“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”
In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.
Mendez was an early victim of Operation Condor, a torture and assassination program focused on the region’s leftists that, from 1975 to 1986, would spread terror across Latin America’s southern cone. On May 27th, an Argentine court convicted 14 military officers of crimes connected with Operation Condor, issuing prison sentences ranging from 13 to 25 years. Among those sentenced was Reynaldo Bignone, Argentina’s last military dictator, now 88. (He held power from 1982 to 1983.)
Those convictions are deeply satisfying to the surviving victims and their families, to the legal teams that worked for more than a decade on the case, and to human rights organizations around the world. And yet, as just as this outcome is, it has left me with questions — questions about the length of time between crime and conviction, and about what kinds of justice can and cannot be achieved through prosecutions alone.
Operation Condor was launched by the security forces of five military dictatorships: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Brazil soon joined, as did Ecuador and Peru eventually. As a Cold War anti-communist collaboration among the police, military, and intelligence services of those eight governments, Condor offered an enticing set of possibilities. The various services could not only cooperate, but pursue their enemies in tandem across national borders. Indeed, its reach stretched as far as Washington, D.C., where in 1976 its operatives assassinated former Chilean ambassador to the U.S. Orlando Letelier and his young assistant, Ronni Moffitt, both of whom then worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank.
How many people suffered grievously or died due to Operation Condor? A definitive number is by now probably beyond recovery, but records from Chile’s secret police suggest that by itself Argentina’s “dirty war” — the name given to the Argentine junta’s reign of terror, “disappearances,” and torture — took the lives of 22,000 people between 1975 and 1978. Thousands more are thought to have died before that country’s dictatorship ended in 1983. It’s generally believed that at least another 3,000 people died under the grimmest of circumstances in Chile, while thousands more were tortured but lived. And although its story is less well known, the similar reign of terror of the Uruguayan dictatorship directly affected the lives of almost every family in the country. As Lawrence Wechsler wrote in a 1989 article in the New Yorker:
“By 1980, one in every fifty Uruguayans had been detained at some point, and detention routinely involved torture; one in every five hundred had received a sentence of six years or longer under conditions of extreme difficulty; and somewhere between three hundred thousand and four hundred thousand Uruguayans went into exile. Comparable percentages for the United States would involve the emigration of thirty million people, the detention of five million, and the extended incarceration of five hundred thousand.”
And what was the U.S. role in Operation Condor? Washington did not (for once) plan and organize this transnational program of assassination and torture, but its national security agencies were certainly involved, as declassified Defense Department communicationsindicate. In his book The Condor Years, Columbia University journalism professorJohn Dinges reported that the CIA provided training for Chile’s secret police, computers for Condor’s database, telex machines and encoders for its secret communications, and transmitters for its private, continent-wide radio communications network. Chilean Colonel Manuel Contreras, one of Condor’s chief architects (who was then on the CIA payroll), met with CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters four times. And what did the CIA get in return? Among other things, access to the “results” of interrogation under torture, according to Dinges. “Latin American intelligence services,” he added,
“considered U.S. intelligence agencies their allies and provided timely and intimate details of their repressive activities. I have obtained three documents establishing that information obtained under torture, from prisoners who later were executed and disappeared, were provided to the CIA, the FBI and the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). There is no question that the U.S. officials were aware of the torture.”
Why did it take 40 years to bring the architects of Operation Condor to justice? A key factor: for much of that time, it was illegal in Argentina to put them on trial. In the first years of the new civilian government, the Argentine congress passed two laws that granted these men immunity from prosecution for crimes committed in the dirty war. Only in 2005 did that country’s supreme court rule that those impunity laws were unconstitutional. Since then, many human rights crimes have been prosecuted. Indeed, Reynaldo Bignone, the former dictator, was already in jail when sentenced in May for his role in Operation Condor. He had been convicted in 2010 of kidnapping, torture, and murder in the years of the dirty war. As of March, Argentina’s Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) had recorded 666 convictions for participation in the crimes of that era.
But there’s a question that can’t help but arise: What’s the point of bringing such old men to trial four decades later? How could justice delayed for that long be anything but justice denied?
