How far would Washington go to defend torture and death squads?

Sometimes, it’s just instructive to take a good hard look at the past in order to really grasp what’s going on in the present. Take, for example, the fact that Washington has officially sanctioned torture and the use of death squads during the nearly ten years that the War on Terra has been raging. Dubya even went so far as to get some legal beagles to write him some excuse notes, sparking worldwide outrage. Think it’s anything new? Think again. Here’s the latest declassified bombshell from the National Security Archive, which landed in my inbox yesterday:

Washington, DC, August 11, 2010 – Documents posted by the National Security Archive on the 40th anniversary of the death of U.S. advisor Dan Mitrione in Uruguay show the Nixon administration recommended a “threat to kill [detained insurgent] Sendic and other key [leftist insurgent] MLN prisoners if Mitrione is killed.” The secret cable from U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, made public here for the first time, instructed U.S. Ambassador Charles Adair: “If this has not been considered, you should raise it with the Government of Uruguay at once.”

The message to the Uruguayan government, received by the U.S. Embassy at 11:30 am on August 9, 1970, was an attempt to deter Tupamaro insurgents from killing Mitrione at noon on that day. A few minutes later, Ambassador Adair reported back, in another newly-released cable, that “a threat was made to these prisoners that members of the ‘Escuadrón de la Muerte’ [death squad] would take action against the prisoners’ relatives if Mitrione were killed.”

Dan Mitrione, Director of the U.S. AID Office of Public Safety (OPS) in Uruguay and the main American advisor to the Uruguayan police at the time, had been held for ten days by MLN-Tupamaro insurgents demanding the release of some 150 guerrilla prisoners held by the Uruguayan government. Mitrione was found dead the morning of August 10, 1970, killed by the Tupamaros after their demands were not met.

“The documents reveal the U.S. went to the edge of ethics in an effort to save Mitrione–an aspect of the case that remained hidden in secret documents for years,” said Carlos Osorio, who directs the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone project. “There should be a full declassification to set the record straight on U.S. policy toward Uruguay in the 1960’s and 1970’s.”

“In the aftermath of Dan Mitrione’s death, the Uruguayan government unleashed the illegal death squads to hunt and kill insurgents,” said Clara Aldrighi, professor of history at Uruguay’s Universidad de la República, and author of “El Caso Mitrione” (Montevideo: Ediciones Trilce, 2007). “The U.S. documents are irrefutable proof that the death squads were a policy of the Uruguayan government, and will serve as key evidence in the death squads cases open now in Uruguay’s courts,” Osorio added. “It is a shame that the U.S. documents are writing Uruguayan history. There should be declassification in Uruguay as well,” stated Aldrighi, who collaborated in the production of this briefing book.

Who was Dan Mitrione? Oh, just the US’s leading torturer in South America at the time. His specialty was the “scientific” use of electroshock as torture, ostensibly for purposes of interrogation. He not only tortured countless innocent people himself (some of them to the point of death), he trained the local police in three countries to do the same. Uruguay was the last; before that it was the Dominican Republic and Brazil. He was portrayed, in a thinly fictionalized form, by Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras’s movie, State of Siege. You can read more about him here and here.

What’s notable about all this is how long ago it happened. Mitrione met harsh justice in Uruguay 40 years ago, and yet it seems like it was only yesterday. We can clearly see a pattern, a striking similarity between how Tricky Dick did things, and how his ideological scion, Dubya, did them. The use of death threats, death squads (organized by the US’s puppet regimes abroad) and torture–can you honestly tell the difference between Uruguay in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Central America in the Reaganite ’80s, and Afghanistan and Iraq over the last ten years? I have difficulty with it, myself.

And no wonder. When it comes to imperialism, not much has changed from one decade to the next, other than the location of the worst manifestations of the disease. For the last 200 years, ever since the cry went up in South America for freedom from the Spanish empire, Latin America has felt that big stick of gringo imperialism coming to supplant the royal sceptre of Spain–here, there, everywhere. Not one country south of the Rio Grande has been immune. Nor, since the discovery of petroleum under its sands, has the Middle East, although it is a more recent target. The brutality has gone through minor variations, but the overall theme is readily recognizable: Whatever Washington wants, Washington gets, and damn the expense–even if the toll is a river of human blood.

And if a more “modern” form of the Spanish Inquisition is required to exact it, so be it. A Dan Mitrione is worth a death squad and the murders of hundreds of local freedom fighters–so runs the reasoning. They will go all the way–literally to the death–to defend their imperial methods.

I wonder what Mitrione-like characters have yet to shake out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I predict we’ll be seeing several, probably in the guise of “civilian contractors” to give plausible deniability to the military and the CIA. Mitrione was, after all, one who operated under the guise of a police chief, not an intelligence officer, although he was attached to the FBI in 1959, and the State Department as of 1960. He was sent on his first foreign assignment that same year. His plausible deniability: he was training local police in Latin America. In what? Well, what else: interrogation. “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect”–that was his motto. Death of the victim was undesirable only because it meant that the torturer had been inept in getting what he wanted out of the poor soul.

Nowadays, it’s waterboarding, not electroshock, that’s in vogue. But the purpose is the same, both superficially and underneath it all. Nothing has changed much in 40 years, or indeed 200.

It’s yesterday once more. Shooby doo lang lang…

This entry was posted in Barreling Right Along, Fascism Without Swastikas, Isn't That Illegal?, Law-Law Land, Not So Compassionate Conservatism, Paraguay, Uruguay, Sick Frickin' Bastards, The War on Terra, W is for Weak (and Stupid). Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How far would Washington go to defend torture and death squads?

  1. Dan Mitrione changed the course of my life. Everything that was done in response to his death changed Uruguayan history. I was born in 1971, my father was with Los Tupamaros and we had to flee in 1973 because of the crackdown that took place during the following years.
    It’s always strange to read these things, because for those that had to leave – even for someone who was a mere baby back then, just born into that land – I still feel an intimate connection to those events, like as if it happened yesterday.
    If I play music from that era in front of my mum – she cries with a terrible pain in her heart. A pain that still resonates with me.
    Uruguayans in the past used to say “it’s in the past – time to move on…”
    But, the past needs to be dealt with now, because, one can’t ‘move on’ unless these issues are dealt with openly.
    I’m glad that the youth in Uruguay are seeing things with open clear eye’s today – it’s important so as to not let something like that, ever happen again.

  2. Marcelo, thank you for that. I was born in 1967, so this all happened when I was too young to understand or even remember…and too far away (in northern Ontario, Canada) to grasp the significance. I just started really learning all these things a few years ago, and yet strangely, they resonate with me, too–even though I have no direct personal connection to them.
    And yes, this past is very much alive, not just for those who lived it but for everyone who stands in the way of the State Dept. and its ambitions and business connections. Uruguay certainly did not need to be made “safe for democracy”, because it was already democratic. The Tupamaros were a sign of something going wrong, for sure–the democracy was being weakened and undermined by the very people who claimed they’d come to Uruguay to strengthen it against those troublesome Tupamaros!
    But the real threat was not the Tupamaros, it was the people of Uruguay whom the Tupamaros represented. Their struggle was to take the country back in the name of its people; little wonder the newspapers were censored and could not mention them. They all were and still are valiant souls. It is good to see them taking their place in power now, where I hope they can make the necessary changes peacefully and democratically. The old parties got corrupted and lost their way; let’s hope these newer ones can set things right. The younger people really are the hope of the land, and their unwillingness to be fooled by Washington’s propaganda is a good sign!

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