When British authorities nine days ago entered the London hospital suite where retired Chilean general Augusto Pinochet was recovering from back surgery, he knew they were not there to wish him well. He may have guessed that their arrival was linked to Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon's probe into state-sponsored murder in the early years of Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship in Chile. But Pinochet, 82 and a senator for life in his homeland, did not imagine that authorities wanted to question him about Operation Condor.
That Spain's prosecuting judge might shine a light on that dark chapter of history has intelligence agents sweating from Cape Horn to northern Virginia.
What is already in the history books is appalling enough: a bloody 1973 coup in Chile was encouraged by Washington and led by Pinochet against Salvador Allende, the Socialist president. In the aftermath, Pinochet's forces rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered thousands of suspected Allende supporters -- including US and Spanish citizens. Instead of demanding justice, US officials offered support by restoring previously suspended aid.
Having silenced his domestic foes by the end of 1975, Pinochet set his sights upon those in exile. He decided to enlist the cooperation of fellow rightist dictators in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Operation Condor, named for the bird that crosses the Andes, formalized a collaboration for the purpose of assassinating exiled opponents.
Phase Three of Operation Condor was "the formation of special teams from member countries assigned to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out `sanctions' -- including assassination -- against Condor enemies . . ." according to a top- secret US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report obtained in 1979 by columnist Jack Anderson.
"One `Phase-Three' team is charged with drawing up the Condor `hit list' in a particular country. Then a second team is dispatched to locate the targeted victims and conduct surveillance on them. Finally a third team, drawn from one or more member police agencies, is sent to carry out the `sanction' decided upon."
The more spectacular Condor operations are easy to identify. The one that hit closest to home was the 1976 car-bomb murder in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, once a foreign minister to Allende, and his US assistant, Ronni Moffitt. An FBI investigation established that the double homicide was carried out by anti-Castro Cubans on the payroll of Pinochet's intelligence service, DINA. Only when Pinochet relinquished power 15 years later did a Chilean court convict former DINA head Manuel Contreras of ordering Letelier's murder.
But the homicidal collaboration did not always involve Chile. That same year, 1976, the body of left-leaning former Bolivian strongman General Juan Torres was found in Argentina, near Buenos Aires. He had been blindfolded and shot behind the ear and in the neck, reportedly on orders of the rightist who deposed him, General Hugo Banzer. Garzon's plan to interrogate Pinochet should unsettle not only Banzer but also the Bolivians who last year elected him president.
The trans-Andean hit squads also targeted civilians. According to prosecutor Garzon's arrest warrant, the program of Pinochet and his fellow despots to systematically eliminate opponents, militant and peaceful alike, constitutes genocide. The evidence -- which includes a 1991 report of Chile's National Truth and Reconciliation Commission that identifies 2,300 Chilean victims of state-sponsored torture, disappearances and homicide -- supports Garzon.
Garzon's case will focus on 94 people who fell victim to Operation Condor between 1976 and 1983. All died or disappeared at the hands of Chile's military junta leaders and Argentine collaborators. Most were Chileans living in Argentina.
Direct evidence of Condor's dark reach was discovered in December 1992 when a Paraguayan judge accompanied educator and former political prisoner Martin Almada -- whose wife died of a heart attack when her phone rang and she listened to a tape recording of her husband's screams -- to a police station outside Asuncion to locate Almada's police file. Instead they discovered a mountain of documents since dubbed the "horror files" that detail decades of repression under Paraguayan strongman General Alfred Stroessner and US intelligence cooperation with Paraguay -- as well as actions carried out under Operation Condor.
And then there's the case of Gustavo Edison Inzaurralde, who in 1973 fled to Paraguay from Uruguay after being arrested and tortured there for belonging to a militant antigovernment group. As reported by Argentine journalist Stella Coloni, Paraguayan authorities arrested Inzaurralde just as he was about to fly to Stockholm. Instead of joining his pregnant wife in Sweden, he was handed over to the Argentine military and "disappeared."
The Clinton administration, to its credit, has sent Britain files on Pinochet and Chile -- although they are unlikely to contain information embarrassing to Washington. Nonetheless, alumni of the Central Intelligence Agency's Western Hemisphere division cannot be pleased with the inquiries of prosecutor Garzon. According to the book "Hidden Terrors" by A. J. Langguth, a former New York Times reporter, the CIA arranged Argentine and Uruguayan collaboration on surveillance of exiles, and introduced the Argentines and Uruguayans to Brazilian death squads who eliminated them.
With Condor coming home to roost, Pinochet has plenty of company among the uncomfortable.
Jerry Meldon is chairman of the chemical engineering department at Tufts University.