1.8 billion.  The contracts include provision of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, information technology, and communications equipment.  Lockheed Martin received contracts for training, equipment, and other services in Colombia and Mexico. Yet the majority (Democratic) staff of the subcommittee on contracting oversight of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded in 2010 that neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense had adequate systems to track the implementation of counternarcotics contracts.  Referring to contract and accounting errors, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs told the subcommittee chairman that it “does not … maintain discrete records of such occurrences since these challenges routinely occur at the embassies.”

The subcommittee’s focus was on contracting anomalies, but publicly acknowledged incidents – such as DynCorp’s violation of guidelines governing coca eradication in Colombia – suggest oversight over operations is also lacking.  In Colombia, for example, two cases of rape of a minor involving U.S. contractors were reported yet remain uninvestigated, and in Mexico a contractor appears to have been involved in torture training.

PMSCs often carry out their work within the dark interstices of sensitive operations – beyond the government’s immediate operational control but functioning with its imprimatur and expecting its protection when things go wrong.  The U.S. Senate’s acknowledgement of the need for better management and oversight over them has not driven significant reforms yet.  If the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are any guide, problems with the monitoring of expenditures are the tip of the iceberg.  Security contractors tend to run rough over human rights, and they are often a source of tensions with both governments and the population in host countries.  The use of security contractors without effective monitoring is a source of diplomatic tension within the region as well.  DynCorp’s aerial eradication operations, for example, provoked Ecuador to file suit against Colombia in the International Court of Justice, arguing that Colombia dispersed toxic herbicides into Ecuadoran territory, damaging human health, property and the environment.  The two countries recently resolved the dispute, but the case illustrates the risk of outsourcing sensitive operations to contractors without careful monitoring.

Is the Truth Finally Arriving in El Salvador?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

A U.S. court is on the verge of making a major contribution to El Salvador’s struggle to end impunity.  A former Salvadoran military commander six weeks ago admitted in a Miami immigration court that his troops had engaged in human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in the 1980s.  More significantly, he confirmed that the U.S.-trained and -funded Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the horrendous massacre at El Mozote, a hamlet in which the elite Marine-style battalion killed an estimated one thousand peasants, mostly women and children, over three days in December 1981.  Until recently, current and former military commanders claimed that reports of the bloodbath were communist propaganda.  In his defense, General José Guillermo García, who was defense minister, said he was unaware of the soldiers’ actions at the time.  The judge responded skeptically, saying García “didn’t do what a military officer respectful of the law should have done in order to fully serve his country and his people.”

The General’s confession is no small matter.  An Amnesty Law passed in 1993, pushed by allies of the war-era government, put the lid on many investigations.  Its passage kept two mid-ranking officers convicted of involvement in the 1989 Jesuit massacre from serving their prison sentences, and it paved the way for other military and civilian leaders to cover up that atrocity. The air of impunity has endured for 20 years.  General García’s testimony provides the first real open window for Salvadorans to start learning about what happened despite strong efforts to keep the truth under wraps.  The political and economic elites’ defense of the Amnesty Law has focused on the argument that El Salvador should not be confronting its past if it really wants reconciliation and peace.  But two decades after the peace accord brought the end of the war, that kind of thinking is beginning to fade, and will continue to wane as Salvadoran society is confronted with the naked truth, the naked horrors.

The Obama Administration deserves some credit for advancing the legal case against García and a former colonel facing similar immigration charges in Boston, Inocente Orlando Montano.  Both processes have been encouraged by a U.S. policy of locating and ousting foreigners on U.S. soil who have been credibly accused of human rights violations abroad.  However ironic it is that some of the violations were committed by units receiving U.S. assistance, Washington is promoting an important lesson:  generals who once held in their hands power over citizens’ lives and deaths become common defendants – criminals – when the truth is known.  The impunity enjoyed by the colonels and generals – and their civilian sponsors – has grown roots in Salvadoran institutions and still feeds today a culture of obscurity, injustice and inequity that prevents the country’s progress towards development and modernity.  This vicious cycle will not will not end until they are held accountable.

