Berriíos, The Bothersome Biochemist (
Berriíos, The Bothersome Biochemist (Spanish version)
Eugenio Berríos, 44 year old Chilean biochemist, disappeared from Santiago, Chile in October, 1991, at exactly the same time that judge Adolfo Bañados announced that he would be subpoenaed as a witness in the investigation of ex-Chancellor Orlando Letelier's 1976 murder in Washington. No one showed much concern about his sudden disappearance. Magistrates, police officials, politicians, government members and military officers dealt with the affair like patriarchal families who cover up upsetting family stories, with tact, modesty and an accomplice's shame. However, his disappearance was the beginning of the end for Berríos.
Eugenio Berríos entered Uruguay with a false passport that same month. He managed to live at two Montevideo hotels and in a relatively luxurious building in a residential neighborhood. A Chilean intelligence official, assisted by several of his Uruguayan counterparts, always accompanied Berríos. Judge Bañados sent out an extradition order through Interpol, but no one in Uruguay took notice of the biochemist's presence. Police officials, high ranking army officers, and diplomats continued to feign ignorance, although Berríos's absence came to acquire all the trimmings of the old disappearances, promoted by governments under the National Security Doctrine.
For a year, the word "democracy" had soothingly reduced the episode to a paranoid invention of "those living in the past." Occasional press denunciations were discarded with a slight gesture of the absurd. At that time, many people, including civilians and military personnel on both sides of the Andes, knew of Berríos' whereabouts.
Berríos escaped from his golden cell in November of 1992, a year after leaving Santiago. During this period he had become a pleasant and, when drunk, pathetic character. He told extraordinary and incoherent stories about the recent Chilean past that bar patrons preferred to believe were invented. But the day he tried to contact his country's embassy in Montevideo, his ambiguous "protected" status became that of a simple prisoner. Supposedly hiddenfrom indiscreet stares in a chalet of the Parque de Plata, a beach resort belonging to an Uruguayan counter intelligence official, the biochemist escaped from surveillance by sliding through the bathroom window. He showed up one Sunday morning at a police station. Almost hysterical, he denounced that he had been kidnapped by Chilean and Uruguayan military personnel. Begging for help, he clearly stated, "Pinochet wants to kill me." He demanded that the phrase be included word for word in the station's daily reports. He identified himself by showing a photocopy of his identification card that was hidden inside his left shoe.
The police officer could do nothing; military trucks full of heavily armed soldiers surrounded the station. The commanding officer, Lt. Col. Tomás Cassella, Counter Intelligence Operations Chief, took custody of the prisoner. The area police chief, Retired Col. Ramón Rivas, appeared and ordered the police commissioner to turn the prisoner over. Dozens of the resort's neighbors knew of Berríos' s existence, as well as his fears and his kidnapping. That same afternoon, the jailers from his clandestine prison took the biochemist to visit the witnesses one by one: a doctor, a nurse, a retired sailor, an elderly couple, a gardener, a food delivery man and a refrigerator repairman. Berríos apologized, saying that he had lost his composure, that he was a little drunk from celebrating his birthday, and that he had invented the story about death threats. The blatant pressure from the armed soldiers in the midst of the retraction reinforced their conviction that the Chilean had been telling the truth. It was so convincing that the resort town residents never discussed the events, not even with lowered voices, and did not even dare to ask the fate of the little, bearded, slightly pudgy, terrified man.
Eugenio Berríos survived for three more months. Chilean and Uruguayan officials entrusted with his custody took him back to Montevideo. They kept him hidden there until the end of February, 1993, when Judge Bañados read the verdict of the Letelier murder case.
That day, Lt. Gen. August Pinochet made a private visit to Uruguay, supposedly a vacation. They never revealed the true motive for the trip and there was speculation that the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Army wanted be out of Santiago during the judicial hearings starring General Manuel Contreras. The identities of the 15 people in Pinochet's entourage were unclear. Lt. Col. Tomás Cassella always accompanied the general as his Uruguayan escort. Cassella was photographed with the ex-dictator in Montevideo and Punta del Este. Pinochet returned to Santiago, Chile during the first days of March.
