For Italians who recall the murderous repression conducted by Latin America’s military juntas, July 9, 2021, is a date bound to remain long in their memory. It marked the conclusion of proceedings that began two decades earlier, when magistrate Giancarlo Capaldo launched investigations into the dozens of Italian citizens who were “disappeared” in the late 1970s and early 1980s in connection with the infamous Operation Condor.
It took fifteen years to conduct the preliminary work for the trial, which ultimately saw twenty-one former military men, ministers, and even statesmen in the dock. One of them resident in Italy’s southern Salerno province was Jorge Néstor Troccoli, a former officer in the Uruguayan Navy’s secret services. He had some years earlier used his Italian citizenship to flee Uruguay in order to evade prosecution in that country over the same charges.
Six years after the proceedings finally got underway in Italy, this month the trial reached its conclusion in the Cassation Court. Fourteen of the defendants, including Troccoli, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Decades since the crimes were committed, some of the twenty-one defendants died before they could be brought to justice. But in Latin America and beyond, many more such criminals remain unpunished.
To understand the essence of Operation Condor — also known as “plan Condor” or (especially in academic circles) the “Condor system” — we need to take a step back in time to Latin America’s turbulent 1970s. The recent victory of the Cuban Revolution, combined with the independence of many African and Asian countries, had spurred social and political struggles around the continent. This fueled left-wing parties’ and movements’ hopes of meaningful liberation from the model imposed by the United States — a segunda independencia, as the title of a famous song by Inti-Illimani put it.
But this hope did not last for long. Through military coups, military men took power and overthrew democratically elected governments up and down the continent. This was done in concert with economic elites, who have historically maintained a firm grip on political power in Latin America, and with the United States, which was worried that progressive moves and reforms by left-wing governments could endanger US investment in the region and allow historically Washington-aligned countries to slip into the Soviet orbit.
This led — starting from 1964 in Brazil — to a series of coups which put the greater part of the continent under military rule. In 1971, it was Bolivia’s turn, followed by Chile and Uruguay in 1973 and then Argentina in 1976. Once they took power, these regimes launched fierce campaigns of repression against any form of dissent. Roundups of oppositionists, arbitrary arrests, torture, detention in concentration camps, and “disappearances” were the bloody measures constantly used throughout the years of dictatorship. The targets: left-wingers, musicians, trade unionists, students involved in social movements, Catholic activists, or even people merely suspected of Marxist leanings.
But this wasn’t enough. As we just saw, it took more than ten years for the series of coups d’état to come to an end. The people potentially endangered in one country that had fallen under military rule could thus hope to take refuge in some bordering state, in which there was not yet a dictatorship, in order to avoid capture. The military regimes’ secret police were, obviously, aware of this. To get around this problem, in fall 1975, colonel Manuel Contreras, chief of the Chilean secret police (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, or DINA) invited his counterparts in the other Latin American military regimes to Santiago for the First Inter-American Meeting on National Intelligence — a secret summit which sought to strengthen the security systems of the countries involved.
At the end of the meeting, held in Augusto Pinochet’s capital in November 1975, the delegates from Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay signed up for a new transnational repressive system, named Condor in honor of the bird symbolizing the host country. The aim was a multinational exchange of intelligence on “subversives” through the creation of a coordination office and an international database modeled on Interpol. Brazil then signed up in 1976, followed by Ecuador and Peru two years later.
The gathering and exchange of information made up only the first part of the accord. The second was an operational one, providing for cross-border operations jointly organized by the Condor states’ security services. This allowed squads of agents belonging to either one or multiple countries to cross national borders without bureaucratic impediments. These cross-border operations allowed these agents to interrogate a compatriot of theirs who had already been arrested in another Condor country, or even to capture the presumed dissident based on information from local intelligence. The interrogations, reliant on systematic torture, would usually end in the elimination or “disappearance” of the prisoner.
The final part of this arrangement consisted in the formation of special squads charged with identifying and eliminating enemies who had taken refuge outside the territorial bounds of the Condor system who might potentially undermine the stability of these regimes even from beyond Latin American shores.
At this point in the story, it’s worth clarifying two points.
First: Operation Condor is not simply the same thing as the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, even though they were closely interrelated. A victim of repression by the dictatorships was not necessarily a victim of the Condor system specifically — though these victims equally deserve truth and justice.
