Existence of South American 'death squad' proven for the first time in court

Former Argentinian dictator given 20 years in prison for his role in Operation Condor

Operation Condor, Reynaldo Bignone,

Former Argentinian dictator given 20 years in prison for his role in Operation Condor

"A powerful precedent" is how human rights activists have hailed the guilty verdict handed down to former Argentinian junta leader Reynaldo Bignone.

Bignone (88) has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes committed under Operation Condor, which allowed death squads from several South American countries to cross each others borders to kidnap, torture and kill political opponents who had fled across the border.

“This ruling is important because it is the first time the existence of Operation Condor has been proved in court,” said Luz Palmás Zaldúa, lawyer for the Argentinian human rights group Cels (Centre for Social and Legal Studies), which represented the victims’ families. “It is also the first time that former members of Condor have been sentenced for forming part of this criminal organisation.”

376 people died at the hands of the death squads, with many more being tortured in seven prisons in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Most of the 105 cases featured in the trail featured foreign nationals arrested illegally and murdered while living in exile in Argentina. The victims were made to “disappear”, mainly through cremation, while some were thrown drugged but alive from military planes into the ocean.

According to Al jazeera prosecutors based their case partly on declassified US intelligence documents. The various regimes communicated with each other using a telex system dubbed "Condortel", which they were trained to use at the infamous School of the Americas in Panama, a US training centre that drilled repressive Latin American regimes in counter-insurgency tactics.

Although the role of the US in Condor was not under examination, substantial evidence was produced during the three-year trial concerning Washington’s role.

“We obtained documentation, both from declassified files of the US state department and from South American records, showing that the US was aware that Condor was killing people and even provided technical assistance,” Palmás Zaldúa told The Guardian.

In the landmark trial, 14 other former military officials received prison sentences of eight to 25 years. Bignone, who is already serving life in prison for multiple human rights violations during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, received 20 years.