William Blum

Official website of the author, historian, and U.S. foreign policy critic.

Uruguay, 1964 to 1970: Torture—as American as apple pie

“The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.” 1

The words of an instructor in the art of torture. The words of Dan Mitrione, the head of the Office of Public Safety (OPS) mission in Montevideo.

Officially, OPS was a division of the Agency for International Development, but the director of OPS in Washington, Byron Engle, was an old CIA hand. His organization maintained a close working relationship with the CIA, and Agency officers often operated abroad under OPS cover, although Mitrione was not one of them. 2

OPS had been operating formally in Uruguay since 1965, supplying the police with the equipment, the arms, and the training it was created to do. Four years later, when Mitrione arrived, the Uruguayans had a special need for OPS services. The country was in the midst of a long-running economic decline, its once-heralded prosperity and democracy sinking fast toward the level of its South American neighbors. Labor strikes, student demonstrations, and militant street violence had become normal events during the past year; and, most worrisome to the Uruguayan authorities, there were the revolutionaries who called themselves Tupamaros. Perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful and most sophisticated urban guerrillas the world has ever seen, the Tupamaros had a deft touch for capturing the public’s imagination with outrageous actions, and winning sympathizers with their Robin Hood philosophy. Their members and secret partisans held key positions in the government, banks, universities, and the professions, as well as in the military and police.

“Unlike other Latin-American guerrilla groups,” the New York Times stated in 1970, “the Tupamaros normally avoid bloodshed when possible. They try instead to create embarrassment for the Government and general disorder.” 3 A favorite tactic was to raid the files of a private corporation to expose corruption and deceit in high places, or kidnap a prominent figure and try him before a “People’s Court”. It was heady stuff to choose a public villain whose acts went uncensored by the legislature, the courts and the press, subject him to an informed and uncompromising interrogation, and then publicize the results of the intriguing dialogue. Once they ransacked an exclusive high-class nightclub and scrawled on the walls perhaps their most memorable slogan: O Bailan Todos O No Baila Nadie … Either everyone dances or no one dances.

Dan Mitrione did not introduce the practice of torturing political prisoners to Uruguay. It had been perpetrated by the police at times from at least the early 1960s. However, in a surprising interview given to a leading Brazilian newspaper in 1970, the former Uruguayan Chief of Police Intelligence, Alejandro Otero, declared that US advisers, and in particular Mitrione, had instituted torture as a more routine measure; to the means of inflicting pain, they had added scientific refinement; and to that a psychology to create despair, such as playing a tape in the next room of women and children screaming and telling the prisoner that it was his family being tortured. 4

“The violent methods which were beginning to be employed,” said Otero, “caused an escalation in Tupamaro activity. Before then their attitude showed that they would use violence only as a last resort.” 5

The newspaper interview greatly upset American officials in South America and Washington. Byron Engle later tried to explain it all away by asserting: “The three Brazilian reporters in Montevideo all denied filing that story. We found out later that it was slipped into the paper by someone in the composing room at the Jornal do Brasil.” 6

Otero had been a willing agent of the CIA, a student at their International Police Services school in Washington, a recipient of their cash over the years, but he was not a torturer. What finally drove him to speak out was perhaps the torture of a woman who, while a Tupamaro sympathizer, was also a friend of his. When she told him that Mitrione had watched and assisted in her torture, Otero complained to him, about this particular incident as well as his general methods of extracting information. The only outcome of the encounter was Otero’s demotion. 7

William Cantrell was a CIA operations officer stationed in Montevideo, ostensibly as a member of the OPS team. In the mid-1960s he was instrumental in setting up a Department of Information and Intelligence (DII), and providing it with funds and equipment. 8 Some of the equipment, innovated by the CIA’s Technical Services Division, was for the purpose of torture, for this was one of the functions carried out by the DII. 9

“One of the pieces of equipment that was found useful,” former New York Times correspondent A. J. Langguth learned, “was a wire so very thin that it could be fitted into the mouth between the teeth and by pressing against the gum increase the electrical charge. And it was through the diplomatic pouch that Mitrione got some of the equipment he needed for interrogations, including these fine wires.” 10

