Italy Follows Trail of Secret South American Abductions
BUENOS AIRES — In an unusually sweeping investigation, Italian authorities are seeking to prosecute former top officials in seven South American countries for their roles in a secret operation in the 1970s and 1980s by the region’s security forces to crush left-wing political dissent.
The extraordinary breadth of the seven-year Italian investigation, into what is known as Operation Condor, has drawn in countries formerly not thought to have been deeply involved in the shadowy program, particularly Peru. It has also agitated political establishments up and down the continent.
The investigation and recently declassified documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times, suggest a complicit role of the United States in Condor’s often-deadly operations, some of which American officials knew about before but did little to stop.
In late December, Judge Luisianna Figliolia in Rome issued arrest warrants for 140 former officials from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, seeking to prosecute them in connection with the disappearance of 25 Italian citizens.
The Condor countries helped one another locate, transport, torture and ultimately make disappear dissidents across their borders, and even collaborated on assassination operations in Europe and the United States.
In an operation that historians call reminiscent of the United States’ modern terrorist rendition program, the Condor countries sometimes used an allied intelligence network to track and transport terrorism suspects to a third country for interrogations.
“This is the most ambitious look yet at Operation Condor,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Brussels. “I don’t know of any other case that has taken on so much.”
While Argentina and Chile are well known to have been at the center of Operation Condor, the arrest warrants have forced new soul-searching in Peru and a reconsideration of its involvement.
The 250-page indictment issued by Judge Figliolia, part of which was reviewed by The Times, names four former Peruvian officials, including Peru’s dictator from 1975 to 1980, Gen. Francisco Morales Bermudez, and his military commander, Pedro Richter Prada.
The arrest orders for the Peruvians deal indirectly with the June 1980 abductions of four leftist rebels, called Montoneros, in Lima by a joint group of security agents loyal to General Morales Bermudez and members of Argentina’s military police.
At the time, Peru had largely avoided the guerrilla movements and brutal counterinsurgencies that had roiled Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, where Operation Condor was most active.
But in June 1980, in the last two months of General Morales Bermudez’s dictatorship, members of Argentina’s 601 Battalion, a special army intelligence unit, went to Peru to track down Montoneros members bent on overthrowing Argentina’s junta.
The Argentine agents had captured one member of the group, Federico Frías Alberga, in Buenos Aires, and took him with them to Peru to help identify his comrades in a sting operation.
On June 12, 1980, Argentine and Peruvian intelligence agents took undercover positions in a park in Lima, the Peruvian capital, dressed as salesmen, street artists and transients. After Mr. Alberga exchanged a coded message with one Montonero, the agents pounced.
They arrested her and two others, Noemí Giannotti de Molfino and Julio César Ramírez, according to a 2004 book by a Peruvian journalist, Ricardo Uceda.
The Argentines later tortured them at a Peruvian military installation, according to the account by Mr. Uceda, who interviewed a Peruvian Army intelligence agent who witnessed the torture sessions.
One week later, on June 19, according to the declassified documents, James J. Blystone, a political officer in the American Embassy in Buenos Aires, described in a memo to his boss what was to happen next.
Mr. Blystone told his boss, Ambassador Raul H. Castro, that an Argentine intelligence source had informed him that the four Montoneros would be held in Peru and then “expelled to Bolivia” and sent on to Argentina, where they would be “interrogated and then permanently disappeared.”
Mr. Castro wrote to the secretary of state’s office in Washington that an Argentine source had confirmed the abductions and a plan to take the captured Montoneros back to Argentina.
But the news of the arrests found its way into the Peruvian media, and because of the public outcry, the plan to return the rebels to Argentina was dropped, according to a copy of Mr. Castro’s memo, which is among the declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive, a private research institute and library.
In a phone interview, Mr. Castro, now 91, said he recalled “being concerned” about the Montoneros operation. But, he said, “I don’t recall what action, if any, we took at the time.”
The level of Peru’s involvement in Operation Condor was debated heavily in American intelligence circles, he said. “We couldn’t agree, the Foreign Service and Washington and the intelligence services, if Peru was involved,” Mr. Castro said. “I thought they were very much involved. It seemed very clear after those Montoneros were taken to Bolivia.”
Mr. Blystone, also reached by phone, said American officials should have lobbied harder for the prisoners’ release. “I got all that information and I passed it on, and we could have done something,” he said. “But we dropped the ball, let’s face it.”
A month later, the scandal still had not died down when Mr. Castro met with the Argentine Army commander, Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri. Mr. Castro prodded him so much about the Montoneros that General Galtieri waved his hand and said, “Enough is enough,” according to Mr. Castro’s report to Washington.
Despite the publicity, the Argentine security agents went ahead with their plans, which apparently included taking Mrs. Molfino to Spain. On July 21, 1980, she was found dead in a Madrid apartment. The three other Montoneros were never found.
Peru is already reeling from the continuing human rights trial of Alberto K. Fujimori, who was president for a decade until 2000, and officials there have been quick to defend those accused in the Italian case.
President Alan García viewed the arrest warrants as an affront to Peru’s sovereignty. He described Judge Figliolia’s move as an attempt to depict Peru as a “little banana republic” and offered his support to General Morales Bermudez.
The Italian investigation deals not only with individual cases involving Italian citizens but also with the broader responsibility for Condor’s cross-border kidnapping and torture operations, according to two people in Italy involved in the case.
Italy claims jurisdiction because it believes crimes occurred against its citizens. But only one of the accused, a retired Uruguayan Navy officer, was taken into custody in Italy, and he was later released for what a magistrate cited as a lack of evidence. It seems unlikely that the South American countries will go through with extraditions.
Remigio Morales-Bermudez Pedraglio, a son of General Morales Bermudez, the former dictator, said in an interview that the case was “a disgrace.” He said his father would agree to be extradited to Italy only if Peru’s Supreme Court found merit in the Italian charges. Under Italian law, he can be tried in absentia, however.
General Morales Bermudez, now 88, took power in 1975 in a coup but is still admired by many Peruvians for allowing presidential elections in 1980.
In an interview with the Peruvian journalist, Mr. Uceda, in 2000 he acknowledged that he had given the order to capture the Montoneros, following the advice of Mr. Richter, his military commander. “We couldn’t give ourselves the luxury of having subversives on the loose in the country during the transition of power,” he said.
In statements to the Peruvian media, General Morales Bermudez rejected the assertion that Peru was part of Operation Condor, but said he was prepared to clarify the events in question.