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U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Uruguay recently, where he spoke of the need to strengthen the southern hemisphere’s police forces. This proposed policy has a precedent, almost unknown in this country, but potentially indicative of what awaits Latin American governments willing to cooperate with their northern neighbor’s defense establishment. In the 1960s, Washington initiated a decade-long training program for Uruguay’s police, helping transform them from a weak, underfunded force into an efficient instrument of repression. The metamorphosis coincided with Uruguay’s descent from democracy to dictatorship, as “the Switzerland of Latin America” became, by the time the U.S. had finished its work, the world’s leader in political prisoners per capita.
Panetta delivered his remarks at Punta del Este, where the Alliance for Progress was launched in 1961. Aimed at raising income levels and promoting land reform in Latin America, President Kennedy’s program reflected his agenda accurately—to about the same extent Obama’s handshake with Chávez heralded a “friendly turn” in U.S.-Latin American relations. Down here on Earth, Obama ensured the current Honduran regime stole the last election successfully. In the fraud’s aftermath, death squads roam the country, murdering human rights lawyers and activists. The Kennedy administration, for its part, oversaw the write-up of a development plan for Uruguay within the Alliance framework, which was effectively discarded upon completion. None of its recommendations were ever carried out, since other matters took priority. In 1962, Kennedy created the Office of Public Safety (OPS), supervised loosely by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and responsible for Uruguay’s Public Safety Program (PSP) from 1964-1974.
The PSP was a training program for Uruguay’s police, who received instruction both in the U.S. and their home country, part of the general effort to combat rising urban terrorism and crime. Or at least that was the authorized rationale. U.S. government documents, meanwhile, tell a different story. Half a year after the program began, for example, USAID officials in Montevideo explained that “Uruguay has enjoyed a relatively peaceful state of security for many years,” and that “[n]o active threat of insurgency exists.” In the 2012 version of this story, Panetta offers drug traffickers and insurgents as the twin dangers necessitating revamped police squads. But if the past is any guide, these claims should be met with extreme skepticism.
The Tupamaros, a left-wing political group, are often considered the main target of the PSP. They spent their first few years organizing, and raiding banks and weapons caches for funds and guns. They next started kidnapping top officials, beginning with the head of the state telephone company—who was also President Jorge Pacheco Areco’s close friend and adviser—in August 1968. But the guerrillas took their hostage only after Pacheco cracked down on left-wing periodicals and political parties, declaring a state of emergency that allowed the government to make use of its “special powers” at will. The fact that Uruguay’s democracy was unraveling had been pointed out by a number of observers several years before. One of these noted in 1965 that, while a pair of “political parties have dominated the Uruguayan scene for over 100 years,” they were effectively identical, characterized by “little difference of policy.” These parties’ shared aims did not include taking action to remedy the “continuing industrial recession, rising unemployment…and a spiraling cost of living” underway at the time. The radical implications of this analysis—which was the CIA’s—are obvious: to improve Uruguayan lives, actions had to be taken outside the established political channels, given that the two major parties were doing nothing, and in fact promoting, the deepening austerity. The Tupamaros, of course, agreed with the CIA on this point, but these groups diverged in their visions for the future. While the rebels wished to see conditions improve within the context of a better social order, Washington wanted to prevent Uruguayans from even protesting the “continuing industrial recession” through which they suffered.
A review of the relevant government documents makes it obvious the PSP targeted Uruguayans generally, and not merely the Tupamaros. The earliest USAID reports from Montevideo, again, documented the “relatively peaceful” climate prevailing there, and subsequent memos took note primarily of “strikes, public meetings and demonstrations,” which officials understood stemmed from growing “financial problems.” Washington’s goal was to monitor the ability of the PSP-trained police to control these protesters—“urban terrorists,” in Beltway slang—via “strict control of crowds, a strong representation of police personnel at all demonstrations and the immediate use of force to prevent escalation to riot stage.” “Preventive techniques are being used effectively,” one USAID memo concluded. The students were learning their lessons well.
Little had changed in Uruguay by 1969, when U.S. official Dan Mitrione arrived to supervise police training. Writing to Washington late that year, he explained, “Life today seems normal on the streets of Montevideo, and the real problem facing the police is the number of assaults on police officers[.]” The “real problem,” it bears repeating, was not that Uruguay’s government, functionally a one-party system, was forcing citizens to cope with the stark choices a ruined economy imposes. The problem was that Uruguayans protested these conditions. The U.S. government trained Uruguay’s police to punish them for this sin—punishment that would only intensify when a few dared to retaliate against their aggressors. Mitrione himself understood well the business of discipline. His reputation, in certain circles, was that of a master torturer.
He had a simple motto: “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.” And he was proud of his abilities, according to a Cuban double agent working with the CIA in Uruguay. This man attended one of Mitrione’s seminars. Four homeless people were picked up off the street for the occasion. They were used first to show the effects “of different voltages on different parts of the human body.” Next came a demonstration of an emetic’s functions. Once they had finished vomiting, they were forced to ingest another chemical. In the end, all the subjects died. The Tupamaros subsequently kidnapped Mitrione in July 1970, and killed him in early August. Two months later, the Uruguayan Senate issued a report indicating that the Montevideo police tortured its prisoners on a regular basis. By June 1973, President Bordaberry—whom Washington aided in the 1971 election by suppressing his leftist opponents—completed the transformation. Uruguay had become a dictatorship.
Those looking to read more on this period should consult William Blum’s Killing Hope, which has a typically powerful chapter on the U.S.-facilitated Uruguayan decline. And while it is too early to tell exactly how Panetta’s plan, discussed in the Pentagon’s recently-released Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement, will pan out, one outcome seems guaranteed. If the U.S. government successfully implements its new “security” policies in the southern hemisphere, then Latin America’s pink tide—a reference to its left-leaning political leaders—will run red, with the blood of murdered campesinos, feminists, activists, guerrillas, and anyone else deemed expendable in the cruel calculus of power.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.