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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, March 05, 2013 1:46 pm

'Operation Condor' trial begins in Buenos Aires


Argentina began a long-awaited human rights trial Tuesday focused on Operation Condor, the 1970s conspiracy launched by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to enlist South America's dictators in a combined effort to leave no refuge for their leftist critics.

The 25 defendants include former Argentine junta leaders Rafael Videla, 87, and Reynaldo Bignone, 85, both already serving life sentences for multiple human rights violations during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. This time, the charges include criminal association, kidnapping and torture.

Also on trial is a former Uruguayan army colonel, Manuel Cordero, who allegedly tortured prisoners inside Automotores Orletti, the Buenos Aires repair shop where many captured leftists were taken to be interrogated under orders from their home countries.

More than 400 witnesses are expected to be called in the two-year trial, which involves 106 victims from at least four countries who were killed in Argentina. The case also includes three Argentines killed in Brazil.

A key piece of evidence is a declassified FBI agent's cable, sent in 1976, that described in detail the conspiracy to share intelligence and eliminate leftists across South America.

The actual conspiracy went further than that: the U.S. government later determined that Chilean agents involved in Condor killed the country's former ambassador Orlando Letelier and his U.S. aide Ronni Moffitt in Washington, D.C., in September 1976, and tracked other exiles across Europe in efforts to eliminate them, as well.

Operation Condor grew to include the military governments of six countries: Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Other Argentine defendants include Santiago Riveros, Carlos Humberto Caggiano Tedesco, Luciano Benjamín Menendez y Antonio Vanek. Others have died of old age or seen their charges dropped for reasons of poor health.

Because in many cases the bodies of the victims have never been found, Argentine prosecutors argue that the crime of covering up their deaths continues today, and that statutory time limits don't apply.

The victims include Maria Claudia Irureta Goyena, the daughter-in-law of Argentine poet Juan Gelman, who was pregnant while kidnapped and held for months inside Automotores Orletti before an Argentine air force plane took her to Uruguay. She gave birth there, and then was disappeared. Her daughter, Macarena Gelman, recently discovered her own true identity.

Another victim was Chilean militant Edgardo Enriquez Espinosa of the Leftist Revolutionary Movement who had taken refuge in Buenos Aires from Pinochet's forces, only to be kidnapped and killed after the March 1976 Argentine coup.

Prosecutor Pablo Ouvina said torturers from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay often did their dirty work side by side.