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Priest testifies to School of Americas ties to Pinochet

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Ever since Augusto Pinochet was arrested in England at the request of a Spanish judge, apprehension has spread through the U.S. military and intelligence agencies that supported the former Chilean dictator’s overthrow of a democratically elected government and helped set up DINA, his dreaded secret police organization.

While it is public knowledge that the Nixon administration encouraged the coup that toppled Salvador Allende, thousands of documents showing the full extent of U.S. involvement remain under the seal of national security.

But last month a U.S. priest who testified before the Spanish judge highlighted an element of the Pinochet saga that has not received much notice: that the U.S. Army School of the Americas trained key officers in the Pinochet regime, which killed more than 3,000 people and tortured thousands more during its 17-year reign.

After coming to power, Pinochet presented the school with a ceremonial sword that hung in the commandant’s office until the early 1990s. The military academy, once known in Latin America as “the school of coups,” was long accused of teaching torture and tyranny. In 1995, the Pentagon partly confirmed those charges by releasing pages of the school’s manuals that advocated false imprisonment, extortion, torture and assassination.

While it is not clear how extensively Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon will investigate U.S. complicity in the Pinochet case, Fr. Roy Bourgeois of Louisiana said the judge was quite interested in the School of the Americas, now headquartered at Fort Benning, Ga. Bourgeois, who heads a watchdog group that tracks school graduates, delivered hundreds of documents about alumni to the court.

Four Chilean graduates of the school charged by the Spanish court with crimes of genocide, torture and disappearances -- Miguel Krassnoff Marchenko, Jaime Enrique Leppe Orellana, Guillermo Salinas Torres and Pablo Belmar Labbe -- have been implicated in the 1976 murder of Spanish U.N. official Carmelo Soria, whose neck was broken during a torture session, according to several accounts. Leppe Orellana was Pinochet’s personal secretary, while Belmar Labbe has been a guest instructor at the school.

Bourgeois said two other alumni charged by the court -- Odlanier Mena and Humberto Gordon Rubio -- are former heads of the secret police agency known as CNI, which replaced DINA in 1977.

Other school graduates also charged by the court include:

  • Ernesto Baeza Michelsen, who led the assault on the presidential palace during the coup and later headed the Investigations police, which has also been linked to human rights abuses;
  • Eduardo Iturriaga Neumann, the former head of DINA’s international operations. The agency has been implicated in assassinations of Pinochet’s opponents living in other countries;
  • Fernando Laureani Maturana, a former DINA member implicated in kidnappings and disappearances.

DINA, which operated secret torture centers around the country, was given technical assistance by a deputy CIA director, according to A Nation of Enemies, an account of the Pinochet years by Pamela Constable.

Pinochet, the only Latin American figure to back England in the Falklands War, was arrested in October after arriving in London for back surgery. He is currently living in a mansion near London, awaiting a new British court ruling on whether he must face extradition to Spain, where Garzon wants to try him on charges of murder, torture and kidnapping. At least 79 Spanish citizens died at the hands of the Pinochet regime.

Pinochet, who had a blanket amnesty enacted in Chile protecting him from prosecution there, claims he enjoys immunity as a former head of state.

While Switzerland, France and Belgium are supporting the call for Pinochet’s extradition, U.S. officials have not joined them, although three American citizens were killed in the coup, including Charles Horman whose disappearance formed the basis of the movie “Missing.” Another U.S. citizen, Ronni Moffitt, was killed in Washington in 1976 by a car bomb that targeted former Chilean foreign minister Letelier.

Bourgeois, who said that U.S. silence stems from its collusion with the Pinochet regime, also testified about Operation Condor, the code name for an intelligence network created by DINA. Through it, Latin American militaries collaborated in “neutralizing” their opponents and political refugees living abroad. Letelier’s murder is considered a Condor operation. Among the militaries participating in the operation were Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

In 1972, Maryknoll sent Bourgeois to work in Bolivia, where he arrived just after another School of the Americas graduate, Hugo Banzer, overthrew the government and began targeting religious leaders who opposed his rule.

Bourgeois, who testified in mid-December before the Spanish judge, was once ordered to leave Bolivia after he informed members of the U.S. Congress about conditions of political prisoners there.

The Bolivian government, which accused him of meddling with its internal affairs, relented after Bourgeois’ bishop, Jorge Manrique, intervened, but it stripped him of his prison pass.

A short time later, as he was leaving a meeting of the human rights commission, Bourgeois was picked up by two gunmen, who, with a contingent of military officers, were rounding up activists.

Bourgeois was taken to a prison where interrogators wanted the names of those at the meeting and punched him when he refused to cooperate. He was also shown a list of people and struck again when he refused to disclose their whereabouts. His captors then drove him to a cemetery, but not before he shouted to a Maryknoll priest arriving at the prison with an embassy official. Bourgeois eventually won his freedom.

Later the military said it could not “guarantee his safety,” and Bourgeois, realizing he was a marked man who could no longer work in Bolivia without endangering others, left the country.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999