Things got so bad in Mitrione’s time that the Uruguayan Senate was compelled to undertake an investigation. After a five-month study, the commission concluded unanimously that torture in Uruguay had become a “normal, frequent and habitual occurrence”, inflicted upon Tupamaros as well as others. Among the types of torture the commission’s report made reference to were electric shocks to the genitals, electric needles under the fingernails, burning with cigarettes, the slow compression of the testicles, daily use of psychological torture … “pregnant women were subjected to various brutalities and inhuman treatment” … “certain women were imprisoned with their very young infants and subjected to the same treatment” … 11

Eventually the DII came to serve as a cover for the Escuadrón de la Muerte (Death Squad), composed, as elsewhere in Latin America, primarily of police officers, who bombed and strafed the homes of suspected Tupamaro sympathizers and engaged in assassination and kidnapping. The Death Squad received some of its special explosive material from the Technical Services Division and, in all likelihood, some of the skills employed by its members were acquired from instruction in the United States. 12 Between 1969 and 1973, at least 16 Uruguayan police officers went through an eight-week course at CIA/OPS schools in Washington and Los Fresnos, Texas in the design, manufacture and employment of bombs and incendiary devices. 13 The official OPS explanation for these courses was that policemen needed such training in order to deal with bombs placed by terrorists. There was, however, no instruction in destroying bombs, only in making them; moreover, on at least one reported occasion, the students were not policemen, but members of a private right-wing organization in Chile (see chapter on Chile). Another part of the curriculum which might also have proven to be of value to the Death Squad was the class on Assassination Weapons – “A discussion of various weapons which may be used by the assassin” is how OPS put it. 14

Equipment and training of this kind was in addition to that normally provided by OPS: riot helmets, transparent shields, tear gas, gas masks, communication gear, vehicles, police batons, and other devices for restraining crowds. The supply of these tools of the trade was increased in 1968 when public disturbances reached the spark-point, and by 1970 American training in riot-control techniques had been given to about a thousand Uruguayan policemen. 15

Dan Mitrione had built a soundproofed room in the cellar of his house in Montevideo. In this room he assembled selected Uruguayan police officers to observe a demonstration of torture techniques. Another observer was Manuel Hevia Cosculluela, a Cuban who was with the CIA and worked with Mitrione. Hevia later wrote that the course began with a description of the human anatomy and nervous system …

Soon things turned unpleasant. As subjects for the first testing they took beggars, known in Uruguay as bichicomes, from the outskirts of Montevideo, as well as a woman apparently from the frontier area with Brazil. There was no interrogation, only a demonstration of the effects of different voltages on the different parts of the human body, as well as demonstrating the use of a drug which induces vomiting – I don’t know why or what for – and another chemical substance. The four of them died. 16

In his book Hevia does not say specifically what Mitrione’s direct part in all this was, but he later publicly stated that the OPS chief “personally tortured four beggars to death with electric shocks”. 17

On another occasion, Hevia sat with Mitrione in the latter’s house, and over a few drinks the American explained to the Cuban his philosophy of interrogation. Mitrione considered it to be an art. First there should be a softening-up period, with the usual beatings and insults. The object is to humiliate the prisoner, to make him realize his helplessness, to cut him off from reality. No questions, only blows and insults. Then, only blows in silence.

Only after this, said Mitrione, is the interrogation. Here no pain should be produced other than that caused by the instrument which is being used. “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect,” was his motto.

During the session you have to keep the subject from losing all hope of life, because this can lead to stubborn resistance. “You must always leave him some hope … a distant light.”

“When you get what you want, and I always get it,” Mitrione continued, “it may be good to prolong the session a little to apply another softening-up. Not to extract information now, but only as a political measure, to create a healthy fear of meddling in subversive activities.”

The American pointed out that upon receiving a subject the first thing is to determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, by means of a medical examination. “A premature death means a failure by the technician … It’s important to know in advance if we can permit ourselves the luxury of the subject’s death.” 18

Not long after this conversation, Manual Hevia disappeared from Montevideo and turned up in Havana. He had been a Cuban agent – a double agent – all along.

