“The most dangerous man in Chile”

Manuel Contreras with General Augusto Pinochet

Manuel Contreras with General Augusto Pinochet

He was the terrifying fist in the dictator’s glove, but even the dictator was afraid of him. Manuel Contreras, the Chilean army officer whose secret police agency, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), brought a new level of fear and terror to Chileans at home and abroad. died in Santiago’s Hospital Militar,  the same facility where General Augusto Pinochet died in 2006.

It was just a few months after the 1973 military coup that ousted President Salvador Allende, a socialist, when Contreras appeared at a meeting of Chile’s military commanders, cabinet and the intelligence directors of the army, air force, navy and national police, the carabineros. Pinochet announced that then-Colonel Contreras would be heading a new security agency, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA). Some of the officers expressed misgivings—the country was already under tight control, a state of siege was in effect and political prisoners were being rounded up and in many cases executed, so why the need for even more security services? The carabinero intelligence director, General German Campos, thought the new agency sounded like “a bunch of vulgar bodyguards” reminiscent of Salvador Allende’s Cuban-trained security detail.

Contreras’ DINA, which reported exclusively to Pinochet, proved to be much more than a group of bodyguards and would enable Pinochet to maneuver his way from one of four junta members to Supreme Leader of the Nation. Drawing officials from all the branches of the military, plus right-wing civilians, the new security agency expanded its tentacles, organizing secret detention centers throughout Chile. Every government ministry had its DINA informants; former junta member and air force commander General Gustavo Leigh told this blogger that he was surprised to discover a DINA agent working in his department. The junta’s press secretary once found that DINA agents had broken into his office and stolen press credentials, in order to disguise themselves as journalists. Contreras ingratiated himself with Pinochet’s wife Lucia, and obliged when she asked him to tap the phones of other military wives.

His most ambitious project was Operation Condor, a joint security program with the military regimes of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia to monitor and eliminate leftists and any former officials who might prove troublesome. Chileans who had fled their country and found refuge in Argentina were arrested and made to disappear. María Cecilia Magnet was kidnapped, along with her Argentine husband, Guillermo Tamburini, at their home on July 16, 1976.  Luis Elgueta was arrested 11 days later with his wife and sister-in-law. None were ever seen again.

Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were never seen again.

Cecilia Magnet and Guillermo Tamburini, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in 1976 and were never seen again.

General Carlos Prats, Pinochet’s former army commander, was killed with his wife in a car bomb explosion in Buenos Aires in 1974. Two years later former defence minister Orlando Letelier and his American co-worker were killed by another car bomb in Washington, D.C., sparking an FBI investigation leading to a U.S. extradition request for Contreras and two other DINA officials. Pinochet refused the extradition request, and reorganized the DINA into a supposedly more benign agency, the Central Nacional de Informacion (CNI). Pressure from Washington continued, and Contreras was finally removed, though not before Pinochet promoted him from colonel to general. A series of suspicious bombings rocked Santiago, which the carabinero police investigated and found to be the work of Contreras’ agents.

As civilian Contreras formed a private security agency headquartered in downtown Santiago, and many suspected he continued to do jobs for the Pinochet regime. He was also on the board of a private company, Telefonica Manquehue, which received an exclusive contract to provide phone coverage in one of Santiago’s expanding eastern neighborhoods. (This blogger lived for a time in this area—and the service was terrible.) But change was coming to Chile, and in 1988 Pinochet lost a one-man presidential plebiscite and would be forced to hand over the government to an elected civilian.

Contreras was understandably nervous. According to a declassified U.S. State Department cable, in February 1989 Contreras sent an intermediary to the American Embassy with a strange message. He claimed to have had four separate meetings with “gringos” in which it was agreed that neither government would reveal any information damaging to Contreras, Pinochet or U.S. officials. The U.S. had broken this agreement with recent initiatives on the Letelier case, and if a new understanding was not reached, Contreras was prepared to take unspecified actions against the U.S. He was prepared to give a sworn statement in Chile on the Letelier assassination, provided that he and U.S. officials could agree on an “appropriate story,” such as stating that Letelier had been a pro-Castro Cuban agent killed by Cuban exiles. As if to show he could still provide useful information, Contreras indicated that one of his agents had been involved in drug trafficking with one of Pinochet’s sons. The cable, written by deputy chief of mission George Jones described Contreras as “the most dangerous man in Chile” and that the possibility of “a Contreras-initiated terrorist act” could not be excluded. A handwritten note attached to the cable suggests ways to drive a wedge between Contreras and Pinochet:

I would be rightly surprised if any USG {US government] person made any such deal with this piece of dogshit—we should talk with (deleted) how this could be used to further pressure Contreras—the best defence may be an offense, e.g., telling the For Min [Foreign Ministry] that this guy is threatening us and that we will hold the GOC [Government of Chile] responsible if any of this is carried out—might signal in our way that Contreras is obviously willing to make up stories about everybody to blackmail them into protecting him (i.e., that we realize Pinochet et al are in the same boat) and imply that it would behoove Pinochet to go ahead and cut this guy loose.”

Pinochet did eventually cut Contreras loose, but it would take years and the new civilian governments were wary of provoking a rebellion by the Chilean army, which Pinochet still controlled. Chile’s Supreme Court, which had rejected the U.S. extradition request, reopened the Letelier case in 1991. Four years later Contreras was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the double murder, and it would take several months of negotiations with his lawyers and family before Chilean officials could finally take him into custody. He was sent to the Punta Peuco prison north of Santiago, specially built to hold human rights violators. More investigations by Chilean prosecutors followed, and at the time of his death Contreras was serving combined jail sentences of over 500 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s