At approximately the same time, Eugenio Berríos was transferred to El Pinar, a beach near Montevideo. According to an autopsy carried out two years later, he was executed with two shots to the nape of the neck. They buried him in a shallow grave in a sand dune. The murderers' identities were never discovered, although the justice system had many solid clues. Unsettling questions remained unanswered. Why did his captors wait so long to eliminate the bothersome witness? Why did his murderers risk leaving evidence of a joint clandestine mission, compromising the reputations of two military intelligence agencies?
Eugenio Berríos's kidnapping and disappearance only came to light seven months later, in June of 1993, through an anonymous letter to journalists and Congress members. Two disgruntled police officers accused of corruption wrote the letter. They decided to denounce retired Colonel Ramón Rivas to the police chief. Rivas facilitated the military operation to capture Berríos and destroyed official documents in an attempt to cover the biochemist's trail. The revelation of these two facts, including specific places, names, and dates forced Defense Minister Mariano Britos to open an administrative investigation. Although it had been hidden from the minister, he confirmed that Army Commander Gen. Juan Rebollo had been informed of the incident. The news reached the president, Luis Alberto Lacalle, in London, the last stop on his European tour. The president decided to return early, and promised to take drastic measures and demand a detailed report.
Upon his arrival Lacalle learned that the three Armed Forces commanders and 12 of the 15 generals in active service were waiting for him in the Capitol building. The military proposals led him to convince Congress , where the kidnapping was being made public, that Mr. Berríos was not in the country, alive or dead, according to Interior, therefore he must be elsewhere. He claimed that the incident was a "Chilean episode" anyway. Information from Lt. Col. Tomás Cassella supported this hypothesis; he admitted that he had helped Chilean colleagues personally. Cassella claimed that Berríos called him from Porto Alegre, Brazil the day after the kidnapping. The government considered the case solved when Congress received documents that had been delivered to the Uruguayan consulate in Milan by an unknown English-speaking person. There was a photocopy of a photograph of Berríos sitting with a copy of the newspaper, Il Messagero, dated June tenth. The ministers presenting these documents to Congress included a report from an expert that testified to the authenticity of Berríos's handwriting. There was also a police report that ruled out that the photo had been retouched. Obviously, the experts were mistaken. By that time Berríos had already spent three months buried under a sand dune.
Lacalle's government decided that the investigation was finished. Although the case had not been closed, the justice system did not reach any conclusions. Lt. Col. Cassella was promoted to Colonel and the incident was forgotten for the time being.
In April 1995 some fishermen discovered skeletal remains emerging to the surface on a beach after two winters' worth of winds had modified the shape of the sand dunes. Forensic experts determined that the craneal orifices corresponded to high caliber weapons and that it was undoubtedly a murder. They pinpointed the date of death as March of 1993. The police had not received any denunciations of missing persons at that time; making the identification of the cadaver practically impossible. The news only received a few lines in the papers.
For months, doctors from the Forensic Institute worked in secret, based on a gut feeling; they found a small medallion of a Chilean virgin along with the skeletal remains. Deducing the corpse's identity was a Herculean task, but the doctors experimented with a new method: physiognomical reconstruction of a cadaver through computer imaging of musculature based on bone structure. The onscreen image is similar to an identikit, but based on exact data. When the computer designed the face belonging to the skull, the doctors introduced the subjective element; they drew on a beard and a moustache, and Berríos's face appeared on the screen, just as it had looked in the photograph delivered in Milan.
The demand to carry out DNA testing from bone samples had to overcome unbelievable stumbling blocks. Finally, two years after the murder, the laboratory results confirmed with 99.99 percent accuracy that the remains were the biochemist's, who had written letters from Italy after his death.
The confirmation of Berríos's death was a "cursed inheritance" for Julio María Sanguinetti's government, which followed Lacalle's. These developments defied all official explanations, but the goverment did not reopen the case. Although no one would admit it, Berríos fell under the shadow of a policy shared by South American governments which chose to ingore the existence of a parallel military diplomacy, established during the years of state terrorism, that survived untouched into democracy.
