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).