Burn After Reading: Pinochet and the Iranians

Some time ago I wrote about a Freedom of Information request I’d made in 2007, https://notesontheamericas.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/a-long-delayed-freedom-of-information-request/ searching for any documents dealing with the Pinochet regime’s arms sales as part of the research for my second Chile book, The General’s Slow Retreat.  The requested material was not released until five years later, and unfortunately did not contain anything that I could immediately use, especially since the book had already been published.

One of the documents, however, is worth summarizing here, in view of the Iran nuclear talks and the glimpse it provides into the murky world of arms dealing among developing countries. It is the story of the regime’s disastrous attempt to sell cluster bombs to Iran and is largely gleaned from Chilean and Spanish news sources, which broke the story early in 1990, just weeks before Pinochet was due to hand over the presidency to an elected president. And it reads like the plot of a Coen brothers movie.

But first, some background.  In 1984 an Iraqi plane landed at Santiago’s airport to collect a load of cluster bombs produced by a private Chilean arms dealer, Carlos Cardoen, who later accused the army’s munitions manufacturer FAMAE of stealing his technology to make its own cluster bombs. The Iran-Iraq war continued, and the Chilean army decided to see if it couldn’t get in on the action as well.  So in October 1985 one of FAMAE’s affiliates enlisted the services of an international arms broker, Bernard Stroiazzo, and an agreement was reached with Iran to sell 500 of its new cluster bombs at a cost of $14,000 each. As each bomb was estimated to cost around $2,500 to produce, the deal should have been lucrative indeed. But there are serious problems. The declassified State Department document, written by U.S. Ambassador Charles Gillespie, reports that

“During early 1986 on two separate test runs in Iran, the cluster bombs prove defective, destroying one Iranian phantom jet and nearly killing the head of the Iranian air force who participated in the demonstration. After the second incident, the Iranian authorities take middleman Stroiazzo and several Chilean technicians hostage pending financial compensation for Iranian losses.”

The Pinochet regime offers to replace the destroyed Iranian jet with an F-5 aircraft, if the Iranians will also purchase an additional $200 million in military hardware, including more cluster bombs and 15 additional aircraft from Chile. The F-5, however, had been purchased from the United States years before the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Chile for the regime’s human rights abuses.  To make this transaction, it would need U.S. government authorization, which seemed improbable. In addition, the Chilean air force was not keen to sell off so many of its aircraft and those officers hoping to rebuild ties with Washington were worried about possible repercussions. The head of FAMAE, Colonel Carlos Carreno, was scheduled to travel to Tehran to negotiate the deal, which presumably involves selling the F-5 by covert means. But three days before he is due to depart, the colonel is kidnapped by the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front,  whose earlier actions included an attempt to assassinate Pinochet. The deal with Iran falls apart. The hapless Colonel Carreno reappears three months later in Brazil, holding a rosary and refusing to say anything about his abduction.

Meanwhile, arms broker Stroiazzo somehow manages to escape his Iranian captors and “begins negotiations with Chilean authorities for financial compensation for Iran and for himself.”  An army general who heads the regime’s secret police offers Stroiazzo a potentially lucrative deal to build a toxic waste plant in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, but local opposition to the project causes authorities to back away from the project. Stroiazzo responds by filing a multimillion dollar international lawsuit and the story finally breaks. The document concludes that the political fallout “has some potential for damaging Pinochet’s and other elements of the armed forces’ image, but the incoming government does not appear particularly interested in actively pursuing the matter.”

A long delayed Freedom of Information request

Way back in 2007, when I began work on my second book (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520266803) , I filed a Freedom of Information request to the U.S. State Department and other government agencies.  I was looking for material on Chilean arms trafficking in the 1990s, when General Augusto Pinochet was still army commander, holding various overseas bank accounts and rattling his sabre whenever the country’s new civilian rulers dared to question his activities.  The most outrageous incident occurred in late 1991, when a shipment of Chilean weapons, bound for Croatia in violation of a United Nations ban, was discovered in Budapest.  Here’s a link to a NY Times piece on the case: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/11/world/chilean-arms-shipment-to-croatia-stirs-tensions.html

I didn’t get any documents until this time last year, with a cover letter explaining that a search of the State Department’s Central Foreign Policy Records had dredged up 22 relevant documents, of which

14 could be released in full

6 released with excisions

1 “must be withheld in full”

There was one remaining document still under review, requiring “intra-agency or interagency coordination,” and was referred to another government office.  That document, with a cover letter dated December 23, 2013, arrived this month.

The documents cover the activities of Chilean arms dealer Carlos Cardoen, who sold weapons to Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s, along with the Pinochet regime’s  efforts to sell arms to Iran during that same period.  Much of this was reported years ago, but it’s worth another look and I’ll be posting on these cases over the next few days.

A bit of justice, and much too late

It was one of many legal cases  against General Augusto Pinochet, and one of the most embarrassing for Chile’s new civilian government, demonstrating how the country’s army was still a law unto itself.  A private plane carrying 36 crates of “humanitarian aid” had been intercepted in Budapest in 1991 and found to contain guns and ammunition bound for Croatia, in violation of a UN ban on weapons sales.  The government had in fact authorized an arms sale—to Sri Lanka—but the army’s munitions division, Fabrica y Maestranzas del Ejercito (www.famae.cl) had arranged for the shipment to be delivered to Croatia. At the time, Pinochet had grudgingly left the Chilean presidency but would continue to command the army until 1998 and investigators would later uncover payments from arms manufacturers in Pinochet’s bank accounts.

A judicial inquiry into the Croatia deal began, but  witnesses began to vanish.  Colonel Gerardo Huber, the Chilean army’s logistics director, disappeared in early 1992, shortly before he was scheduled to testify and his body was found three weeks later on the banks of a river outside Santiago. A forensic examination showed that Huber had been shot in the head before he was thrown from a bridge. The colonel’s chauffeur was found dead in his car in what the army claimed was a suicide.

On Friday Chile’s Supreme Court convicted two retired generals of illegal weapons sales, sentencing them to three years in prison.  Another eight people were also convicted but given lesser sentences and allowed to serve them under house arrest.  Colonel Huber’s murder has never been solved, but his former superior who also testified in the case said the Croatia arms deal had been personally approved by Pinochet.