Montevideo: Long-secret diplomatic cables show US president Richard Nixon wanted the Uruguayan government to threaten to kill leftist prisoners in an attempt to save the life of a kidnapped US agent 40 years ago this week.
The National Security Archive, which published the papers on Wednesday, said the State Department cables suggest the US government knew about death squads that cracked down on violent leftist insurgencies after the agent was slain in 1970, even before military dictatorships ousted democracies across much of South America in the years that followed.
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 them in a prisoner exchange and eventually topple the Uruguayan government.
Instead, it prompted an intense police and military response that resulted in the arrest of Tupamaros` leader Raul Sendic and hundreds of other guerrillas, events that set the stage for Uruguay`s dictatorship in 1973.
While the Uruguayan and US governments discussed how to respond, one of several Tupamaro communiqués — 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 US Defence 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 US ambassador, Charles Adair.
Adair cabled back saying he had met with top Uruguayan officials who intended to take "severe measures”.
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 US pressure, the Uruguayan government treated Tupamaro leader Raul Sendic in a military hospital for gunshot wounds suffered during his arrest. He, like other jailed Tupamaros, 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 US 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 US’ involvement in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s.