Justice beyond borders

The Plan Condor trial has reverberations beyond Argentina, offering the opportunity of justice denied to many victims.

Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone listen to the verdict during their trial in a courthouse in Buenos Aires
Former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla (left) and Reynaldo Bignone, a former general who ruled Argentina in 1982-1983, were among the 25 accused in the Plan Condor trial, held in Buneos Aries [Reuters]

Two children, Anatole (aged four) and his sister Victoria (one-and-a-half-year-old), were found wandering alone in the main square of Valparaiso, Chile. It was not just their clothes that made them stand out; Anatole’s unusual accent clearly identified him as being a long way from home.

Uruguayans Anatole and Victoria Julien appeared in Chile having been victims of the borderless terror network of Plan Condor, which had killed their father Roger Julien – a leader of the Partido por la Victoria del Pueblo (PVP) – in Buenos Aires in September 1976.

Their mother Victoria later disappeared. The two children were first detained in the clandestine detention centre known as “Automotores Orletti” in Buenos Aires; they were then held in another secret centre in Montevideo before being taken to Chile and abandoned in Valparaiso.

Anatole and Victoria are just some of the victims of the regional coordination by the military dictatorship that removed all borders and obstacles to the persecution and murder of political opponents seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Hundreds of Uruguayans, Chileans, Argentines and Peruvians disappeared outside of their countries during the 1970s.

While for decades these and many other atrocities committed by the military dictatorships in South America remained under-investigated and unpunished, a new trial in Buenos Aires is now trying to bring to justice some of those responsible and provide redress to the victims and their relatives, including Anatole and Victoria since their mother’s disappearance is one of the cases considered in the prosecution.

What was Plan Condor?

In the mid-1970s, when a large number of countries in South America had fallen under military rule, a sinister and perverse form of cooperation among the dictatorships emerged. 

 Inside Story Americas – Tracing the shadows
of ‘Operation Condor’

Plan Condor was allegedly a plan to coordinate intelligence activity between the dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia in order to exchange information about the activities of government opponents and exiles who had sought refuge throughout the region.

However, it went much further than just an exchange of intelligence. Plan Condor established a borderless area of terror in South America in order to facilitate the secret detention and “transfer” of exiles back to their home countries, resulting in many cases in their death or disappearance.

The plan effectively allowed the members of armed and security forces of the governments involved to freely operate in one another’s territory, enabling them to chase political opponents and exiles even after they had fled persecution at home. It reproduced at the regional level the same machinery of terror and murder that was already being unleashed inside each of its member countries.

According to scholar J Patrice McSherry, the Condor states were inspired by the national security doctrine that targeted enemies on an ideological basis, engaging “in terrorist practices to destroy ‘the subversive threat’ from the left and defend ‘Western, Christian civilisation'”.

Some of the most notorious Operation Condor crimes took place in Argentina, such as the May 1976 assassination of the former President of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, Hector Gutierrez Ruiz, and Senator Zelmar Michelini in Buenos Aires.

Plan Condor’s main operating base in the Argentine capital was “Automotores Orletti”, a workshop-turned-clandestine detention centre located in the Floresta neighbourhood. Yet Plan Condor reverberated well beyond the region and many of its infamous crimes took place far away from South America, including the 1976 murder of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his assistant Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC, and the 1975 attempted murder of Chilean diplomat Bernardo Leighton and his wife in Rome.

The trial in Buenos Aries

On March 5, 2013, the President of Buenos Aires Federal Tribunal 1 started proceedings in the historic trial known as “Plan Condor”. For the many victims of atrocities throughout South America, this trial is especially significant given the obstacles to obtaining justice in their own countries of origin, especially in Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile.

The tribunal – composed of judges Adrian Federico Grunberg, Oscar Ricardo Almirante, Pablo G Laufer and Ricardo Angel Basilico (substitute judge) – ordered the merging of four separate cases (Plan Condor I, II, and III; Automores Orletti II) into one trial. The trial is expected to last for approximately two years and nearly 500 witnesses will be called upon to testify in the tribunal.

The trial is unprecedented and noteworthy for several reasons. Its origins date back to the late 1990s when the Full Stop and Due Obedience amnesty laws were still in force in Argentina; yet this particular case was instrumental in beginning to break the wall of impunity that surrounded the crimes of the dictatorship at the time.

Using the argument that forced disappearance constituted a “permanent crime”, since it continues to be perpetrated until the person or the body is found, it was argued that the state had the obligation to bring the crime to an end and needed to do so before deciding whether to grant amnesty or pardon.

Initially, the case involved 12 victims but many more were later added. In 2001, former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla was questioned on charges of illicit association, illegal arrest and torture in connection with Operation Condor.

In addition, an international warrant for the arrest and extradition of former Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner and of Manuel Contreras, the former chief of the National Intelligence Bureau (DINA), Pinochet’s secret police, had also been issued.

The Argentine prosecutor in the Condor case, Miguel Angel Osorio, furthermore requested the extradition of well-known Uruguayan military and police officers Jose Nino Gavazzo, Manuel Cordero, Jorge Silveira and Hugo Campos Hermida, all of whom had perpetrated crimes in Buenos Aires. The investigation was taken to court in 2008. 

“The trial is expected to last for approximately two years and nearly 500 witnesses will be called upon to testify in the tribunal.”

Among the 25 accused, the vast majority are Argentines, including former dictators Videla and Reynaldo Bignone. Also in the dock is Uruguayan former military officer Manuel Cordero, who was extradited from Brazil in January 2010 where he had absconded.

Secondly, that the trial is taking place in Buenos Aires highlights the disparities in the region in holding past human rights violators to account. Despite Argentina’s progress, the same cannot be said of its neighbours, particularly Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay, as the recent Supreme Court sentence evinces.

Regional network of justice

For the moment, it looks unlikely that the trial in the Argentine capital will be able to force its neighbours into action concerning the Plan Condor crimes. Nevertheless, the experience of Argentina should serve as a valuable example to the rest of the region, which with luck may lead to the establishment of a regional network of justice to replace that of terror which exerted its force 30 years ago.

The third innovative aspect of the trial relates to the victims: the Plan Condor trial (cases I, II, III) involves 106 victims, who had been illegally detained, tortured, murdered, and disappeared.

It is noteworthy due to the numerous nationalities of the victims, including a large number of Uruguayans (48), but also Paraguayans, Chileans, Bolivians, Peruvians and Argentines. The trial is of particular significance for the relatives of Condor’s victims because for many this is the first time their cases have been brought to trial or even investigated.

Therefore, the Plan Condor trial has reverberations beyond Argentina, transcending borders in South America and offering the opportunity of justice denied until now to many victims and relatives throughout the region.

In Argentina, for example, while there has been important progress in unearthing the circumstances of the dictatorship’s victims at home, the fate of those Argentines killed or disappeared abroad remains largely shrouded in silence.

As such, for those who have thus far been unable to gain answers, this marks an extremely important moment and the first time accountability may be achieved almost four decades after the crimes were committed – including for Anatole and Victoria for whom, 37 years after losing their parents, justice is finally within reach.

Dr Francesca Lessa is a postdoctoral researcher at the Latin American Centre and St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, specialising on issues of justice and human rights in Uruguay.

Pierre-Louis LeGoff is a research assistant at the Latin American centre, University of Oxford, and a member of the committee for Crimes Against Humanity at the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Follow him on Twitter: @P_LeGoff