Clues existed to establish the identity of the murderers, as well as strong suppositions about the mastermind behind the crime. It was clear, though, that the incident would not become public, because it was not to the advantage of the military. Yet, a suprising sequence of revelations resulting from clumsiness, unpleasant impunity, and urgency offered clues for anyone to draw relatively accurate conclusions. The story resulting from this combination of accidents isextremely detailed, considering that the objective was to keep it a secret. The motives, on the other hand, presented insurmountable contradictions. If Berríos was an uncomfortable witness with the tendency to talk, drunk or sober, about DINA's (1) secrets, his disappearance should have had the characteristics of forced disappearances, carried out using methods from the seventies: the elimination of any trace of the vicitim so that no one could be certain about his death. In this case Berríos's kidnappers kept him alive for at least a year and a half, multiplying the risks before finally sealing his already determined fate.
In numerous cases, "disappeared" prisoners, who authorities did not admit were detained, survived as long as they were useful to their captors. In Berríos's case the execution's postponement was a mystery and even more incomprehensible because the military omnipotence risked political costs and multiplied prohibitions with civilian government, while generating a serious institutional and diplomatic crisis.
Civilian and military efforts to find a palatable outcome for the kidnapping did not diminish the conviction that the biochemist had succumbed to the fears he dramatically expressed in the Parque de Plata police station. The body's appearance on a Uruguayan beach four years after his disappearance in Santiago had a secondary consequence. As a result of confidential and unofficial conduct, the press obtained access to a police file documenting investigations carried out by the two detectives from the Homicide Brigade of the Chilean Metropolitan Police. Both officers were famousfor their efforts to solve other crimes related to the dictatorship, such as the Letelier and General Carlos Prats murders, as well at the attempt on Bernado Leighton's life in Rome. This investigation offered information to clear up some of the doubts about the case. Like the other evidence, it was ignored.
Inspector Luis Fuentes Sotomayor and Commissioner Rafael Castillo Bustamante did what no local police could in Montevideo. They interrogated concierges, elevator operators, doormen, and bartenders. They identified one of the Chilean officers that had kidnapped the biochemist for over a year, Chilean Army Captain Carlos Herrera Jiménez, who is currently sentenced and imprisoned in Chile for a variety of human rights violations. The detectives discovered that: a) Herrera brought Berríos to Uruguay and was in charge of watching him until he was arrested in Buenos Aires for alleged participation in Gen. Prats' murder; b) Lt. Col. Cassella cosigned his contract to rent the apartment that served as Berríos's prison; c) that he regularly reported to the Chilean military attaché in Montevideo, Gen. Timmerman; and d) that his telephone communications with Santiago were extensive and frequent, indicating permanent contact with his superiors.
Their attempt to get an Uruguayan judge to order the phone company to turn over records of international calls from number 713869 failed. Because Herrera would not admit his connection to the binational disappearance and kidnapping, the detectives directed their inquiries elsewhere. They analyzed the content of the two Milan letters supposedly written by Berríos. One of the letters was addressed to Berríos's parents. The other typed letter was directed to the Uruguayan authorities. In it, he or the authors tried to suggest that the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) was protecting Berríos and that the whole incident in the Parque del Plata was a result of the "bad acquaintances" that had involved Berríos in cocaine consumption and trafficking. The letters mention various names, some real and others that turned out to be false.
Lawyers and investigators that have attempted to decipher the unknown elements of the case agree that the second letter contains certain information that only Berríos would know. They believed that the letter's purpose was to divert attention from the joint Chilean and Uruguayan clandestine intelligence actions which were parallel to military institutions at that time (June 1993). Today suspicion exists that the scheme involving drug trafficking was created to make Berríos' death appear to be a Mafia execution to settle accounts.
The events show that this effort was unnecessary because the confirmation of the murder failed to initiate any type of investigation. But it did present leads for the Chilean detectives to advance in their investigations. The results of these investigations explain why there was no true effort to clear up the disappearance in Chile, either.
