MONTEVIDEO - The links put in place by Operation
Condor, created by the military regimes ruling South America in the 1970s
to cooperate in the elimination of dissidents, still exist, Chilean Senator
Carmen Frei told IPS on a visit to the Uruguayan capital.
Signs that the coordination was still active emerged in 1991 and 1992, after
the military dictatorships in the Southern Cone region had fallen, when Chilean
biochemist Eugenio Berríos, an intelligence agent in the de facto regime
of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), was secretly taken to Uruguay,
apparently hidden or kidnapped for more than a year, and then killed.
"I believe those ties still exist," Frei said in an interview with
The lawmaker, who belongs to the co-governing Christian Democracy party, was
in Montevideo this week to press the Uruguayan government to act on an extradition
request from Chile.
The Chilean government is seeking the extradition of three Uruguayan military
officers who face charges in Chile for illicit association and the kidnapping
of Berríos, a case in which more than 10 former Chilean military and
civilian officials have been prosecuted and arrested.
The authorities in Uruguay "have assured us that this will move ahead
in the courts, and that the political will exists to enforce what the justice
system decides," said Frei. The Uruguayan officers wanted in Chile are
Tomás Casella, Eduardo Radaelli and Wellington Sarli.
Frei, Chilean senators Sergio Páez Verdugo of the Christian Democracy
party and Ricardo Núñez of the co-governing Socialist Party, and
lawyer Alvaro Varela met Monday with Uruguayan Vice President Luis Hierro López,
Supreme Court president Leslie Van Rompaey, and several legislators and political
Frei has a personal interest in the case. Berríos, an expert in the
use of sarin nerve gas, which the Chilean dictatorship sometimes used to kill
opponents, was implicated in the death of her father, former president Eduardo
Frei Montalva (1964-1970), in early 1982.
The death of Frei Montalva during the dictatorship, when political opposition
was banned, is being investigated by Judge Alejandro Madrid, who is also handling
the Berríos case.
"They infected my father with a bacteria that was never identified despite
consultations with specialists in the United States and Europe, which killed
him," said Frei.
"My father went in for a routine, almost ambulatory, operation, and when
he was in surgery, on Nov. 17, 1981, we were warned that he was being poisoned,"
she told IPS. Frei Montalva died in January 1982, despite doctors' efforts to
fight an unidentified bacteria that caused a generalized infection.
The warning, which Frei declined to discuss, came in the form of several telephone
calls providing credible, specific details.
"We know that during the entire time my father was in the Santa María
clinic, intelligence service personnel were there. Five doctors have been identified"
as agents of the DINE army intelligence service, a special group created by
DINE agents "were assigned to the most high-profile cases, like my father's
death or the murder of trade union leader Tucapel Jiménez, and the killings
by sarin nerve gas, botulin, anthrax and other products that that crazy genius,
Berríos, created," said Frei.
Depositions have been taken from dozens of people in the investigation. "We
have tremendous confidence, because Judge Madrid has been working very seriously
on this," she said.
But how would the extradition of the three Uruguayan military officers help
to clarify Frei Montalva's death?
"We want to know how important Berríos was, why there was this
tremendous mobilization of people within the army and the intelligence service
who were guarding him, who took him out of Chile to Argentina and later to Uruguay,
and held him for a year and a half."
"There are many questions about what happened with the substances he produced
in Chile, and why they decided to kill him in the end. The last two or three
years of Berríos' life were fundamental in understanding this,"
"We want to know to what extent complicity and illicit association occurred.
Why was there such close collaboration between these services, of the kind that
was seen under Operation Condor? We want to know what role the forces of Chile,
Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay played," she said.
"We're talking about events that occurred after the restoration of democracy
in our countries," she added. "That's why it is so important
to find out the truth. We don't want to stain the image of our armed forces,
but under their protection, unhinged people committed crimes that must be punished."
Frei said she believed the Chilean as well as the Uruguayan courts are stronger
now, and can take on such challenges. "I have confidence in our justice
systems," she said.
The Berríos case was reopened in Uruguay in March, 12 years after his
murder, after it had been shelved for more than five years.
This week, the three Uruguayan officers wanted by Chile are to appear before
Judge Gustavo Mirabal, who will proceed with the extradition process.
Like a novel written in fits and starts, the case has gradually come to light
over the years, putting Uruguay's democratic institutions to the test.
Berríos left Chile in November 1991, when the courts were about to summon
him to testify in the case involving the 1976 murder of Orlando Letelier, a
former foreign and defense minister under the government of socialist President
Salvador Allende (who was overthrown by Pinochet in 1973).
As an intelligence agent under Pinochet, Berríos produced sarin nerve
gas, the explosives that killed Letelier in Washington, D.C., and chemical weapons
that the Chilean dictatorship planned to use in case a border dispute broke
out with Argentina, in the early 1980s.
After a brief stay in Argentina, Berríos and a fellow fugitive from
justice, Major Carlos Herrera, arrived in Montevideo under false identities.
Herrera (who has since been convicted in the 1982 murder of Tucapel Jiménez
and is being prosecuted in connection with the kidnapping and death of Berríos),
was the biochemist's "protector," and rented an apartment in
the Montevideo neighborhood of Pocitos under a false name. Casella served as
Berríos also stayed in several hotels and was finally taken to a house
in the coastal resort town of Parque del Plata, near the capital, always under
the "protection" of members of the Chilean and Uruguayan military,
as the Chilean case files show.
In a confusing episode, on Nov. 15, 1992, a disheveled and agitated Berríos
showed up at the Parque del Plata police station reporting that he had been
But instead of protecting him, the police turned him over to the men who he
denounced as his kidnappers: Casella and Radaelli. He was never again seen alive.
The incident came to light in Uruguay in June 1993, after a clumsy intelligence
operation that attempted to make it look like Berríos was living a calm
life in Italy.
The case unleashed a crisis without precedent since the restoration of democracy
in Uruguay in 1985 (after a 12-year dictatorship).
Although minor sanctions were handed down to several of the officers implicated
in the case, the military brass immediately claimed responsibility for what
had occurred, in a defiant stance vis-à-vis the civilian authority of
the center-right government of President Luis Alberto Lacalle.
In the space of just a few weeks, a police chief was sacked, the military intelligence
commander was transferred, legislators received death threats, diplomatic rows
with Chile broke out, and interior minister Mariano Brito lost his post.
But there was no tangible proof that Berríos was dead until his body
(with two bullet holes) was found in January 1995 buried on a beach. The forensic
experts determined that the murder had been committed in late 1992 or the first
few months of 1993.
In February 1993, in a private visit to Uruguay by Pinochet, Casella had been
photographed next to the former dictator, while serving as one of his bodyguards.
(Inter Press Service)