About half a year later, 31 July 1970 to be exact, Dan Mitrione was kidnapped by the Tupamaros. They did not torture him. They demanded the release of some 150 prisoners in exchange for him. With the determined backing of the Nixon administration, the Uruguayan government refused. On 10 August, Mitrione’s dead body was found on the back seat of a stolen car. He had turned 50 on his fifth day as a prisoner.

Back in Mitrione’s home town of Richmond, Indiana, Secretary of State William Rogers and President Nixon’s son-in-law David Eisenhower attended the funeral for Mitrione, the city’s former police chief. Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis came to town to stage a benefit show for Mitrione’s family.

And White House spokesman, Ron Ziegler, solemnly stated that “Mr. Mitrione’s devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere.” 19

“A perfect man,” his widow said.

“A great humanitarian,” said his daughter Linda. 20  

The military’s entry into the escalating conflict signaled the beginning of the end for the Tupamaros. By the end of 1972, the curtain was descending on their guerrilla theatre. Six months later, the military was in charge, Congress was dissolved, and everything not prohibited was compulsory. For the next 11 years, Uruguay competed strongly for the honor of being South America’s most repressive dictatorship. It had, at one point, the largest number of political prisoners per capita in the world. And, as every human rights organization and former prisoner could testify, each one of them was tortured. “Torture,” said an activist priest, “was routine and automatic.” 21

No one was dancing in Uruguay.

In 1981, at the Fourteenth Conference of American Armies, the Uruguayan Army offered a paper in which it defined subversion as “actions, violent or not, with ultimate purposes of a political nature, in all fields of human activity within the internal sphere of a state and whose aims are perceived as not convenient for the overall political system.” 22

The dissident Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, summed up his country’s era of dictatorship thusly: “People were in prison so that prices could be free.” 23

The film “State of Siege” appeared in 1972. It centered around Mitrione and the Tupamaros and depicted a Uruguayan police officer receiving training at a secret bomb school in the United States, though the film strove more to provide a composite picture of the role played by the US in repression throughout Latin America. A scheduled premier showing of the film at the federally-funded John F. Kennedy Arts Center in Washington was canceled. There was already growing public and congressional criticism of this dark side of American foreign policy without adding to it. During the mid-1970s, however, Congress enacted several pieces of legislation which abolished the entire Public Safety Program. In its time, OPS had provided training for more than one million policemen in the Third World. Ten thousand of them had received advance training in the United States. An estimated $150 million worth of equipment had been shipped to police forces abroad. 24 Now, the “export of repression” was to cease.

That was on paper. The reality appears to be somewhat different.

To a large extent, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) simply picked up where OPS had left off. The drug agency was ideally suited for the task, for its agents were already deployed all over Latin America and elsewhere overseas in routine liaison with foreign police forces. The DEA acknowledged in 1975 that 53 “former” employees of the CIA were now on its staff and that there was a close working relationship between the two agencies. The following year, the General Accounting Office reported that DEA agents were engaging in many of the same activities the OPS had been carrying out.

In addition, some training of foreign policemen was transferred to FBI schools in Washington and Quantico, Virginia; the Defense Department continued to supply police-type equipment to military units engaged in internal security operations; and American arms manufacturers were doing a booming business furnishing arms and training to Third World governments. In some countries, contact between these companies and foreign law enforcement officials was facilitated by the US Embassy or military mission. The largest of the arms manufacturers, Smith and Wesson, ran its own Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts, which provided American and foreign “public and industrial security forces with expert training in riot control”. 25

Said Argentine Minister Jose Lopez Rega at the signing of a US-Argentina anti-drug treaty in 1974: “We hope to wipe out the drug traffic in Argentina. We have caught guerrillas after attacks who were high on drugs. The guerrillas are the main drug users in Argentina. Therefore, this anti-drug campaign will automatically be an anti-guerrilla campaign as well.” 26