The detectives had background information about Berríos that had been uncovered in investigations of other incidents implicating DINA . Berríos had had moments of grandeur in 1975 when he worked directly under Michael Townley in a small laboratory in a DINA security house in the Lo Curro neighborhood. Here they performed experiments with a gas called Sarin, included on the list of chemical weapons prohibited by international accords. Seduced by the biochemist's pleasant and eccentric personality, Townley and DINA Chief Col. Manuel Contreras, Augusto Pinochet's right hand man, banked on the experiment's success, which would give the secret police a terrifying and lethal weapon. When inhaled, Sarin provokes neurological paralysis, causing instant death. The cause of death can be attributed to a heart attack or asphyxiation. Berríos proposed to produce the gas on a large enough scale that it could be used on open terrain, in combat, preparing the field for artillery missiles. It could also be used to cover up executions, camouflaging criminal intent. The experiments were classified under the code name "The Andrea Project." Between 1975 and 1977 Berríos collaborated with key officials from DINA and shared secrets from "Operation Condor," the coordinating mechanism for repression by intelligence agencies in the Southern Cone. Berríos met DINA's prominent allies in charge of secret missions outside the country, such as the anti Castro Cuban, Orlando Bosch, and the Italian neo-fascist, Stephano delle Chiaie. Berríos knew the details of some of the most notorious murders. In fact, they had planned to use Sarin gas for Orlando Letelier's assassination.
Berríos's fall occurred unexpectedly after DINA's dissolution. His commercial failures and his economic urgencies caused him to commit small-scale fraud, bouncing checks, swindling civilians and blackmailing the military. The court ordered his arrest to appear as a witness in the Letelier case. At this time Berríos was a well-known patron of night spots frequented by agents and ex-agents of security and intelligence institutions: Bar Los Asesinos (The Assassins Bar), Oliver Piano Bar, and the New Crazy Club. There he used to relate some details of state terrorism with an enigmatic air, while his partially nude, casual lovers danced on the tables. The day that his parents' house in which he resided was broken into, the police found a makeshift lab in the garage where Berríos cut and adulterated cocaine.
In September of 1993 the detectives were able to complete the dark and extraordinary story about the biochemist through information from the typed letter. The letter attributed to Berríos was ambiguous. For example it suggested that he continued to do experiments in the lab: "What worked in Chile and was not appreciated now serves other stronger, greater, and more powerful people. They use me now, but it's different; the purpose is different."
Does the phrase refer to Sarin gas or to drug projects? The alleged Berríos confessed in the letter, "I had economic problems. I even reached the point of making amphetamines that I knew they were selling in schools. But I had to do it to survive. When drugs get you, it's impossible to escape." The text went into detail about drug trafficking, "Because of my knowledge, and for my needs, I got into this surreal world. First I participated at parties, with uppers, drinks, etc.., with supposed friends, bad friends." He listed a series of names: "Manuel Novo, Carlos Board, 'El Aragonés', Máximo 'Bocanegra' Guevara, Hernán López, Enrique Paraviccino, Enrique González, and others. They will remember about the prank in the car trunk."
The homicide brigade detectives investigated these leads for over seven months. Their final report presented unexpected news: Berríos was associated with a Peruvian drug trafficking ring, while maintaining connections to intelligence organizations. Some of the drug ring's members were also government officials who facilitated contact with Chilean foreign service employees in order to smuggle drugs in diplomatic pouches.
"Manuel Novo," mentioned in the letter, turned out to be Andrés Novoa, who along with lawyer Enrique Paraviccino, had acted as a civilian DINA agent. Novoa and Paraviccino became Berríos' partners in the National Fitochemical Company, a front for Peruvian drug trafficker Guillermo Cornejo Hualpa's ring. Cornejo was wanted in his country for a failed attempt to transport 285 kilograms of cocaine, confiscated on the Peruvian Naval vessel Etén before it left Callao port. With the help of his father, National Guard Major Guillermo Cornejo Calderón, Cornejo Hualpa escaped to Chile. There, with a false passport under the name of Jorge Acosta, he started the Susset and Co. import business to use as his operations base.
