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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/12/20

Teaching Torture: The Death and Legacy of Dan Mitrione

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Reprinted from Brett Originally published at & ZNet

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[USAID torture trainer Dan Mitrione (1920-1970) was kidnapped and executed by Tupamaro rebels in Montevideo, Uruguay in August, 1970. (US government photo)]

In the pre-dawn darkness of Monday, August 10, 1970, Dan Mitrione's bullet-ridden body was discovered in the back seat of a stolen Buick convertible in a quiet residential neighborhood of Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. He had just turned 50, and he had recently started a new dream job, although it was thousands of miles from his home in Richmond, Indiana. Who was Dan Mitrione, and what work was he doing in Uruguay that led him to such an early and violent end?

As the Cold War heated up, one of the ways in which the United States government fought communism abroad was through foreign assistance programs. These were favorite vehicles for Central Intelligence Agency and other US meddling. Dan Mitrione, a Navy veteran and former small-town police chief from Indiana, joined one such agency, the International Cooperation Administration, in 1960. The following year, ICA was absorbed by the United States Agency for International Development, which in addition to its stated mission of administering assistance to developing nations, gained global notoriety for its role in helping brutal dictatorships repress, torture and murder innocent men, women and children around the world.

Brazil Brutality

Mitrione's first posting was in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where he worked on the police aid program for USAID's Office of Public Safety. OPS trained and armed friendly - read anti-communist - Latin American police and security officers. Ostensibly, it was meant to teach police how to be less corrupt and more professional. In practice, it operated as a CIA proxy. As for its parent organization, one former USAID director, John Gilligan, later admitted it was "infiltrated from top to bottom with CIA people." Gilligan explained that "the idea was to plant operatives in every kind of activity we had overseas; government, volunteer, religious, every kind."

Before Mitrione's arrival, standard operating procedure for Brazilian police was to beat a suspect nearly to death; if he talked he lived, if not, well" Under Mitrione's tutelage, officers introduced refined torture techniques drawn from the pages of KUBARK, a CIA instruction manual describing various physical and psychological methods of breaking a prisoner's will to resist interrogation. Many of the abuses in KUBARK would later become familiar to the world as the "enhanced interrogation" techniques used during the US war against terrorism: prolonged constraint or exertion, 'no-touch' torture (stress positions), extremes of heat, cold or moisture and deprivation or drastic reduction of food or sleep. KUBARK also covers the use of electric shock torture, a favorite tool of both the Brazilian and Uruguayan police under Mitrione's instruction.

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[Excerpt from KUBARK, a 1963 CIA interrogation and torture instruction manual. (Source: National Security Archive)]

One of the most notorious Brazilian torture devices during Mitrione's tenure was known as the refrigerator, a small square box barely big enough to hold a hunched-up human being. The "fridge" was equipped with a heating and cooling unit, speakers and strobe lights; its use drove many men mad. Under Mitrione, Brazilian police devised a new torture technique they called the "Statue of Liberty," in which hooded prisoners were forced to stand on a sharp-edged sardine tin and hold heavy objects above their heads until they began collapsing from exhaustion, at which point powerful electric shocks would force them upright.

Mitrione was transferred to Rio de Janeiro in 1962, where he trained the dreaded shock troops of the Department of Political and Social Order in suppressing dissent and democracy. He was working in this role during the 1964 US-backed military coup that ousted the democratically-elected, anti-communist president João Goulart, who had committed the fatal sin of advocating moderately redistributive economic policies. The coup ushered in two decades of brutal military dictatorship. By the end of the decade, USAID had trained more than 100,000 Brazilian police. During this period, the military dictatorship murdered hundreds of dissidents and tortured thousands more, among them a Marxist student named Dilma Rousseff, who half a century later would later be elected Brazil's first woman president.

Move to Montevideo

In 1969, Mitrione was named the OPS' chief public safety adviser in Montevideo, Uruguay, replacing Adolph Saenz, a quintessential Cold Warrior who previously led the operation that hunted and murdered Che Guevara in Bolivia. Mitrione arrived amid a collapsing economy, labor strikes and student protests in a country once known as the Switzerland of South America for its high level of economic development, freedom and stability. Mitrione's tenure in Montevideo saw the militarization of Uruguayan police, ever-worsening state repression and an increase in the power and brutality of the dreaded National Directorate of Information and Intelligence, the national security agency responsible for the death squads that soon operated with impunity.

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Brett Wilkins Independent Journalist and Author.  Brett Wilkins is a San Francisco-based author and activist. His work, which focuses on issues of war and peace and human rights, is archived at

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