Moreover, from historians’ point of view, the available documents do not prove that this transnational repression was directly orchestrated from Washington. It is often forgotten that Condor spanned two US administrations — first Nixon-Ford, then Carter — which had divergent approaches to the Latin American military regimes. The Nixon-Ford administration promoted and financed many of the dictatorships which arose in this period, in the name of Kissinger-style realpolitik. The Carter administration took a rather different approach to human rights — and while this was not incisive or effective, it was at least enough to draw accusations of communism from the military regimes.
But the question mark over the United States’ direct involvement in the capturing and disappearance of dissidents does not detract from Washington’s considerable responsibility for both the creation of the Condor system and its activity.
Washington was well aware of what was going on but maintained its silence — as numerous documents declassified by US administrations from 1999 onward demonstrate.
Then, there’s the United States’ contribution to establishing and sustaining the military regimes which, from the mid-1950s, made Latin America politically homogenous — a key condition for the Condor System’s emergence. Added to that is the training in counterinsurgency and torture techniques provided by the School of Americas — attended by many of the officials who some years later created the Condor system.
Lastly, the Condor system used US communication infrastructure sited close to the Panama Canal to coordinate the military regimes’ actions. So, Washington was clearly guilty of both connivance in and support for Condor, especially from 1975 to 1977. But there is also a difference between this kind of external support for activities which Latin American states took on their own initiative and foreign policy interventions like the 1954 coup in Guatemala or the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Official cooperation among all the Southern Cone dictatorships, in specific connection to the Condor system, seems to have lasted for around two years, ending in late 1977 or early 1978. The breaking of the pact owed to two factors. First was the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean diplomat close to Salvador Allende, in Washington on September 21, 1976. The crime had severe repercussions on Chilean-US relations, and aftershocks for all Condor system states. Jimmy Carter’s new administration pressured the Chilean regime (and others) to rein in its policy of repression, and it cut back military aid for those dictatorships who refused to cooperate.
Second was the fresh harshening of tensions between Chile and Argentina in 1977, as these states again contested control of the Beagle Channel, at the southernmost point of the continent. This conflict, which nearly sparked outright warfare, was also used by other states to dust off old grievances against both countries. Vatican mediation avoided direct conflict, but the military dictatorships’ diplomatic relations were irreparably weakened.
Even so, the breaking of the official pact did not put a stop to collaboration between the regimes’ political police. They continued to capture, massacre, torture, and exchange prisoners into the early 1980s. All in all, the repression by these regimes killed somewhere between thirty thousand and sixty thousand people — though the total remains hard to quantify, given that many of the victims’ ultimate locations remain unknown.
Over the years, there have been many trials related to the crimes of Operation Condor, most of them held in Latin America. Already in 1978, proceedings were launched in the United States against US-born DINA agent Michael Townley for organizing the attack against Orlando Letelier together with anti-Castro Cuban terrorists. Thus far, Italy is the only country outside the Americas to have carried out a trial expressly linked to Condor up to its highest court.
But justice has been lacking. Many of the executioners died without ever paying for their crimes, also on account of the weak democratic transitions in 1980s Latin America — leaving many career officers in their jobs even after the military dictatorships had ended. Others headed abroad in order to evade capture. Equally, no one has ever had to answer charges of promoting and financing the coups d’état from abroad, endorsing thousands of killings and exchanging compliments with dictators for services rendered to the West. One name could stand for all of them: Henry Kissinger, the Nobel Peace Prize winner in December 1973, after he meticulously organized the collapse of Allende’s Chile and created the conditions for a golpe that cost thousands of innocents their lives.
Given all this, the Italian trial regarding Operation Condor’s crimes accounts for only a drop in the ocean of the victims who will never see the justice they deserve. Yet, in this tragic context, the Italian trial is crucially important in one sense. For the conviction of Jorge Néstor Troccoli is the first time that a torturer has been arrested, tried, and convicted in Italy. The hope is that his sentencing will be a starting point for fresh trials against other torturers who today live undisturbed in our country, far from the scene of their crimes.
Such is the case of Carlos Luis Malatto, a former Argentinian military officer accused of torturing and killing dozens of people, but today living out a peaceful retirement in Sicily. So, too, of Don Franco Reverberi, also from Argentina, a former military chaplain identified by numerous victims as the priest who helped soldiers during the torture sessions. The priest today lives (and gives Mass) in a village in the province of Parma.
Forty years may have passed, but now, more than ever, we must seek the justice that every single victim deserves. Such justice has no geographical or political borders; and it can spread the memory of what happened beyond Latin America and even among those who didn’t suffer such atrocities on their own skin. On July 9, the Italian Cassation Court made a step in that direction. The hope is that this trial will be the first of many, until the wall of impunity and omertà that has too long surrounded these crimes is finally torn down.