Book review: The Condor Trials

The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America, by Francesca Lessa.  Yale University Press.

During my last visit to Santiago I had lunch with a woman who worked at the Chilean Foreign ministry’s trade department. It was a warm spring day and we ate at an outdoor café near some of the city’s historic buildings. The setting was pleasant, but the conversation was grim as she told me something of her family’s history.

In the aftermath of Chile’s brutal 1973 military coup, they fled to Buenos Aires. But the Argentine capital was no safe haven. In early 1975 security forces arrested her father and interrogated him about his two sons. A year and a half later one son was arrested, along with his Argentine wife and sister-in-law, never to be seen again. The family moved to a different house while continuing to search for them, only to endure more terror: my lunch companion and another sister-in-law were arrested and taken to a secret detention site where they were held for eight hours and brutally interrogated by both Chilean and Argentine officers, who warned them to leave the country immediately or face the same fate as her missing brother.

Her family’s story is one of many discussed in Francesca Lessa’s new book on the long, long struggle for justice in South America’s human rights trials. The title refers to Operation Condor, a brutal campaign of cross-border arrests, murders and forced disappearances by military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia spearheaded by the Pinochet regime’s security forces.  Some of the best-known cases were the car bomb assassinations of former Chilean army commander Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires in 1975 and of former Chilean defense minister Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976.  And yet, these cross-border campaigns of terror and repression did not begin with Operation Condor. In the 1960s Brazil’s military government began monitoring and harassing Brazilians living in neighboring countries, actions which escalated as more South American governments came under military rule.

Lessa is a lecturer in Latin American studies at Oxford University, who studied human rights investigations and trials while based in Montevideo, conducting field research from 2014-2017 and analyzing over 3,000 documents from six different countries. In addition, she attended seventy-four hearings in Argentina’s Condor trials. Remnants of the old repressive apparatus endured—in February 2017 she and a group of other human rights researchers, activists, lawyers, public prosecutors and government officials received death threats from a Uruguayan group calling itself the “Comando General Pedro Barneix.”  In an e mail Lessa told me she then left Montevideo for Argentina, but the Uruguayans in the group remained in the country, where the government “never provided any protection and very limited support.” The Comando Barneix briefly resurfaced during Uruguay’s elections in late 2019, when it sent out threatening messages to Uruguayan voters in an attempt to sway the vote in favor of the right-wing candidate (who ended up winning).  Authorities eventually made one arrest, and investigations are continuing.

The book will be published in Spanish this September and here’s a link to an interview with Lessa

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