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Greg Grandin, Why Latin America Didn't Join Washington's Counterterrorism Posse

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In the region, this meant three things.  First, CIA agents and other U.S. officials set to work "professionalizing" the security forces of individual countries like Guatemala, Colombia, and Uruguay; that is, turning brutal but often clumsy and corrupt local intelligence apparatuses into efficient, "centralized," still brutal agencies, capable of gathering information, analyzing it, and storing it.  Most importantly, they were to coordinate different branches of each country's security forces -- the police, military, and paramilitary squads -- to act on that information, often lethally and always ruthlessly.

Second, the U.S. greatly expanded the writ of these far more efficient and effective agencies, making it clear that their portfolio included not just national defense but international offense.  They were to be the vanguard of a global war for "freedom" and of an anticommunist reign of terror in the hemisphere.  Third, our men in Montevideo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Asunción, La Paz, Lima, Quito, San Salvador, Guatemala City, and Managua were to help synchronize the workings of individual national security forces.

The result was state terror on a nearly continent-wide scale.  In the 1970s and 1980s, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's Operation Condor, which linked together the intelligence services of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile, was the most infamous of Latin America's transnational terror consortiums, reaching out to commit mayhem as far away as Washington D.C., Paris, and Rome.  The U.S. had earlier helped put in place similar operations elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere, especially in Central America in the 1960s.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans had been tortured, killed, disappeared, or imprisoned without trial, thanks in significant part to U.S. organizational skills and support.  Latin America was, by then, Washington's backyard gulag.  Three of the region's current presidents -- Uruguay's Jose Mujica, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega -- were victims of this reign of terror.

When the Cold War ended, human rights groups began the herculean task of dismantling the deeply embedded, continent-wide network of intelligence operatives, secret prisons, and torture techniques -- and of pushing militaries throughout the region out of governments and back into their barracks.  In the 1990s, Washington not only didn't stand in the way of this process, but actually lent a hand in depoliticizing Latin America's armed forces.  Many believed that, with the Soviet Union dispatched, Washington could now project its power in its own "backyard" through softer means like international trade agreements and other forms of economic leverage.  Then 9/11 happened.

"Oh My Goodness"

In late November 2002, just as the basic outlines of the CIA's secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs were coming into shape elsewhere in the world, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flew 5,000 miles to Santiago, Chile, to attend a hemispheric meeting of defense ministers.  "Needless to say," Rumsfeld nonetheless said, "I would not be going all this distance if I did not think this was extremely important." Indeed.

This was after the invasion of Afghanistan but before the invasion of Iraq and Rumsfeld was riding high, as well as dropping the phrase "September 11th" every chance he got.  Maybe he didn't know of the special significance that date had in Latin America, but 29 years earlier on the first 9/11, a CIA-backed coup by General Pinochet and his military led to the death of Chile's democratically elected president Salvador Allende.  Or did he, in fact, know just what it meant and was that the point?  After all, a new global fight for freedom, a proclaimed Global War on Terror, was underway and Rumsfeld had arrived to round up recruits.

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There, in Santiago, the city out of which Pinochet had run Operation Condor, Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials tried to sell what they were now terming the "integration" of "various specialized capabilities into larger regional capabilities" -- an insipid way of describing the kidnapping, torturing, and death-dealing already underway elsewhere. "Events around the world before and after September 11th suggest the advantages," Rumsfeld said, of nations working together to confront the terror threat.

"Oh my goodness," Rumsfeld told a Chilean reporter, "the kinds of threats we face are global."  Latin America was at peace, he admitted, but he had a warning for its leaders: they shouldn't lull themselves into believing that the continent was safe from the clouds gathering elsewhere.  Dangers exist, "old threats, such as drugs, organized crime, illegal arms trafficking, hostage taking, piracy, and money laundering; new threats, such as cyber-crime; and unknown threats, which can emerge without warning."

"These new threats," he added ominously, "must be countered with new capabilities." Thanks to the Open Society report, we can see exactly what Rumsfeld meant by those "new capabilities."

A few weeks prior to Rumsfeld's arrival in Santiago, for example, the U.S., acting on false information supplied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, detained Maher Arar, who holds dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, at New York's John F. Kennedy airport and then handed him over to a "Special Removal Unit." He was flown first to Jordan, where he was beaten, and then to Syria, a country in a time zone five hours ahead of Chile, where he was turned over to local torturers.  On November 18th, when Rumsfeld was giving his noon speech in Santiago, it was five in the afternoon in Arar's "grave-like" cell in a Syrian prison, where he would spend the next year being abused. 

Ghairat Baheer was captured in Pakistan about three weeks before Rumsfeld's Chile trip, and thrown into a CIA-run prison in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit.  As the secretary of defense praised Latin America's return to the rule of law after the dark days of the Cold War, Baheer may well have been in the middle of one of his torture sessions, "hung naked for hours on end."

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Taken a month before Rumsfeld's visit to Santiago, the Saudi national Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was transported to the Salt Pit, after which he was transferred "to another black site in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was waterboarded." After that, he was passed on to Poland, Morocco, Guantánamo, Romania, and back to Guantánamo, where he remains.  Along the way, he was subjected to a "mock execution with a power drill as he stood naked and hooded," had U.S. interrogators rack a "semi-automatic handgun close to his head as he sat shackled before them."  His interrogators also "threatened to bring in his mother and sexually abuse her in front of him."

Likewise a month before the Santiago meeting, the Yemini Bashi Nasir Ali Al Marwalah was flown to Camp X-Ray in Cuba, where he remains to this day.   

Less than two weeks after Rumsfeld swore that the U.S. and Latin America shared "common values," Mullah Habibullah, an Afghan national, died "after severe mistreatment" in CIA custody at something called the "Bagram Collection Point." A U.S. military investigation "concluded that the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation combined with other mistreatment... caused, or were direct contributing factors in, his death."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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