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DINA: Pinochet’s Directorate for Murder and Torture

“There are three sources of power in Chile: Pinochet, God and DINA.” – Chilean intelligence officer, remarks to a U.S. military attaché, 1974

Decree 521 of the Chilean government, dated June 18, 1974, was a chilling moment in the country’s convulsed history. Under the control of a military dictatorship led by coup leader and usurper General Augusto Pinochet, this decree saw the creation of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the clandestine agency responsible for a good share of the mutilations and murders that came to typify the Cold War atrocities of the period.

According to the decree, DINA was established for “the purpose of producing intelligence collection requirements for the formulation of policies, plans and adoption of measures required for the security and development of the country.” At first glance, it seemed like a bureaucratic-military wing tasked with the mundane duty of gathering intelligence and formulating policies for national security.

However, three secret articles turned this seemingly benign entity into a lethal force. In 1975, José “Pepe” Zalaquett, a lawyer and member of the human rights organization known as the Committee for Peace, revealed that DINA operated as a clandestine police force. It was empowered to conduct surveillance, initiate arrests, torture detainees, and eliminate individuals deemed hostile to the regime both within and outside Chile’s borders.

On August 8, 1975, U.S. Ambassador to Chile, David Popper, drinks the usual Cold War draught: the country was rife with dangerous left-wing elements, who, while being eliminated for security reasons, were done so under a veil of deception. His cable to Washington acknowledged the disinformation tactics of the Pinochet regime, stating: “We conclude that reports describing deaths of disappearances of 119 Chilean extremists outside of Chile are probably untrue, though most or all concerned are probably dead. Most probable explanation we can piece together for what will probably remain something of a mystery is that GOC Security Forces acted directly or through third party, planted reports in obscure publications to provide some means of accounting for disappearance of numerous violent leftists.”

George H.W. Bush with Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1990
George H.W. Bush with Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1990.

The cable also noted disinformation reports that “60 Chilean extremists had been killed outside of Chile as a result of internal purges in extremist groups arising out of conflicts over money, ideology, etc.” There was even a nodding acceptance that the Argentinean magazine Lea, which ran material on these deaths, was obscure, likely running for only one issue, and probably used a false publishing address, appearing to be tied to right-wing Argentine groups.

In October 1975, Colonel Manuel Contreras, DINA’s enthusiastic director, sought to synchronize efforts with his counterparts in Latin America to eliminate dissidents and left-wing targets. This initiative included countries like Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia. An invitation to Paraguayan General Francisco Britez in October marked the first step towards the creation of Operation Condor, a murderous enterprise born from a Working Meeting of National Intelligence held in Santiago, Chile, between November 25 and December 1.

The invitation was accompanied by documents detailing the grim future. In the eyes of all police chiefs, the enemy was omnipresent. South America was rife with “subversion,” a borderless threat infiltrating all levels of society. The Left was on a continental march, exemplified by gatherings like the Tricontinental Conference in Havana. Combating this required “effective coordination” and timely exchange of information and experience.

By 1977, the human rights abuses perpetrated by DINA had become so severe that they were noted in an analytical report from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. By then, DINA had grown to an organization of 38,000 personnel with a $27 million budget. The report expressed regret over Washington’s support for the junta in its quest to suppress the Left. It noted that such violations had “nearly ceased earlier this year” but were “again on the rise,” with the Pinochet regime “reverting” to practices that had damaged “its international standing since the 1973 coup.” The spike in human rights abuses, including torture, illegal detentions, and “unexplained disappearances,” was attributed to DINA.

In a press interview, Contreras claimed that his organization had played a “decisive role” in curbing “extremism.” As a close confidant of Pinochet and directly accountable to him, it was “unlikely that he would act without the knowledge and approval of his superior.”

DINA’s murderously disruptive role in the hemisphere received greater scrutiny in 1979 with a Top-Secret Senate Staff Report “concerning activities of certain foreign intelligence agencies in the United States” authored for the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations. Chile receives a notable, if far from honourable mention. As of January 1979, there was, as such, no Chilean intelligence officers stationed in the U.S. but visits had been previously made using “false identification, and their activities were not known.” The description is frank about Chile’s intelligence role in Operation Condor, one marked by assassinations and surveillance of “anti-regime activists.” The intelligence services are also picked up on their “close liaison with the German Nazi colony of La Dignidad in Southern Chile, which makes its substantial resources available to it.” A charming lot indeed.

With chilling revelation, the document mentions the directorate’s initial role in eliminating “subversives” in Chile proper, a task it had largely succeeded in doing by 1976. The task then shifted beyond the borders, the focus being on Chilean dissidents in Europe and the rest of the Americas. Victims of that effort were such notables as former Chilean ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier, brazenly killed in the U.S. capital with a car bomb alongside his assistant Ronni Moffit in September 1976.

As the Senate Staff Report goes on to discuss, DINA was dissolved in August 1977, most likely under pressure from Washington “where sensitivity to Chilean repression was heightened by the assassination of Orlando Letelier, and also of pressure from within Chile.” The official reason was that DINA had done what it set out to do. A legacy most cruel and foul had been left, leaving a thickened trail of blood from Santiago to Washington.