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Column 081015 Brewer

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Death of a Chilean Spy Chief, Operation Condor and the CIA

By Jerry Brewer

Former spymaster and retired Chilean General Manuel Contreras, who founded and headed the ruthless and feared secret police in Chile known as the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) during the 1970s, died August 7 at a military hospital in Santiago. Contreras was 86.

DINA was established in November 1973 as a Chilean Army intelligence unit. It was separated from the army and made an independent administrative unit in June 1974, named the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI; National Information Center).

Contrera’s reign as head of the secret police ran from 1973 until 1977. He had been serving a prison term consisting of 59 sentences, for a total of 526 years, for crimes against humanity. Charges attributed to him and his secret police included kidnapping, forced disappearances, assassinations, sadism, rape, sexual torture, and forced "unnatural acts involving dogs.”

According to an official report, “40,018 people were imprisoned, tortured or slain during the 1973-90 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.  Chile's government estimates that of those, 3,095 were killed, including about 1,200 who were forcibly "disappeared."

News of the death of Contreras quickly resulted in “several dozen people” gathering outside the hospital, where they waved Chilean flags and shouted “murderer!” In celebration, they toasted with champagne in paper cups.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has had an incongruous history in Chile. In 1975, the Church Commission Report revealed that covert U.S. involvement in Chile "in the decade between 1963 and 1973 was extensive and continuous.”

A rationale, perhaps, for the U.S. covert activities was a perceived need to eradicate left-wing, communist or Soviet influences that included Cuba. This concern is obvious due to the CIA’s expenditures in almost every major election in Chile in the decade between 1963 and 1973.

In what appeared to be a smoking gun for antagonists of CIA operations, according to the report "CIA activities in Chile," released on September 19, 2000, the US government policy community approved the CIA's contact with Contreras from 1974 to 1977 to accomplish the CIA's continuing program in Chile. Contreras was reportedly retained as a paid CIA contact until 1977.

South America's Operation Condor clearly became a covert plan that essentially used unconventional warfare methods to pursue people that fled their own countries after military coups to find safe haven elsewhere. Many of Plan Condor’s targets were insurgents, dissidents, activists, political exiles, plus they included some leaders that were against military rule. Under Condor, abductions were frequent, many were tortured and killed, plus prominent figures were assassinated.

Condor could be described as an early version of military hybrid warfare, albeit without the use of biological or nuclear weapons. Its elements were variations of a blend of conventional and irregular warfare that exhibited flexibility and complex dynamics ranging from subversive efforts, to deceptive propaganda that was ultimately resilient and highly adaptable, along with frequent lethal force.

U.S. declassified documents revealed that U.S. officials considered Condor a legitimate counterterror or counterinsurgent organization “in the fight against so-called subversives in Latin America,” to eliminate Marxist terrorist activities. So much of this with the earmarks of a U.S. special forces team.

The evidence attributing Condor to one specific government is convoluted. The fact is that on November 25, 1975, leaders of the military intelligence services of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay met with the chief of DINA, Manuel Contreras, in Santiago, “officially creating Plan Condor.”

Key members of Condor were the aforementioned governments, plus Brazil. Ironically, the U.S. was not a member of the consortium, although documentation shows that the U.S. provided key organizational, financial and technical assistance to the operation.

This perceived struggle against subversion had significant victims. The exact number of deaths that could be attributed to plan Condor is obviously not available due to its covert nature. Estimates are that “at least 60,000 deaths can be attributed to Condor,” and possibly many more.

In 1975, the Church Commission conducted thorough interviews and document reviews and produced a report of comprehensive analysis of CIA actions in Chile during the period from 1963 to 1973. Some of their findings ruled in a matter-of-fact demeanor; others appear to express some admonishment of CIA operational acts; while others were rationalized as necessary actions.

The report revealed some clandestine contacts and assets “of the CIA were involved in human rights abuses.” It was explained that CIA acted at the direction and full concurrence of senior US policymakers.  At the same time, the CIA maintained clandestine contacts with selected members of the Chilean military, intelligence and security forces, both to collect intelligence and carry out the covert actions described. There is no doubt that some CIA contacts were actively engaged in committing and covering up serious human rights abuses.

The report suggests that as a result of lessons learned in Chile, Central America and elsewhere, the CIA now carefully reviews all contacts for potential involvement in human rights abuses and makes a deliberate decision, “balancing the nature and severity of the human rights abuse against the potential intelligence value of continuing the relationship.” 


Jerry Brewer is C.E.O. of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global threat mitigation firm headquartered in northern Virginia.  His website is located at

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