In the Press



The "$600,000" document

A document purportedly from Col. Manuel Contreras to General Pinochet asks for a $600,000 increase in DINA's budget to intensify operations in countries where Chile's most prominent exiled adversaries are located: Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, United States, France and Italy. The request is to place additional agents and for "additional expenses for the neutralization of the principal adversaries of the Goverment of the Junta located abroad." It is dated September 16, 1975--the precise timeframe when Contreras was organizing the formal Condor alliance.

An exiled Chilean senator made the document public, without revealing its origin or authenticity, in a press conference in Mexico in February 1977, and the author obtained a copy of the document soon after. Because its authenticity had not been established, the FBI declined to use it as evidence against Chile in the Letelier assassination prosecution, despite its seemingly dramatic statement of what we now know to be the central mission of Operation Condor.

I have reproduced the principal documents associated with the origins of the document. I also include an article (Columbia Journalism Review) in which I analyze the document's authenticity and examine an attempt to falsely protray it as having been discovered among secret police documents in the Paraguayan "Archive of Terror" in 1992.

In The Condor Years, I lean toward the document being authentic and reproduce its principal passages. Even though I know no more about its authenticity than I did before, I was able to corroborate from an independent, first hand source that a DINA request for additional funds was indeed made to Pinochet, in the same time frame, for the "internationalization" of DINA.

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Convicting Pinochet

By John Dinges


“It’s too good to check”, is an expression journalists sometimes use, usually with tongue firmly in cheek, to describe an anecdote or evidence that fits all too conveniently into a reporter’s investigation.

There’s a recent example: An incriminating 1975 secret police document is making the rounds in stories related to the prosecution in Europe of Chile’s ex-dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. Courts in Spain and Italy have charged General Pinochet with systematic torture and murder of his opponents inside Chile and setting up an international apparatus called “Operation Condor” to carry out assassinations outside Chile.

In addition, the U.S. Justice Department is keeping open its investigation of the 1976 assassination in Washington, DC, of exile leader Orlando Letelier, which has been linked to Operation Condor.

The 1975 document is about as close as you can get to a smoking gun against Pinochet. It is a personal memo to Pinochet from Col. Manuel Contreras, the head of DINA, Chile’s secret police, asking for $600,000 to expand DINA’s international operations to carry out “the neutralization of the principal adversaries of the Governing Junta abroad, especially in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, USA, France and Italy.”

Stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and several European papers have quoted the memo as an example of the mounting evidence against Pinochet.

The memo is dated September 16, 1975, which would place it at the beginning of a extraordinary chain of events, subsequently documented in the U.S. investigation of the Letelier murder and elsewhere. Within months, there were unsuccessful assassination attempts against exile leaders in Mexico City, Rome, and Paris; Contreras inaugurated Operation Condor at a formal meeting in Santiago in November attended by military officials from Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia; and Letelier was killed by a car bomb a mile from the White House on September 21, 1976.

Investigators have established solid evidence of Contreras’ role as the mastermind of Condor and the assassination attempts. But direct evidence of Pinochet’s role has been elusive.

DINA chief Contreras was convicted in Chile in 1995 of the Letelier killing and is serving a five year sentence. Pinochet, in contrast, was elevated to an honorary position of “Senator for Life” after he stepped down as commander in chief of the military several years ago.

A year ago, however, Pinochet was arrested in London and is appealing a ruling that he can be extradited to face charges in Spain. Evidence such as that contained in the Contreras memo would seem to make a strong case for Pinochet’s guilt.

No question the document is damning, But is it authentic?

It turns out that the document has a long, if checkered, history. A Mexican newspaper, El Sol, first published it in 1977 after receiving it from a Chilean exile leader, who said only that he got it from “ an impeccable source.” Around the same time, another incriminating document, also purportedly signed by DINA chief Contreras, was released in Caracas, Venezuela—that one’s source described as a London-based Chile Solidarity group, which was said to have gotten it by a “clandestine route” (“via clandestina”). That document, dated October 1975, mentions Letelier by name and discusses Contreras’ concern about his close connections to the Democratic Party in the United States.

The documents were important news back then, at a time when few of the regime’s human rights crimes had been documented.

But the documents were not accepted at face value. The FBI checked them out as part of the Letelier case investigation that ultimately resulted in the indictment of Contreras and others.

“They concluded they were phony, positively phony,” FBI agent Robert Scherrer said, in a 1979 background interview with the author. “The signature is wrong, the paper is wrong. But we were hot on it for a while.”

That was where the documents stood for many years. Books recounting the Letelier investigation ignored the documents because of their questionable provenance and doubtful authenticity.

When Spain and Italy began to develop their prosecutions of Pinochet, the memo requesting $600,000 to neutralize Pinochet’s opponents again was brought to the attention of investigators.

In each case, again, its authenticity was questioned.

Juan Garces is the lawyer who brought the suit against Pinochet in Spain, leading to his arrest in London in October 1998. “We received this document as part of the files in possession of the Chilean court in its trial of Contreras for the Letelier case,” Garces said, by email. “Who provided it to those proceedings? I don’t know.”

He said he was warned off using the document by the Italian prosecutor, Giovanni Salvi. Salvi is developing a case against Pinochet in connection with the 1975 assassination attempt in Rome, which left a prominent Chilean leader partly disabled with a bullet in the brain.

“In a telephone conversation in 1998, he [Salvi] told me, ‘Be careful, that document is false,’ ” Garces said.

The document’s traction in the press was far from over, however. The document resurfaced as if it had been newly discovered, this time with a new, seemingly convincing setting amidst thousands of police documents discovered in Paraguay, which are known there as the “Archive of Terror.”

Diana Jean Shemo of the New York Times said she was given the document in Paraguay along with a “trove of similar documents” about repression and international police operations such as Operation Condor. She wrote about it, in an August 11 (1999) article, as an example of the revelations contained in the archive, which had been discovered in the back room of a police station near Asuncion shortly after the overthrow of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

Shemo said she still is not convinced the document is false. In any case, she said she wouldn’t have thought to doubt that particular document among so many others “unless I had known there was some question about it.” In addition, she said, the content of the document is consistent with what is now known about the Pinochet regime and Operation Condor. “The document doesn’t throw the story in a completely different direction.”

In her story, she said, she took pains to describe the “chaos and disorder” in Paraguay surrounding the discovery and storage of the cache of police files. People flocked to the police station and many carried away documents, some of which are now missing from the central repository for the Archive at the Supreme Court building in Asuncion. Indeed, a staff researcher at the archive said the Contreras letter is not in the Archive and, as far as she knows, never has been.

“The best you can do is to reflect the chaos and tell the story the best you can,” Shemo said.

Another writer, Saul Landau, also received a copy of the document from someone who said it was found in the Paraguay files. He wrote about it in an op ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in May 1998. He said he is now convinced by the misgivings of the Italian and Spanish investigators and he is worried about possible damage that circulation of a false document could cause.

“The document is too juicy, that’s the problem. It’s too good to be true. It is totally damning,” he said.

Landau worked with Letelier at a leftist thinktank in Washington, the Institute for Policy Studies, at the time he was killed, and has been working for years to call attention to Pinochet’s role in the assassination.

“My intention is clear,” Landau said. “But I also don’t want to screw up my case by using something false. The question is who is using it, and for what?”

Columbia Journalism Review January 2000

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