The Pinochet Regime Declassified

Fifty Years after Official Creation, Declassified Documents Record Atrocities Committed by Chilean Secret Security Force, DINA

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The CIA Deputy Director, Lt. General Vernon Walters, provided CIA support for the formation of DINA.

On June 18, 1974, the official registry of the Chilean military dictatorship published Decree 521 on the “creation of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA),” the secret police force responsible for some of the regime’s most emblematic human rights crimes. To mark the 50th anniversary of DINA’s official creation, the National Security Archive today is publishing a curated collection of declassified CIA, DIA, FBI and State Department documents, along with key Chilean records, that reflect the history of DINA’s horrific human rights atrocities and terrorist crimes.

The decree signed by General Augusto Pinochet and other members of the military junta officially established DINA for “the purpose of producing intelligence collection requirements for the formulation of policies, plans and adoption of measures required for the security and development of the country,” but the measure also included three secret articles empowering DINA to operate as a secret police force to surveil, arrest, imprison and eliminate anyone considered an opponent of the regime. The new decree gave “legal/official blessing to an organization that is already fully active,” the U.S. Defense attaché reported to Washington. Other members of the Chilean military viewed the junta’s order as “the foundation upon which a Gestapo-type police force will be built.”

DINA was created as a military organization outside the military chain of command, instead reporting directly to Pinochet as chief of the junta. As the secret articles of the decree stated, the new Directorate of National Intelligence was the “continuation of the DINA Commission” established in November 1973, only eight weeks after the September 11, 1973, military coup. By the time it was officially inaugurated, DINA was already the most feared security force in Chile—if not all Latin America. “There are three sources of power in Chile,” one Chilean intelligence officer informed a U.S. military attaché in early 1974: “Pinochet, God and DINA.”

As the principal agency of the regime’s apparatus of repression, DINA became infamous for its secret torture centers, extrajudicial executions, the forced disappearances of hundreds of civilians and acts of international terrorism. The sinister secret police force, according to a special TOP SECRET/SENSITIVE Senate report based on still classified CIA documents, eventually grew to 3,800 officers, operatives and administrative personnel—the figure is mistyped in the report as 38,000—with an annual budget of $27 million. According to that study, DINA “was established as an arm of the presidency, under the direct control of President Pinochet.” DINA’s director, Col. Manuel Contreras, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, “has reported exclusively to, and received orders only from President Pinochet.”

As it expanded its operations, DINA also received organizational support from the CIA. In February 1974, Pinochet personally asked CIA deputy director Vernon Walters to assist DINA in its “formative period.” Walters hosted a luncheon for Contreras at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia in early March 1974. In mid-1975, the CIA briefly put the DINA director on its payroll as a paid asset.

The documents published by the National Security Archives yesterday record some of DINA’s most notorious operations:

** SECRET DETENTION AND TORTURE CENTERS: Although numerous units of the Chilean military routinely engaged in human rights abuses, during the first three years of the dictatorship, DINA was responsible for the majority of secret arrests, cases of torture and disappearances committed by the regime. One early U.S. intelligence report noted that DINA interrogation techniques of detained prisoners were “straight out of the Spanish Inquisition” and that DINA was “developing into a KGB-type organization as originally predicted.” One of DINA’s most sadistic torturers, Capt. Ricardo Lawrence, later provided a statement to the Chilean courts on the network of secret detention centers where these abuses took place—Villa Grimaldi, Londres No. 38, Venecia, Malloco, Jose Domingo Canas and Cuatro Alamos, among others—as well as the DINA units and commanders stationed there. Many of the torture victims in these secret detention centers were executed and then disappeared; many of them were dropped from DINA helicopters into the ocean.

** OPERATION COLOMBO: Confronted with growing pressure from the families of the disappeared and international condemnation of these human rights atrocities, in 1975 DINA mounted a major disinformation campaign to provide what the U.S. Embassy called “some means of accounting for [the] disappearance” of Chileans. Code-named “Operation Colombo,” DINA agents planted false stories in obscure newsletters and newspapers in Brazil and Argentina claiming that Chilean leftists were killing each other in internecine political warfare. In Buenos Aires, agents deposited a dead body—its head and hands cut off—with identification papers of one of the disappeared Chileans and a note that read: “Brought down by the MIR,” one of the militant Chilean organizations. The false articles were then used by DINA allies in the Chilean media to write false stories with headlines such as “Exterminated Like Rats” to advance the cover-up of the true fate of the disappeared. Investigative reporters, led by U.S. journalist John Dinges, quickly exposed Operation Colombo; the U.S. Embassy reported to Washington that the stories appearing in the Pinochet-controlled press in Chile were “probably untrue” and that the disappeared victims had actually been killed by Chilean security forces.

