Washington, D.C., February 22, 2008 - Declassified U.S. documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org) show that the U.S. government had detailed knowledge of collaboration between the Peruvian, Bolivian and Argentine secret police forces to kidnap, torture and "permanently disappear" three militants in a Cold War rendition operation in Lima in June 1980—but took insufficient action to save the victims.
The Archive's documents are part of a sweeping Italian investigation of Condor that has issued arrest warrants for 140 former top officials from seven South American countries and, in the words of today's New York Times, has "agitated political establishments up and down the continent."
The documents address what has become known as "the case of the missing Montoneros," a covert operation by a death squad unit of Argentina's feared Battalion 601 to kidnap three members of a militant group living in Lima, Peru, on June 12, 1980, and render them through Bolivia back to Argentina. (A fourth member, previously captured, was brought to Lima to identify his colleagues and then disappeared with them.) "The present situation is that the four Argentines will be held in Peru and then expelled to Bolivia where they will be expelled to Argentina," a U.S. official reported from Buenos Aires four days after Esther Gianetti de Molfino, María Inés Raverta and Julio César Ramírez were kidnapped in broad daylight in downtown Lima. "Once in Argentina they will be interrogated and then permanently disappeared."
The case was first detailed at length in The Condor Years, a book by National Security Archive board member John Dinges. In his own book, The Pinochet File, Archive senior analyst Peter Kornbluh identified the Montonero operation as "one of the last recorded cases of a Condor operation." Condor was founded in November 1975, in Santiago, Chile, by the Pinochet regime, which became known as "Condor One." Operation Condor became infamous for terrorist activities after Chilean agents, in collaboration with Paraguay, planted a bomb under the car of former ambassador Orlando Letelier in September 1976, killing him and his colleague, Ronni Moffitt, in Washington D.C.
Peru's former military ruler, General Enrique Morales Bermudez, has admitted authorizing the Montonero kidnappings but continues to deny that Peru was a member of Operation Condor. But a secret CIA report, dated August 22, 1978, and titled "A Brief Look at Operation Condor" described Condor as "a cooperative effort by intelligence/security services in several South American countries to combat terrorism and subversion. The original members included services from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia. Peru and Ecuador recently became members." (Emphasis added) A Chilean intelligence document confirms that Peru formally joined Operation Condor in March 1978.
A State Department cable dated several weeks after the kidnapping stated that "there seems to be little doubt that the Peruvian army, acting in concert with its Argentine counterpart, resorted to the kinds of illegal repressive measures more familiar in the Southern Cone" than Peru.
Italy's indictments include General Morales Bermudez and his military deputy Pedro Richter Prada, among 138 other military officers from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay who were involved in the kidnapping, torture and disappearances of 25 Latin Americans who had dual Italian citizenship. The indictments, in a 250-page court filing by Italian judge Luisianna Figliolia last December, come after a six-year investigation by investigative magistrate Giancarlo Capaldo, who drew on hundreds of declassified documents provided by the National Security Archive's Southern Cone project. "These documents provide hard evidence of Condor crimes," according to project director Carlos Osorio, "that almost 30 years later still demand the resolution of justice."
The New York Times story, "Italy Follows Trail of Secret South American Abductions," noted that the Italian effort at universal jurisdiction "deals not only with individual cases involving Italian citizens but also with the broader responsibilities of Condor's cross-border kidnapping and torture operations." The story also suggested that Condor's allied effort to track down, kidnap, and secretly transport targets to third countries, according to historians, was "reminiscent of the United States' modern terrorist rendition program."
The Archive's Peter Kornbluh noted "sinister similarities between Condor and the current U.S. rendition, enhanced interrogation, and black site detention operations."
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Document 1: CIA, Secret report, "A Brief Look at Operation Condor," August 22, 1978.
In August 1978, the CIA prepared a short briefing paper for Department of Justice lawyers who were investigating the September 21, 1976, assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington D.C. The report identifies the members of Condor, including Peru. The report also identifies Condor's use of "executive action"—assassination—against specific targets outside the territory of member nations.
Document 2: State Department, memo, "Meeting with Argentine Intelligence Service, June 19, 1980.
Four days after the Montoneros were seized in a public park in Lima, the Regional Security Officer in Buenos Aires, James Blystone, met with a high-level source in Argentina's intelligence service. Blystone reports to U.S. Ambassador Raul H. Castro in this memo that the source has told him: "The present situation is that the four Argentines will be held in Peru and then expelled to Bolivia where they will be expelled to Argentina. Once in Argentina they will be interrogated and then permanently disappeared." The three seized Argentines are Esther Gianetti de Molfino, who was a member of "Madres del Plaza de Mayo," María Inés Raverta and Julio César Ramírez. A fourth Argentine, Federico Frias Alberga, had been previously captured and taken to Lima by Argentine agents to identify his colleagues. He then disappeared along with them. This document was discovered by Long Island University professor J. Patrice McSherry, who provided it to Newsweek Magazine several years ago.