Read the full text of this essay.

U.S.-Honduras Counternarcotics Cooperation Stumbles

DEA Helicopter | by Andrew W. Sieber (Drewski2112) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Four months after the launch of Operación Anvil, a joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics effort, cooperation has stumbled.  Early in September, the United States suspended the sharing of intelligence – publicly characterized as mostly based on radar tracks – after the Honduran Air Force in July shot down two civilian aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs.  Citing the incident as a breach of a bilateral agreement that prohibits firing on civilian aircraft, State Department officials said they are reviewing procedures regarding cooperation.

The shootdowns were not the first controversial incident to raise doubts about the cooperation.  In May, a U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operation in northeastern Honduras, during which at least one small boat was strafed, left four people dead and at least five injured.  While the raid targeted suspected drug traffickers in the vicinity, various reports have suggested that the victims were innocent locals or, at most, were spotters for traffickers.  Rather than undertake its own investigation, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras reportedly has deferred to a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities that showed no wrongdoing in the incident.  American and Honduran officials insist no American fired a weapon during the raid, but details of how the Honduran forces they were advising carried out the operation remain elusive.

The U.S. approach to counternarcotics in Honduras – like that in Colombia and Mexico – emphasizes military-style operations driven by U.S. intelligence tips.  In addition to sharing intelligence, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. entities provide training, equipment and on-site operational guidance to Honduran security units.  While the jury is out on whether this strategy has been worth the cost in human lives (60,000 in Mexico) and dollars (more than $7 billion in U.S. aid alone in Colombia), the case has not been made that it will work in a country plagued by weak institutions and corruption like Honduras.  Holding Honduran officials accountable and creating the vetted units upon which these military-style operations depend will be difficult in a small, desperately poor country in which the narco-dollar buys much more than U.S. aid channeled through officials in whom few have any confidence.  Efforts to create vetted units capable of operating securely (and without abuses of authority) have failed in the past because of unseen and unsolved links between the state officials and the narcos.  The Honduran people – still suffering from political violence born of the coup of June 2009 – have legitimate fear of a massive surge in drug violence.   The U.S. government, ever optimistic about the renewal of cooperation, has asked that Honduras put in place remedial measures to prevent future incidents.  President Lobo of Honduras has since replaced his Air Force commander, but the question remains whether Tegucigalpa can – and should – become a cornerstone of U.S. antidrug strategies.

Honduras Adopting Failed Counternarcotics Model?

The rapid escalation of operations by U.S. and Honduran military and counterdrug teams against suspected drug-traffickers transiting Honduras suggests that Washington has persuaded Tegucigalpa to follow Mexico’s footsteps with a predominantly military strategy against the cartels.  The New York Times has published reports on the deployment of binational teams – patterned after U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – in remote areas of Honduras to disrupt clandestine aircraft dropping off Colombian cocaine for shipment by river to the north coast and then northward to the United States.  The aircraft, weapons, advisors, trainers, and intelligence used by the “Tactical Response Teams” are all provided by Washington.  U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said the Honduran units are “eager and capable partners in this joint effort.”

The units claim to have intercepted tons of cocaine, but the operations have also stirred up controversy.  In one operation near the northeastern town of Ahuas in May, a response team killed four citizens, including two pregnant women.  Although the circumstances of the victims’ presence in the area are not entirely clear, the mayor has protested the U.S.-inspired tactics, and local indigenous groups issued a statement that “declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”  One June 23, a DEA agent shot and killed a man during a raid in northern Honduras when the suspect reportedly pulled a gun on him.

This military-intensive strategy has yielded some 60,000 dead in Mexico – with negligible impact on cartel operations – and in Honduras, where institutions are much weaker, the violence probably will be proportionally even higher.  The U.S. Ambassador’s confidence in Honduran units notwithstanding, the military’s human rights record – never stellar – has steadily worsened since the coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.  Vetting units and keeping them clean when institutions are so weak and vulnerable to corruption and protecting operatives’ identities in Honduras’s “small-town” society all argue for an approach different from that which has failed in Mexico.