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Teaching Torture: The Death and Legacy of Dan Mitrione


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.

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.

On the far left, National Liberation Movement rebels, more commonly known as Tupamaros, were increasing in power and popularity and embarrassing the government with their bold urban kidnapping and other attacks. Named after the Inca revolutionary Túpac Amaru II — who led a major 18th century uprising against the genocidal Spanish empire in Peru — and inspired by the Cuban revolution, the Tupamaros were led by farm labor organizer Raúl Sendic. Unlike other Latin American guerrilla groups, they avoided bloodshed whenever possible and until August 1970 had never killed any of their prisoners.

The Tupamaros’ relatively restrained rebellion initially engendered widespread popular support. But as the government’s hand grew heavier, so too did the rebels’ attacks. Just a few years earlier, the US ambassador lamented the “relaxed attitude” of the Uruguayan government toward communists. That would change under Mitrione. OPS imported surveillance technology and machine guns while sending “penetration agents” to infiltrate the Tupamaros and gather information on their leaders, members and sympathizers, including José Mujica, who like Rousseff in Brazil endured imprisonment and torture before ultimately being elected president of his country decades later.

Teaching Torture

The late US journalist and author A.J. Langguth credited US advisers led by Mitrione with introducing “scientific methods of torture” to Uruguay. These included psychological tortures like playing recordings of screaming women and children and telling prisoners it was their relatives being tortured, to more traditional torture techniques like electric shocks applied under the fingernails and to the genitals. According to Manuel Hevia Cosculluela, a Cuban double agent who infiltrated the CIA and spent years in the agency’s Montevideo station, Mitrione said that the key to successful interrogation was to apply “the precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount to achieve the desired effect.”

“A premature death means failure by the technician,” Mitrione told Hevia. “You have to act with the efficiency and cleanliness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist.” Mitrione walked a very fine line between surgical and sadistic when he added: “When you get what you want, and I always, do, it may be good to prolong the session a little to apply another softening up, not to extract information now, but only as a political measure, to create a healthy fear.”

In order to build the perfect underground classroom in which to teach his Uruguayan students the tools and techniques of their torturous trade, Mitrione soundproofed the basement of his Montevideo home. He tested its integrity by blasting Hawaiian music or having an assistant fire a pistol from the room while he listened from different points outside the home. Hevia claimed it was there that Mitrione trained Uruguayan police to torture using “beggars from the outskirts of Montevideo,” a practice he honed to perfection while stationed in Brazil. “There was no interrogation, only a demonstration of the different voltages on the different parts of the human body,” said Hevia.

The Cuban claimed that Mitrione personally tortured four beggars to death in his bespoke dungeon. This fits a historical pattern: At the notorious US Army School of the Americas (SOA), then located in Panama, US doctors supervised torture classes in which homeless people were kidnapped from the streets of Panama City and used as human guinea pigs. According to one former SOA instructor interviewed in the award-winning documentary film Inside the School of the Assassins, “they would bring people in from the streets to the base, and the experts would train us on how to obtain information through torture… They had a US physician… who would teach the students… [about] the nerve endings of the body. He would show them where to torture, where and where not, where you wouldn’t kill the individual.”

“The special horror of the course was its academic, almost clinical atmosphere,” said Hevia, who described Mitrione as “a perfectionist” and “coldly efficient.” To better electrocute victims, Mitrione experimented with fine wires that could be slipped between their teeth and into their gums. While some of the tortures he supervised were indeed innovative, others were anything but clinical, like the time he deprived a trade unionist of water for three days before giving him a pot of water mixed with urine to drink.

Hevia told the New York Times that Mitrione was no rogue agent. Rather, he “represented the program of the American mission” in Uruguay. “Mitrione was only carrying out policy,” the Cuban insisted. For the United States during the Cold War, torture was not a departure from the norm, it was the norm, from the villages of South Vietnam where tens of thousands of civilians were “neutralized” during the Phoenix Program to the some of the most prestigious hospitals and research facilities in North America, where perhaps thousands of men, women and children, many of them unwitting victims, were subjected to torturous experimentation during Project MK-ULTRA and other mind and behavior control programs.

For Uruguay, savage torture was a departure from the norm in a nation once regarded as a model democracy. But such outrages occurred that the Uruguayan Senate was compelled to investigate. It concluded that torture had become “normal, frequent and habitual,” and that common techniques used to torture prisoners, including pregnant women, included electric shocks to the genitals, slow compression of testicles, electric needles under fingernails and burning with cigarettes. Filmmaker Eduardo Terra described being subjected daily to the “submarine,” in which a prisoner is nearly drowned in a tank of electrified water often full of urine, vomit or feces. Victor Paulo Laborde Baffico, a former Uruguayan naval intelligence officer, later revealed that the “submarine,” electroshock torture and what would later be called waterboarding were all taught to Uruguayan military officers from the pages of US torture manuals.

