Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-SOUTH AMERICA: Operation Condor Still Alive

Diana Cariboni

MONTEVIDEO, Aug 18 2004 (IPS) - The links put in place by Operation Condor, created by the military regimes ruling South America in the 1970s to cooperate in the elimination of dissidents, still exist, Chilean Senator Carmen Frei told IPS on a visit to the Uruguayan capital.

Signs that the coordination was still active emerged in 1991 and 1992, after the military dictatorships in the Southern Cone region had fallen, when Chilean biochemist Eugenio Berríos, an intelligence agent in the de facto regime of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), was secretly taken to Uruguay, apparently hidden or kidnapped for more than a year, and then killed.

“I believe those ties still exist,” Frei said in an interview with IPS.

The lawmaker, who belongs to the co-governing Christian Democracy party, was in Montevideo this week to press the Uruguayan government to act on an extradition request from Chile.

The Chilean government is seeking the extradition of three Uruguayan military officers who face charges in Chile for illicit association and the kidnapping of Berríos, a case in which more than 10 former Chilean military and civilian officials have been prosecuted and arrested.

The authorities in Uruguay “have assured us that this will move ahead in the courts, and that the political will exists to enforce what the justice system decides,” said Frei. The Uruguayan officers wanted in Chile are Tomás Casella, Eduardo Radaelli and Wellington Sarli.

Frei, Chilean senators Sergio Páez Verdugo of the Christian Democracy party and Ricardo Núñez of the co-governing Socialist Party, and lawyer Alvaro Varela met Monday with Uruguayan Vice-President Luis Hierro López, Supreme Court president Leslie Van Rompaey, and several legislators and political leaders.

Frei has a personal interest in the case. Berríos, an expert in the use of sarin nerve gas, which the Chilean dictatorship sometimes used to kill opponents, was implicated in the death of her father, former president Eduardo Frei Montalva (1964-1970), in early 1982.

The death of Frei Montalva during the dictatorship, when political opposition was banned, is being investigated by Judge Alejandro Madrid, who is also handling the Berríos case.

“They infected my father with a bacteria that was never identified despite consultations with specialists in the United States and Europe, which killed him,” said Frei.

“My father went in for a routine, almost ambulatory, operation, and when he was in surgery, on Nov. 17, 1981, we were warned that he was being poisoned,” she told IPS. Frei Montalva died in January 1982, despite doctors’efforts to fight an unidentified bacteria that caused a generalised infection.

The warning, which Frei declined to discuss, came in the form of several telephone calls providing credible, specific details.

“We know that during the entire time my father was in the Santa María clinic, intelligence service personnel were there. Five doctors have been identified” as agents of the DINE army intelligence service, a special group created by the dictatorship.

DINE agents “were assigned to the most high-profile cases, like my father’s death or the murder of trade union leader Tucapel Jiménez, and the killings by sarin nerve gas, botulin, anthrax and other products that that crazy genius, Berríos, created,” said Frei.

Depositions have been taken from dozens of people in the investigation. “We have tremendous confidence, because Judge Madrid has been working very seriously on this,” she said.

But how would the extradition of the three Uruguayan military officers help to clarify Frei Montalva’s death?

“We want to know how important Berríos was, why there was this tremendous mobilisation of people within the army and the intelligence service who were guarding him, who took him out of Chile to Argentina and later to Uruguay, and held him for a year and a half.”

“There are many questions about what happened with the substances he produced in Chile, and why they decided to kill him in the end. The last two or three years of Berríos’ life were fundamental in understanding this,” said Frei.

“We want to know to what extent complicity and illicit association occurred. Why was there such close collaboration between these services, of the kind that was seen under Operation Condor? We want to know what role the forces of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay played,” she said.

“We’re talking about events that occurred after the restoration of democracy in our countries,” she added. “That’s why it is so important to find out the truth. We don’t want to stain the image of our armed forces, but under their protection, unhinged people committed crimes that must be punished.”

Frei said she believed the Chilean as well as the Uruguayan courts are stronger now, and can take on such challenges. “I have confidence in our justice systems,” she said.

The Berríos case was reopened in Uruguay in March, 12 years after his murder, after it had been shelved for more than five years.

This week, the three Uruguayan officers wanted by Chile are to appear before Judge Gustavo Mirabal, who will proceed with the extradition process.

Like a novel written in fits and starts, the case has gradually come to light over the years, putting Uruguay’s democratic institutions to the test.

Berríos left Chile in November 1991, when the courts were about to summon him to testify in the case involving the 1976 murder of Orlando Letelier, a former foreign and defence minister under the government of socialist president Salvador Allende (who was overthrown by Pinochet in 1973).

As an intelligence agent under Pinochet, Berríos produced sarin nerve gas, the explosives that killed Letelier in Washington DC, and chemical weapons that the Chilean dictatorship planned to use in case a border dispute broke out with Argentina, in the early 1980s.

After a brief stay in Argentina, Berríos and a fellow fugitive from justice, Major Carlos Herrera, arrived in Montevideo under false identities.

Herrera (who has since been convicted in the 1982 murder of Tucapel Jiménez and is being prosecuted in connection with the kidnapping and death of Berríos), was the biochemist’s “protector”, and rented an apartment in the Montevideo neighbourhood of Pocitos under a false name. Casella served as guarantor.

Berríos also stayed in several hotels and was finally taken to a house in the coastal resort town of Parque del Plata, near the capital, always under the “protection” of members of the Chilean and Uruguayan military, as the Chilean case files show.

In a confusing episode, on Nov. 15, 1992 a dishevelled and agitated Berríos showed up at the Parque del Plata police station reporting that he had been kidnapped.

But instead of protecting him, the police turned him over to the men who he denounced as his kidnappers: Casella and Radaelli. He was never again seen alive.

The incident came to light in Uruguay in June 1993, after a clumsy intelligence operation that attempted to make it look like Berríos was living a calm life in Italy.

The case unleashed a crisis without precedent since the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in 1985 (after a 12-year dictatorship).

Although minor sanctions were handed down to several of the officers implicated in the case, the military brass immediately claimed responsibility for what had occurred, in a defiant stance vis-a-vis the civilian authority of the centre-right government of president Luis Alberto Lacalle.

In the space of just a few weeks, a police chief was sacked, the military intelligence commander was transferred, legislators received death threats, diplomatic rows with Chile broke out, and interior minister Mariano Brito lost his post.

But there was no tangible proof that Berríos was dead – until his body (with two bullet holes) was found in January 1995 buried on a beach. The forensic experts determined that the murder had been committed in late 1992 or the first few months of 1993.

In February 1993, in a private visit to Uruguay by Pinochet, Casella had been photographed next to the former dictator, while serving as one of his bodyguards.

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