And in 1981, a former Uruguayan intelligence officer declared that US manuals were being used to teach techniques of torture to his country’s military. He said that most of the officers who trained him had attended classes run by the United States in Panama. Among other niceties, the manuals listed 35 nerve points where electrodes could be applied. 27

Philip Agee, after he left Ecuador, was stationed in Uruguay from March 1964 to August 1966. His account of CIA activities in Montevideo is further testimony to the amount of international mischief money can buy. Amongst the multifarious dirty tricks pulled off with impunity by Agee and his Agency cohorts, the following constitute an interesting sample: 28

A Latin American students’ conference with a leftist leaning, held in Montevideo, was undermined by promoting the falsehood that it was nothing more than a creature of the Soviet Union – originated, financed and directed by Moscow. Editorials on this theme authored by the CIA appeared in leading newspapers to which the Agency had daily access. This was followed by publication of a forged letter of a student leader thanking the Soviet cultural attaché for his assistance. A banner headline in one paper proclaimed: “Documents for the Break with Russia”, which was indeed the primary purpose of the operation.

An inordinate amount of time, energy and creativity was devoted, with moderate success, to schemes aimed at encouraging the expulsion of an assortment of Russians, East Germans, North Koreans, Czechs, and Cubans from Uruguayan soil, if not the breaking of relations with these countries. In addition to planting disparaging media propaganda, the CIA tried to obtain incriminating information by reading the mail and diplomatic cables to and from these countries, tapping embassy phones, and engaging in sundry bugging and surreptitious entry. The Agency would then prepare “Intelligence” reports, containing enough factual information to be plausible, which then made their way innocently into the hands of officials of influence, up to and including the president of the republic.

Anti-communist indoctrination of secondary-level students was promoted by financing particular school organizations and publications.

A Congress of the People, bringing together a host of community groups, labor organizations, students, government workers, etc., Communist and non-Communist, disturbed the CIA because of the potential for a united front being formed for electoral purposes. Accordingly, newspaper editorials and articles were generated attacking the Congress as a classic Communist takeover/duping tactic and calling upon non-Communists to refrain from participating; and a phoney handbill was circulated in which the Congress called upon the Uruguayan people to launch an insurrectional strike with immediate occupation of their places of work. Thousands of the handbills were handed out, provoking angry denials from the Congress organizers, but, as is usual in such cases, the damage was already done.

The Uruguayan Communist Party planned to host an international conference to express solidarity with Cuba. The CIA merely had to turn to their (paid) friend, the Minister of the Interior, and the conference was banned. When it was shifted to Chile, the CIA station in Santiago performed the same magic.

Uruguay at this time was a haven for political exiles from repressive regimes such as in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The CIA, through surveillance and infiltration of the exile community, regularly collected information on exiles’ activities, associates, etc., to be sent to CIA stations in the exiles’ homelands with likely transmission to their governments, which wanted to know what these troublemakers were up to and which did not hesitate to harass them across frontiers.

“Other operations,” wrote Agee, “were designed to take control of the streets away from communists and other leftists, and our squads, often with the participation of off-duty policemen, would break up their meetings and generally terrorize them. Torture of communists and other extreme leftists was used in interrogation by our liaison agents in the police.”

The monitoring and harassment of Communist diplomatic missions by the CIA, as described above, was standard Agency practice throughout the Western world. This rarely stemmed from anything more than a juvenile cold-war reflex: making life hard for the commies. Looked at from any angle, it was politically and morally pointless. Richard Gott, the Latin America specialist of The Guardian of London, related an anecdote which is relevant:

In January 1967 a group of Brazilians and a Uruguayan asked for political asylum in the Czech embassy in Montevideo, stating that they wished to go to a Socialist country to pursue their revolutionary activities. They were, they said, under constant surveillance and harassment from the Uruguayan police. The Czech ambassador was horrified by their request and threw them out, saying that there was no police persecution in Uruguay. When the revolutionaries camped in his garden the ambassador called the police. 29

