WASHINGTON — With the blessing of a CIA bent on thwarting Soviet expansion, South American military juntas together formed a special unit charged with going to France and elsewhere abroad to exterminate leftist opposition leaders.
While the cooperation of military dictatorships was widely known, details about this special unit, called Teseo, were not, until the release Friday of the final 7,500 declassified U.S. documents shared with Argentina and the world.
President Donald Trump had promised his Argentine counterpart, Mauricio Macri, that the third and final tranche of U.S. documents would be shared, ending a process that began under President Barack Obama to make publicly available documents about a dark period in U.S. history. In all, roughly 47,000 U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence cables pertaining to Argentina’s military junta were declassified.
“The release of records constitutes the largest declassification of the United States Government records directly to a foreign government in history,” said a letter from Trump to Macri accompanying the release. “My hope is that access to these records provides the people of Argentina information to help in the healing process.”
Details about the Teseo assassination unit were in a CIA document dated May 1976, part of a batch of documents delivered Friday that had to do with Operation Condor. That was a clandestine effort pushed hardest by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet that grew to involve military rulers in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia.
“At a meeting of Operation Condor from 31 May to 2 June 1976 in Santiago, Uruguay agreed to operate covertly in Paris with the Argentines and the Chileans against the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Party of Argentina) and other terrorists,” the secret CIA memo said, stressing the document was “not to be reproduced.”
The memo went on to say that participating countries sent would-be assassins to Argentina for two months of training in September 1976, but it was unclear if the team was actually sent to France to conduct assassinations.
The goal of Operation Condor was to quell the spread of expansionist Cuban and Russian communism. The end result was a reign of terror where tens of thousands of South American leftists, real or perceived, were killed by regimes from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. In Argentina, the period came to be known as the Dirty War.
The document about Teseo, Spanish for the mythical Greek king Theseus, underscores how U.S. intelligence agencies supported military regimes in Latin America even after the election of President Jimmy Carter and prominent lawmakers such as Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church, who sought to make human rights a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
Hearings led by Church also revealed that the FBI had spied on civil rights leader Martin Luther King and other prominent cultural figures.