Installed in Chile, the ring was able to recruit Novoa, Berríos and Paraviccino. They were joined by Edmundo Saldivia (Chilean consulate official in Madrid), Jorge Alarcón (Chilean official at the American embassy in Santiago), Carlos Miranda (a lawyer with connections to the president, Military Industries, and a state attorney), Raúl Enrique Contreras Salas (an army sergeant and the state attorney's escort), and Ríos San Martín (ex-DINA agent, in charge of keeping Berríos in custody). Some of the ring's members were finally arrested in Europe, where the detectives interrogated them. They found Novoa in Madrid along with Peruvian National Guard Commander Percy Lazo, who were accused of making drug shipments in merluza fish containers sent on Iberia Airlines. Osvaldo Alcayaga Arana and Jorge Saer Becerra were arrested in Germany for bringing 94 kilograms of cocaine into the country.
Investigations revealed that just before his disappearance, Berríos had experimented in the laboratories to find a formula for molecular dissociation of cocaine to elude detection. The idea seduced drug traffickers as the military officers had been seduced by the idea of Sarin gas. Berríos promised, "It will remove the scent of cocaine."
Simultaneously the biochemist, with some old friends from DINA, actively participated in drug trafficking at 2224 Bustos Streets, an ex-DINA security house. Berríos processed cocaine there to send to Europe through Montevideo. Enrique Momberg, one of Cornejo's henchmen, brought the cocaine from Lima to Chile in the gas tank of his car. Small shipments (one of nine kilograms was verified) arrived in Montevideo in the diplomatic pouch of the Chilean Embassy in Montevideo's press attaché, Emilio Rojas. Rojas, who lunched at least once with Cornejo in Montevideo, had been Berríos's publicity adviser in 1984 when the biochemist unsuccessfully launched a business producing "boldiño", an infusion. Berríos tried to contact Rojas at the Montevideo embassy when he sensed that his "military protectors" were going to eliminate him. An administrative investigation by the Ministry of Foreign Relations determined that Rojas spoke with military attaché Timmerman about Berríos' presence in Montevideo after the verification of his disappearance from Santiago. "He's costing us a lot of money," commented Gen. Timmerman, in reference to Berríos. Rojas was fired from his diplomatic post, but Gen. Timmerman currently heads the most powerful division of the Chilean army.
The Chilean detectives' investigation concluded that Eugenio Berríos "is a cocaine elaborator, consumer, and trafficker." They used the present tense before the discovery of the corpse in 1995. Intentionally the investigators painstakingly highlight relations between drug trafficking and current and former agents of intelligence organizations. In an extensive file, No. 7981 of the Sixth Criminal Court in Santiago, the two plots, military collaboration and drug trafficking, run parallel courses that converge at numerous points. The governments' fierce determination to elude investigations of continuing military coordination seems to confirm that it was necessary to eliminate Berríos as an unstable and unreliable witness, whose testimony in a key trial against the dictatorship could have revealed carefully hidden truths.
The connections between intelligence activities and drug trafficking do present a powerful explanation for the treatment of the Berríos case, one of the most complicated and risky undercover operations that has come to light after the era of dictatorships. These events provoked an institutional crisis in which the civilian government was forced to give in to military pressure. The aforementioned case file includes the results of an administrative investigation ordered by the Chilean chancellery. It includes photocopies of classified messages from Chilean ambassador, Raymundo Barros Charlín, to the chancellor during the first days of the scandal in June, 1993. One of them, No. 191, dated June eleventh, refers to a meeting between the ambassador and Uruguayan chancellor, Sergio Abreu. Describing the conversation and the meeting between the president and the military commanders, Barros Charlín stated:
First thing in the morning today, Chancellor Sergio Abreu called me in about the Berríos case (...) Under orders from his government, he officially proposed to me that I present the precise summons to our authorities in order to find out if officers from the Chilean armed forces participated in or knew of these publicly notorious events. In addition, Chancellor Abreu emphatically stated that President Lacalle could not have taken action against the military high command, faced with the institutional solidarity shown by the Uruguayan military, unlimited support for its leaders, and their endorsements from subordinate ranks. Graphically demonstrating, once again, that the government had to look the other way (...)
If at some moment it could be clearly established what type of experiments Eugenio Berríos carried out or what wonders he promised his captors, it might have been possible to decipher the mystery that justified a large-scale cover-up operation and postponed his inevitable death for over a year.
1. Translator's note: Chilean National Intelligence Directorate, a repressive intelligence arm of the Pinochet dictatorship.