Postscript: In 1998, Eladio Moll, a retired Uruguayan navy rear admiral and former intelligence chief, testifying before a commission of the Uruguayan Chamber of Deputies, stated that during Uruguay’s “dirty war” (1972-1983), orders came from the United States to kill captive members of the Tupamaros after interrogating them. “The guidance that was sent from the US,” said Moll, “was that what had to be done with the captured guerrillas was to get information, and that afterwards they didn’t deserve to live.” 30

Notes

  1. Manuel Hevia Cosculluela, Pasaporte 11333: Ocho Años con la CIA (Havana, 1978), p. 286.
  2. A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors (New York, 1978) pp. 48-9, 51 and passim. Langguth was formerly with the New York Times and in 1965 served as Saigon Bureau Chief for the newspaper.
  3. New York Times, 1 August 1970.
  4. Langguth, pp. 285-7; New York Times, 15 August 1970.
  5. Alain Labrousse, The Tupamaros: Urban Guerrillas in Uruguay (Penguin Books, London, 1973, translation from French 1970 edition) p. 103.
  6. Langguth, p. 289.
  7. Langguth, pp. 232-3, 253-4; Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary (New York, 1975), see index (Otero’s relationship to the CIA).
  8. Major Carlos Wilson, The Tupamaros: The Unmentionables (Boston, 1974) pp. 106-7; Langguth, p. 236. Agee, p. 478, confirms Cantrell’s identity.
  9. Langguth, p. 252.
  10. Interview of Langguth in the film “On Company Business” (Directed by Allan Francovich), cited in Warner Poelchau, ed., White Paper, Whitewash (New York, 1981) p. 66.
  11. Extracts from the report of the Senate Commission of Inquiry into Torture, a document accompanying the film script in State of Siege (Ballantine Books, New York, 1973) pp. 194-6; also see “Death of a Policeman: Unanswered Questions About a Tragedy”, Commonweal (Catholic biweekly magazine, New York), 18 September 1970, p. 457; Langguth, p. 249.
  12. Death Squad, TSD: Langguth, pp. 245-6, 253.
  13. Michael Klare and Nancy Stein, “Police Terrorism in Latin America”, NACLA’s Latin America and Empire Report (North American Congress on Latin America), January 1974, pp. 19-23, based on State Department documents obtained by Senator James Abourezk in 1973; also see Jack Anderson, Washington Post, 8 October 1973, p. C33; Langguth, pp. 242-3.
  14. Klare and Stein, p. 19.
  15. New York Times, 25 September 1968, 1 August 1970; Langguth, p. 241.
  16. Hevia, p. 284, translated from the Spanish and slightly paraphrased by author; a similar treatment of this and other passages from Hevia can be found in Langguth, pp. 311-13.
  17. New York Times, 5 August 1978, p. 3.
  18. Mitrione’s philosophy: Hevia, pp. 286-7 (see note 16 above).
  19. Poelchau, p. 68.
  20. Langguth, p. 305.
  21. The Guardian (London) 19 October 1984.
  22. Lawrence Weschler, A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts With Torturers (Penguin Books, 1991) p. 121.
  23. Ibid., p. 147, said to Weschler by Galeano.
  24. Nancy Stein and Michael Klare, “Merchants of Repression”, NACLA’s Latin America and Empire Report (North American Congress on Latin America), July-August 1976, p. 31.
  25. DEA, arms manufacturers, etc.: Stein and Klare, pp. 31-2; New York Times, 23 January 1975, p. 38; 26 January 1975, p 42; Langguth, p. 301.
  26. Argentine Commission for Human Rights, Washington, DC: Report entitled “U.S. Narcotics Enforcement Assistance to Latin America”, 10 March 1977, reference to a May 1974 press conference in Argentina.
  27. San Francisco Chronicle, 2 November 1981.
  28. Agee, pp. 325-493, passim.
  29. From Gott’s Introduction to Labrousse, p. 7.
  30. Cable News Network en Español, 23 July 1998; El Diario-La Prensa (New York) 24 July 1998; Clarin (Buenos Aires) 22 July 1998, p. 45

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U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II

Freeing the World to Death

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Essays on the American Empire

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A Cold War Memoir