They fled into exile to wherever they could find shelter. Hundreds found supportive homes mainly in Mexico, Cuba and some countries in Europe. They were men and women, mostly young, escaping from the clutches of a “condor” - the name of an Andean bird, the largest in the world - which overnight became a diabolical nightmare, sowing death across South America.
In light of the current court case – 41 years later – of a group implicated in Operation Condor in Argentina, and a headline dubbing it a “landmark trial”, I turned to my memories, news reports and other documents regarding this terrible period of Latin American history.
I recalled that there were many dead, disappeared, tortured; and also those whose lives were saved thanks to international solidarity.
Perhaps given this, now several decades later, I found it quite difficult to comprehend how members of the military responsible for this outrage still had influence in command positions, even after the arrival of democracy in some of these countries.
Too much time has passed - 41 years - since Operation Condor was devised, for there to be so many of those involved in this sinister conspiracy of torture, killings and disappearances, to not have yet faced justice.
The relatives of the dead, the tortured, those still waiting for news on the fate of their missing children or grandchildren, at the hands of the military dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, can not forgive this delay.
Now, as an Argentine federal court sentences 17 defendants for crimes committed under the cloak of Operation Condor, something as important as historical memory springs to my mind. The memory that they have attempted to erase, over decades in which those implicated in such crimes have not faced justice, much less those from the CIA, who conceived and supported the Operation.
As information collected by the Center for Legal and Social Studies of Argentina has demonstrated, Operation Condor constituted a formal system of repressive coordination among Southern Cone countries, which began in the mid-70s, to persecute and eliminate Argentine, Uruguayan, Chilean, Paraguayan, Bolivian and Brazilian political, social, trade union and student activists.
Depending on the source, the deaths caused by Operation Condor range from several hundred to 60,000 (some include all of the 30,000 disappeared during the “Dirty War” in Argentina), as noted by a BBC Mundo report.
More recent reports note that the leading exponents of Operation Condor, far from being called to justice, have since died from different illnesses, without ever experiencing the harshness of a prison, consistent with the horrendous repression they imposed.
In the case of Augusto Pinochet, the most that could be done by the Chilean court in 2005 - that is 30 years after the assassinations - was excuse him from prosecution because of his precarious health.
A year later he died, leaving more than a few unknowns regarding his hitmen, fundamentally police, implicated in crimes committed over more than a decade.
In Paraguay, documents which came to be called the “archives of terror” were discovered, making clear the degree to which then-President Stroessner was involved in Operation Condor, and attempts were made to try him, but he sought refuge in Brazil to protect himself from any judicial action. He died there in 2006, without ever facing justice for his crimes.
A judicial process was begun in 2001 against the bloodthirsty Argentine dictator, Rafael Videla. He was convicted and sentenced in 2010 to life in prison for the disappearance of 31 persons, abduction of children born to imprisoned women, and other charges. Videla died in 2013.
Today, as the press talks about the trial in Argentina closing “one of the last chapters of the Cold War,” it is well worth reviewing this history, which began in a meeting on November 28, 1975, when Operation Condor was born, and cannot be forgotten.
How can we forget the “death flights,” when military men and the CIA threw into the sea or rivers dozens of people who have never been found?
Many analysts cite, as the ideological author of Operation Condor, Richard Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and identify its direct antecedent as the Night and Fog Decree issued by Adolf Hitler in Germany.
BBC Mundo quotes U.S. professor Patrice McSherry, who stated that a secret CIA document dated June, 1976, confirmed the abduction and torture of Chilean and Uruguayan refugees in Buenos Aires.
According to the academic, the plan emerged in the 1960s from the School of the Americas and U.S. Army conferences, through which the United States trained officers in “preventative” action, i.e. torture. Uruguay's “archives of terror” cite the well-known terrorist of Cuban origin, Luis Posada Carriles, who was involved in the assassination of Orlando Letelier, and said the former Chilean Foreign Minister was killed in the United States, as part of Operation Condor.
Likewise, secret documents handed over to the press indicate that CIA agent Michael Townlev was responsible for the deaths of General Prats and his wife.
Declassified CIA documents also show that Manuel Contreras, head of Chile's National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), was the “creator” of Operation Condor, after spending 15 days as a guest at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in 1975.
I conclude this commentary with a question. Can we ever forget this historical memory, and consider this nightmare over, when only 17 of those responsible have been tried?