MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Long-secret diplomatic cables show President Richard Nixon wanted the Uruguayan government to threaten to kill leftist prisoners in an attempt to save the life of a kidnapped U.S. agent 40 years ago this week.
The National Security Archive, which published the papers Wednesday, said the State Department cables suggest the U.S. government knew as early as 1970 about the death squads that were cracking down on violent leftist insurgencies in the years before military dictatorships ousted democracies across much of South America.
The cables – obtained through Freedom of Information requests – focus on the kidnapping of Dan Mitrione, a former Indiana police officer and FBI agent who had been advising Latin American governments, including Uruguay's, on techniques for interrogating suspects.
Mitrione's 10 days in captivity were part of a wave of kidnappings of foreign officials by the leftist Tupamaro guerrillas, who hoped to use the captives in a prisoner exchange and eventually topple the Uruguayan government. The tumultuous events were dramatized in the Costa-Gavras film "State of Siege."
Instead, it prompted an intense police and military response that resulted in the arrest of Tupamaros' leader Raul Sendic and hundreds of other guerrillas, and set the stage for Uruguay's dictatorship in 1973.
While the Uruguayan and U.S. governments discussed how to respond, one of several Tupamaro communiques – delivered along with Mitrione's personal belongings as proof of life – ended with the warning that "for every revolutionary killed, one policeman will be killed," according to a 1987 review of his kidnapping by the RAND Corp. that was sponsored by the U.S. Defense and State departments.
The additional documents published this week show that while publicly calling for amnesty and offering ransom money, the Nixon administration was equally harsh behind the scenes.
"We have assumed that the Government of Uruguay has considered use of threat to kill Sendic and other key MLN prisoners if Mitrione is killed. If this has not been considered, you should raise it with GOU at once," Nixon's Secretary of State William Rogers said in a classified cable to the U.S. ambassador, Charles Adair.
Adair cabled back saying he had met with top Uruguayan officials who intended to take "severe measures," and that "through indirect means, a threat was made to these prisoners that members of the Escuadron de Muerte (Death Squad) would take action against the prisoners' relatives if Mitrione were killed."
Hours later, as arrests of their leaders mounted and the Uruguayan government refused to release 150 imprisoned Tupamaros, Mitrione's captors shot him to death, leaving his bound corpse on the floorboards of a stolen car in the suburbs of Montevideo.
Despite the U.S. pressure, Tupamaro leader Raul Sendic was treated in a military hospital for gunshot wounds suffered during his arrest, and he and other jailed guerrillas were convicted and sentenced to prison. Freed in a 1986 amnesty, he eventually died in France.
Another jailed Tupamaro, Jose Mujica, also served a lengthy prison term, then renounced violence after the amnesty. He entered politics and became Uruguay's president this year.
"The documents reveal the U.S. went to the edge of ethics in an effort to save Mitrione – an aspect of the case that remained hidden in secret documents for years," said the archive's Southern Cone director, Carlos Osorio.
Osorio called for a full declassification of the era's secret documents to set the record straight on U.S. involvement in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s.
National Security Archive: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB324/index.htm
Associated Press Writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.