Kidnapped, Killed

Years later, Raúl Sendic told the New York Times that Mitrione was targeted due to his direct role in training police in torture and in retaliation for the killing of student protesters. The corpulent Midwesterner was kidnapped as he left his home in suburban Carrasco on July 31, 1970. Sometime during or shortly after his abduction, Mitrione was shot in the shoulder. His captors treated — and apologized for — the wound. The Tupamaros demanded the release of 150 of their jailed comrades in exchange for Mitrione’s safe release. Although the Richard Nixon administration’s public position was that it did not negotiate with terrorists, the US president urged Uruguayan President Jorge Pacheco Areco to “spare no effort” to secure the safe return of both Mitrione and Dr. Claude Fly, an American agricultural adviser abducted by the Tupamaros on August 7. Fly suffered a heart attack while still in captivity in March 1971 and was rushed first to a heart surgeon and then to the local British Hospital, and freedom.

“Sparing no effort” included a threat by the Pacheco regime to execute the 150 prisoners and their relatives. Still, 10 days passed, among them Mitrione’s 50th birthday on August 4, without progress. A recorded conversation between Mitrione and his captors shows that both were uncertain, yet apparently hopeful, about the former’s fate. When Mitrione asks how long it will take until he is freed, one of his captors says the government will apply pressure. “We think you are very important,” he says on the tape. “I hope somebody thinks so,” replies Mitrione.

The Tupamaros issued seven communiques before executing Mitrione. His body was discovered on August 10 at 4:15 in the back of that Buick. He’d been shot twice in the head and once in the heart and back. Sendic, the former Tupamaro leader, always insisted that the rebels did not want to kill Mitrione and that his death was the unfortunate result of a communication breakdown after authorities captured Tupamaro leaders who were unable to tell his captors what to do with him. On the other hand, Eladio Moll, a former Uruguayan rear admiral and intelligence chief during the dictatorship, later revealed that US officials told state security forces to execute Tupamaro prisoners after interrogation because “they didn’t deserve to live.”

Back in the US, Dan Mitrione was hailed as a hero. White House spokesman Ron Ziegler lauded his “devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress” as “an example for free men everywhere,” calling him a man who “exemplified the highest principles of the police profession.” To his wife, he was the “perfect man.” His daughter called him “a great humanitarian.” Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis even staged a benefit concert for his grieving family — Mitrione had nine children — in his home town of Richmond, Indiana on August 29.

Deadly Decade

In the days and weeks following Mitrione’s murder, US officials denied that he tortured Uruguayan prisoners. Alejandro Otero, the ambitious head of police intelligence, vehemently refuted the US claim. Otero resigned after learning that Mitrione tortured his friend, a woman who allegedly sympathized with the rebels. Days after Mitrione’s death, Otero blamed the American and his violent methods for fueling the flames of the Tupamaros’ insurgency. “Before then, they would only use violence as a last resort,” he said.

The new decade was one of increasingly violent state suppression of dissent in Uruguay. In 1972 a new president, Juan María Bordaberry, declared a state of “internal war,” and the Tupamaros were soon destroyed as the government escalated its repression and torture. Congress was dissolved, total censorship was enforced and political parties, labor unions and student groups were banned. During this period, the right-wing military dictatorships of numerous South American countries expanded Operation Condor, a US-backed campaign of coordinated “dirty war” state terrorism and repression in which tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned for their real or suspected political beliefs.

According to Amnesty International, in the mid-1970s at least 6,000 people were being held as political prisoners in Uruguay, a country with less than 3 million people. That’s the equivalent of 728,000 people in the United States today. “Every Uruguayan was a prisoner except for jailers and exiles,” said Eduardo Galeano, the internationally renowned Uruguayan author who fled his homeland during the worst of the oppression. It would be another decade before democracy was restored, political prisoners like Mujica were freed and exiles like Galeano returned home. Most human rights violators from the dictatorship years enjoy codified immunity today, although Bordaberry died in 2011 while serving a 30-year sentence for the murder and forced disappearance of dissidents during Operation Condor.

Mitrione’s Tortured Legacy

While Congress canceled the OPS program in 1974, its various missions were merely transferred to other agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. USAID, which helped fund opium traffickers in Laos, the forced sterilization of some 300,000 indigenous Peruvian women, Salvadoran death squads and Guatemala’s genocidal army, continues to operate — and subvert — to this day.

Although Dan Mitrione has been dead for half a century, his legacy lives on in the words and deeds of a new generation of US torturers. Many of the psychological and “no-touch” tortures he pioneered and practiced led to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the US war on terrorism, Guantánamo Bay and CIA “black sites.” Mitrione’s methodical approach to torture — “a premature death means failure by the technician” — echoes in the words of unrepentant Bush-era torturers and their apologists like John Yoo, Bruce Jessen, James Mitchell, Gina Haspel and CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman, who with Mitrionesque coldness instructed the military that “if the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.”

Plenty of detainees have died in US custody, with dozens of their deaths considered or ruled as criminal homicides by American military officials. Dan Mitrione would not have approved. The sheer sloppiness of their deaths would surely have offended his clinical sensibilities.

Brett Wilkins is staff writer for Common Dreams and a member of Collective 20.

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