** PROJECT ANDREA: DINA was responsible for an ultra-secret program by the Chilean military to develop a chemical weapons capability to be used in case of war with Peru or Argentina and as a tool of clandestine assassination missions against enemies of the regime. DINA officials constructed a clandestine laboratory at the safe house of one of their leading agents, Michael Townley, who purchased equipment and chemicals in the United States. In addition to manufacturing Sarin nerve gas in the laboratory in Townley’s basement, DINA planned to produce even more dangerous chemical warfare gases known as “soman” and “tabun” using extremely toxic nerve agents such as Clostridium botulinum, saxitoxin and tetrodotoxin. According to a handwritten history of his DINA activities, Townley reported that nerve gas was used to murder at least two individuals in Santiago. As DINA’s leading international assassin, Townley considered using the sarin gas to assassinate Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C., sending the deadly nerve gas to the U.S. hidden in a Chanel No. 5 perfume dispenser.

** OPERATION CONDOR: DINA was the organizer and leading member of Operation Condor, the multilateral collaboration between Southern Cone secret police services to track, seize and eliminate opponents of their regimes around the world. In October 1975, DINA director Manuel Contreras sent invitations to his secret police counterparts in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, inviting them to the “first working meeting on National Intelligence” scheduled in Santiago between November 25 and December 1, 1975. During that meeting, the delegates voted to honor their hosts by naming their new consortium for Chile’s national bird, the “Condor.” At the second Condor meeting, in Santiago in June 1976, the member countries created a collaborative death squad program—code named “Teseo,” for the avenging Greek demigod, Theseus—“to conduct physical attacks against subversive targets” abroad, according to CIA reports. Plan Teseo included a chilling section titled “Execution of the Target,” which stated: “This is the responsibility of the operational team which will (A) intercept the target, (B) Carry out the Operation, and (C) Escape.”

** INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM: For decades, the Washington, D.C., car-bomb assassination of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his young colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt on September 21, 1976, was believed to be Condor’s most infamous operation. In fact, the targeting of Letelier, a former Ambassador to Washington and Defense Minister in Salvador Allende’s government, was a mostly unilateral DINA mission, although it drew on Paraguayan support, under the Condor accord, to provide false travel documents for the assassination team. “The explicit orders,” according to Michael Townley, DINA’s leading hitman, “were: Find Letelier’s home and workplace and contact the Cuban group [of violent exiles working with DINA] to eliminate him, or use SARIN gas, or orchestrate an accident, or in the end by whatever method—but the government of Chile wanted Letelier dead.” The Letelier assassination was the third high-profile act of international terrorism committed by DINA operatives: in September 1975, former Christian Democrat Party vice president Bernardo Leighton and his wife were gunned down on the streets of Rome; both survived with crippling injuries. In September 1974, retired Chilean General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia were killed by a car bomb—also planted by Michael Townley—in Buenos Aires.

As an act of international terrorism in the capital city of the United States, the Letelier-Moffitt assassination brought renewed international pressure and criticism from inside the Chilean military on General Pinochet to curb DINA’s operations. Eleven months after the car bombing, as the focused on DINA’s role, the Pinochet regime announced that DINA would be dissolved. Decree 521 would be rescinded, and a new decree established the “Center for National Intelligence” (CNI). U.S. intelligence reports and Embassy assessments noted that the rebranding of the Chilean secret police was largely cosmetic. Numerous DINA agents were simply transferred to the CNI, which, like DINA, reported only to General Pinochet. Disappearances diminished, but CNI agents continued to commit human rights atrocities between 1977 and 1990 when Pinochet was forced to yield power to civilian rule.

In January 1978, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Manuel Contreras and his DINA deputy Pedro Espinosa for their roles in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination and demanded their extradition. Pinochet protected them from prosecution, blackmailed by Contreras who made it clear that he had hidden documents that would reveal that Pinochet himself ordered the terrorist operation. After the return to democracy in Chile, they were both prosecuted and convicted, becoming the first Chilean military officers to be held accountable for human rights crimes, and a special luxury prison was constructed to house them. Both were later convicted of other human rights crimes. Contreras died in prison in 2015. Pinochet, who was indicted but never convicted for human rights crimes, died on December 10, 2006—International Human Rights Day.

“DINA’s unique structure and lethally effective methods of operation were critical to the alliance of right-wing civilian and military forces that destroyed Chile’s democracy. The history of DINA gains fresh relevance in light of the emerging authoritarian and anti-democratic political movements in the world, including in the United States,” observed John Dinges, author of The Condor Years and the forthcoming book Chile in Our Hearts: The Untold Story of Two Americans who Went Missing After the Coup.

Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Archive’s Chile Documentation Project, said: “Fifty years later, these documents remind us of a history of repression and crimes against humanity that, now more than ever, must not be forgotten.”

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