Document 3: State Department, cable, "Argentine Involvement in Lima Kidnappings," June 19, 1980.
The U.S. Ambassador to Buenos Aires, Raul H. Castro, cables the State Department with some of the information Blystone had learned. The cable states that the rendition operation "hit a snag" because it became public, and that Battalion 601 agents had decided to take the Montoneros to a third country, Bolivia.
Document 4: State Department, INR Report, Argentina-Peru: Attempted Repatriation of Montoneros Apparently Foiled," June 25, 1980.
The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research attempts to analyze the covert rendition operation run by Argentina in Peru. The report concludes that "this incident is not unique. In recent years, there have been several similar cases that attest to the high degree of cooperation among intelligence and security agencies of the southern South American countries and to their tendency to resort to illegal means of treating suspected subversives."
Document 5: State Department, Cable, "Montoneros: Amnesty International Reportedly Claims 3 Killed in Peru; Foreign Minister Comments Further, July 3, 1980.
In this nearly illegible cable, the U.S. Embassy analyzes the uproar in Peru over new allegations made by Amnesty International on the fate of the three Montoneros. On page 3, the cable notes that the situation is "very clearly" a serious matter but that the details are still "obscured." But Embassy analysts conclude that "there seems to be little doubt that the Peruvian army, acting in concert with its Argentine counterpart, resorted to the kinds of illegal repressive measures more familiar in the Southern Cone than here."
Document 6: State Department, Cable, "The Case of the Missing Montoneros," July 11, 1980.
In a cable from Lima, U.S. Ambassador Harry Shlaudeman reports on his conversation with Prime Minister Richter Prada about the missing Montoneros. Richter claims that the three Argentines were "legally expelled and delivered to a Bolivian immigration official in accordance with long-standing practice." Shlaudeman concludes that two other Montoneros who Richter says are fugitives are probably "permanent disappearances."
Document 7: State Department, Cable, "Purported Discovery of Missing Montonero," August 4, 1980.
The body of one of those seized in Peru, Esther Gianetti de Molfino, is discovered in an apartment in Madrid. The apartment is supposedly rented by another of the kidnapped Montoneros. The elaborate effort by Battalion 601 to cover up their disappearances by making her body reappear in Spain is reminiscent of Operation Colombo, when disfigured bodies appeared on the streets of Buenos Aires with identification cards of missing Chilean political figures. (Medical examinations proved that the bodies were not those individuals.) The Argentine Foreign Ministry used the discovery of de Molfino's corpse to denounce the "falseness of the campaign against Argentina and Peru" over the missing Montoneros, according to the cable.
Document 8: State Department, Memo, "Hypothesis—The GOA as Prisoner of Army Intelligence," August 18, 1980.
A political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, Townsend Friedman, offers a strange assessment of the implications of the Montonero case on the equations of power in the Argentine military regime. "Disappearance is 601 work," he writes. Due to the embarrassment factor, he suggests, "Anyone with an ounce of political sense in the GOA would have aborted, if he had been able, these operations." Rather than obvious collaborators, Friedman concludes that General Videla and the Junta are "victims" of Battalion 601 and the secret police.
Document 9: State Department, Memo, "The Case of the Missing Montoneros," August 19, 1980.
In another memo to the Embassy Charge, Townsend Friedman provides a short chronology and reevaluation of the Montonero case. He focuses on what he calls "the intimate relationship" between Argentina's and Bolivia's intelligence services. He cites a July communication between Prime Minister Richter and Argentine Army Commander, Galtieri, who tells Richter that there could be "an interesting development" in the case. That development turns out to be the discovery of the corpse of Esther Gianetti de Molfino in an apartment in Madrid, clearly planted there by agents of Battalion 601 to suggest that the Montoneros had not been kidnapped after all.
The interest of Italian judge Giancarlo Capaldo in the case of the Montoneros derives from his belief that it is connected to other Condor operations that took the lives of Italian-Argentines, among them the case of the disappearance of Horacio Campiglia who was abducted in March 1980 in Rio de Janiero by Argentine agents collaborating with Brazil's intelligence service. This report from Regional Security Officer James Blystone provides perhaps the most comprehensive detail on joint secret police collaboration to track down, abduct and render targeted victims in the Southern Cone. Blystone reports on the communications, travel, and even type of plane used in this rendition operation, and on the steps taken to provide a cover up of the plot.
Document 10: State Department, Memo, "Conversation with Argentine Intelligence Source," April 7, 1980.