Why Latin America Wouldn't Torture for America

By Greg Grandin

The map tells the story. To illustrate a damning new report, "Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detentions and Extraordinary Rendition," recently published by the Open Society Institute, the Washington Post put together an equally damning graphic: it's soaked in red, as if with blood, showing that in the years after 9/11, the CIA turned just about the whole world into a gulag archipelago.

Back in the early twentieth century, a similar red-hued map was used to indicate the global reach of the British Empire, on which, it was said, the sun never set. It seems that, between 9/11 and the day George W. Bush left the White House, CIA-brokered torture never saw a sunset either.

All told, of the 190-odd countries on this planet, a staggering 54 participated in various ways in this American torture system, hosting CIA "black site" prisons, allowing their airspace and airports to be used for secret flights, providing intelligence, kidnapping foreign nationals or their own citizens and handing them over to U.S. agents to be "rendered" to third-party countries like Egypt and Syria. The hallmark of this network, Open Society writes, has been torture. Its report documents the names of 136 individuals swept up in what it says is an ongoing operation, though its authors make clear that the total number, implicitly far higher, "will remain unknown" because of the "extraordinary level of government secrecy associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition."

No region escapes the stain. Not North America, home to the global gulag's command center. Not Europe, the Middle East, Africa, or Asia. Not even social-democratic Scandinavia. Sweden turned over at least two people to the CIA, who were then rendered to Egypt, where they were subject to electric shocks, among other abuses. No region, that is, except Latin America.

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What's most striking about the Post's map is that no part of its wine-dark horror touches Latin America; that is, not one country in what used to be called Washington's "backyard" participated in rendition or Washington-directed or supported torture and abuse of "terror suspects." Not even Colombia, which throughout the last two decades was as close to a U.S.-client state as existed in the area. It's true that a fleck of red should show up on Cuba, but that would only underscore the point: Teddy Roosevelt took Guantánamo Bay Naval Base for the U.S. in 1903 "in perpetuity."

Two, Three, Many CIAs

How did Latin America come to be territorio libre in this new dystopian world of black sites and midnight flights, the Zion of this militarist matrix (as fans of the Wachowskis' movies might put it)? After all, it was in Latin America that an earlier generation of U.S. and U.S.-backed counterinsurgents put into place a prototype of Washington's twenty-first century Global War on Terror.

Even before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, before Che Guevara urged revolutionaries to create "two, three, many Vietnams," Washington had already set about establishing two, three, many centralized intelligence agencies in Latin America. As Michael McClintock shows in his indispensable book Instruments of Statecraft, in late 1954, a few months after the CIA's infamous coup in Guatemala that overthrew a democratically elected government, the National Security Council first recommended strengthening "the internal security forces of friendly foreign countries."

In the region, this meant three things. First, CIA agents and other U.S. officials set to work "professionalizing" the security forces of individual countries like Guatemala, Colombia, and Uruguay; that is, turning brutal but often clumsy and corrupt local intelligence apparatuses into efficient, "centralized," still brutal agencies, capable of gathering information, analyzing it, and storing it. Most importantly, they were to coordinate different branches of each country's security forces -- the police, military, and paramilitary squads -- to act on that information, often lethally and always ruthlessly.

Second, the U.S. greatly expanded the writ of these far more efficient and effective agencies, making it clear that their portfolio included not just national defense but international offense. They were to be the vanguard of a global war for "freedom" and of an anticommunist reign of terror in the hemisphere. Third, our men in Montevideo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Asunción, La Paz, Lima, Quito, San Salvador, Guatemala City, and Managua were to help synchronize the workings of individual national security forces.

The result was state terror on a nearly continent-wide scale. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's Operation Condor, which linked together the intelligence services of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile, was the most infamous of Latin America's transnational terror consortiums, reaching out to commit mayhem as far away as Washington D.C., Paris, and Rome. The U.S. had earlier helped put in place similar operations elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere, especially in Central America in the 1960s.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans had been tortured, killed, disappeared, or imprisoned without trial, thanks in significant part to U.S. organizational skills and support. Latin America was, by then, Washington's backyard gulag. Three of the region's current presidents -- Uruguay's José Mujica, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega -- were victims of this reign of terror.

When the Cold War ended, human rights groups began the herculean task of dismantling the deeply embedded, continent-wide network of intelligence operatives, secret prisons, and torture techniques -- and of pushing militaries throughout the region out of governments and back into their barracks. In the 1990s, Washington not only didn't stand in the way of this process, but actually lent a hand in depoliticizing Latin America's armed forces. Many believed that, with the Soviet Union dispatched, Washington could now project its power in its own "backyard" through softer means like international trade agreements and other forms of economic leverage. Then 9/11 happened.

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Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Lost Jungle City, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Later this year, his new book, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, will be published by Metropolitan Books.

This article was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished with permission.

(AP Photo)

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