One answer is that, late as they are, such trials still establish something that all the books and articles in the world can’t: an official record of the terrible crimes of Operation Condor. This is a crucial step in the process of making its victims, and the nations involved, whole again. As a spokesperson for CELS told the Wall Street Journal, “Forty years after Operation Condor was formally founded, and 16 years after the judicial investigation began, this trial produced valuable contributions to knowledge of the truth about the era of state terrorism and this regional criminal network.”
It took four decades to get those convictions. Theoretically at least, Americans wouldn’t have to wait that long to bring our own war criminals to account. I’ve spent the last few years of my life arguing that this country must find a way to hold accountable officials responsible for crimes in the so-called war on terror. I don’t want the victims of those crimes, some of whom are still locked up, to wait another 40 years for justice.
Nor do I want the United States to continue its slide into a brave new world, in which any attack on a possible enemy anywhere or any curtailment of our own liberties is permitted as long as it makes us feel “secure.” It’s little wonder that the presumptive Republican presidential candidate feels free to run around promising yet more torture and murder. After all, no one’s been called to account for the last round. And when there is no official acknowledgement of, or accountability for, the waging of illegal war,international kidnapping operations,theindefinite detention without prospect of trial of prisoners at Guantánamo, and, of course,torture, there is no reason not to do it all over again. Indeed, according to Pew Research Center polls, Americans are now more willing to agree that torture is sometimes justified than they were in the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
Torture and the U.S. Prison System
In a recent piece of mine, I focused on Abu Zubaydah, a prisoner the CIA tortured horribly, falsely claiming he was a top al-Qaeda operative, knew about a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and might even have trained some of the 9/11 pilots. “In another kind of world,” I wrote, Abu Zubaydah “would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America’s top leaders and its major intelligence agency.” Although none of the charges against him proved true, he is still held in isolation at Guantánamo.
Then something surprising happened. I received an email message from someone I’d heard of but never met. Joseph Margulies was the lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush, the first (and unsuccessful) attempt to get the Supreme Court to allow prisoners at Guantánamo to challenge their detention in federal courts. He is also one of Abu Zubaydah’s defense attorneys.
He directed me to an article of his, “War Crimes in a Punitive Age,” that mentioned my Abu Zubaydah essay. I’d gotten the facts of the case right, he assured me, but added, “I suspect we are not in complete agreement” on the issue of what justice for his client should look like. As he wrote in his piece,
”There is no question that Zubaydah was the victim of war crimes. The entire CIA black site program [the Agency’s Bush era secret prisons around the world] was a global conspiracy to evade and violate international and domestic law. Yet I am firmly convinced there should be no war crimes prosecutions. The call to prosecute is the Siren Song of the carceral state — the very philosophy we need to dismantle.”
In other words, one of the leading legal opponents of everything the war on terror represents is firmly opposed to the idea of prosecuting officials of the Bush administration for war crimes (though he has not the slightest doubt that they committed them). Margulies agrees that the crimes against Abu Zubaydah were all too real and “grave” indeed, and that “society must make its judgment known.” He asks, however, “Why do we believe a criminal trial is the only way for society to register its moral voice?”
He doubts that such trials are the best way to do so, fearing that by placing all the blame for the events of those years on a small number of criminal officials, the citizens of an (at least nominally) democratic country could be let off the hook for a responsibility they, too, should share. After all, it’s unlikely the war on terror could have continued year after year without the support — or at least the lack of interest or opposition — of the citizenry.
Margulies, in other words, raises important questions. When people talk about bringing someone to justice they usually imagine a trial, a conviction, and perhaps most important, punishment. But he has reminded me of my own longstanding ambivalence about the equation between punishment and justice.
Even as we call for accountability for war criminals, we shouldn’t forget that we live in the country that jails the largest proportion of its own population (except for the Seychelles islands), and that holds the largest number of prisoners in the world. Abuse and torture — including rape, sexual humiliation, beatings, and prolonged exposure to extremes of heat and cold — are routine realities of the U.S. prison system. Solitary confinement — presently being experienced by at least 80,000 people in our prisons and immigrant detention centers — should also be considered a potentially psychosis-inducing form of torture.
Every nation that institutionalises torture, as the United States has done, selects specific groups of people as legitimate targets for its application. In the days of Operation Condor, Chilean torturers called their victims “humanoids” to distinguish them from actual human beings. Surely, though, the United States hasn’t done that? Surely, there’s no history of the torture of particular groups? Sadly, of course, such a history does exist, and like so many things in this country, it’s all about race.