Pinochet's Mad Scientist

13 January 1999

On Nov. 15, 1992, a terrified scientist broke a window of a white bungalow in the Uruguayan beach town of Parque del Plata.
Chubby, in his mid-40s, the man struggled through the opening. Once outside, furtively and slowly, he picked his way to the local police station. I am a Chilean citizen, the scientist told the police when he finally reached the station. He pulled a folded photostatic copy of his identification papers concealed in his right shoe. I have been abducted by the armies of Uruguay and my country, he claimed. The scientist, rumpled with a graying beard, said he feared for his life. He insisted that his murder had been ordered by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, then the chief of Chile's army who had ruled as a dictator from 1973 to 1990. The motive for the execution was the man's anticipated testimony at a politically sensitive trial in Chile, a case that could send reverberations all the way to Washington, D.C.

The scientist had worked as an accomplice in a terror campaign that included the bombing deaths of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker Ronni Moffitt as they drove to work in Washington in 1976. The police in Parque del Plata, a beach town about 30 kilometers from Montevideo, weren't sure what to make of the man's convoluted tale. An Uruguayan army officer had alerted them earlier that an unbalanced Chilean prisoner was on the loose. The scientist, who had escaped from a house owned by an Uruguayan army officer, apparently was that man. But the issue was quickly taken out of the hands of local authorities. A half an hour after the man's arrival, armed and uniformed Uruguayan army troops burst into the police precinct station and seized control. At their head was the district police chief, a retired army colonel named Ramon Rivas. Rivas ordered that the Chilean scientist be turned over to the soldiers. Two Uruguayan army officers then were to escort the scientist out of Uruguay to Brazil. Faced with soldiers brandishing rifles, the police relented. The scientist was led away. From that moment, the scientist's fate became a complex kidnap-murder mystery, with improbable twists and turns, an apparent disinformation trick, raw political power, a grisly discovery and, finally, forensic science.

The disappearance of the scientist, a biochemist named Eugenio Berríos, has relevance to today's legal battles over Pinochet's possible trial for human rights violations. The Berríos case bears on the international terror campaigns waged by Chile and other South American military dictatorships in the 1970s. The case also underscores the enduring power of right-wing military officers within the fragile democracies of South America - and the difficulty of bringing Pinochet to justice in Chile. Though drawing little attention, the Berríos case officially has become part of the larger Pinochet investigation now under way by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon. There could be consequences, too, in the United States where the CIA's prior knowledge about the Letelier assassination - at a time when George Bush was CIA director - has never been clarified.

The mystery of Eugenio Berríos starts in 1974 when he began doing scientific research for Chile's feared intelligence service, DINA. Berríos worked closely with an American-born DINA agent, Michael Townley, in a clandestine unit known by the name "Quetropilla." The base of operations was a sprawling, multi-level house - registered to Townley but purchased by DINA - in Lo Currro, a wooded, middle-class neighborhood of Santiago, Chile. One of Berríos's assignments was the development of sarin gas that could be packaged in spray cans for use in assassinations. DINA officials thought the nerve gas could create lethal symptoms that might be confused with natural causes while giving time for the assailants to escape. The need for sophisticated murder devices grew more important for Pinochet's intelligence teams when they turned their sights on political enemies living abroad in 1975. In September 1975, DINA chief Manuel Contreras launched an international assassination project called Operation Condor, named after the powerful vulture that traverses the Andes mountains from Colombia to the Strait of Magellan. The theory behind Condor was that enemies of South American military dictatorships should be hunted down wherever they sought refuge, whether in the nations of participating governments or elsewhere.

In October 1975, after soliciting $600,000 in special funds from Pinochet, Contreras chaired the organizational meeting of Operation Condor with military intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. After the meeting, the intelligence services stepped up their trans-national coordination. More than 100 Chileans were rounded up and returned to Chile for execution. Others were gunned down where they were found. According to later testimony by DINA agent Townley, Berríos made a major contribution to the cause in April 1976 by recreating sarin, a poisonous nerve gas first invented by the Nazis during World War II. The original plan for assassinating Letelier, Townley said, was to use a female operative to seduce the debonair former diplomat and then administer a liquid form of sarin concealed in a Chanel perfume bottle. But Berríos also stocked the operation with explosive devices in case the nerve gas proved unworkable. In September 1976, Townley entered the United States on an official Chilean passport with a false name. He contacted anti-Castro Cubans and recruited their help in hunting down Letelier, a vocal critic of Pinochet. When the Cubans refused to participate unless the Chileans had a direct role in the assassination, Townley switched from poison to a car bomb. The assassins traveled to Washington where the exiled Letelier lived and worked at a left-of-center think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. They concealed the bomb under Letelier's car and followed Letelier as he and two American co-workers drove to work on Sept. 21, 1976. As the car proceeded past the ornate buildings of Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, the assassins detonated the bomb. Letelier and one American, Ronni Moffitt, died in the blast. Moffitt's husband was wounded.

Despite official requests, George Bush's CIA provided little help unraveling the mystery. Only later would authorities discover that the CIA director's office received a warning about the Townley operation but failed to stop it. Still, the FBI and federal prosecutors managed to uncover Operation Condor and break the Letelier case. Extradited to the United States, Townley agreed to plead guilty, serve a short prison sentence and enter a federal witness protection program. But progress in bringing to justice the architects of the terror campaign was much slower, given Pinochet's continued hold on power through 1990. Long-term US pressure, however, finally led to criminal charges in Chile against former DINA chief Contreras.

Berríos, who continued to work on assassination schemes even after Townley's arrest, emerged as a prospective witness. In October 1991, a Chilean judge called Berríos to testify. The move sent chills through the Chilean military establishment. It became important for DINA to get Berríos beyond the reach of the Chilean court. That month, Capt. Carlos Herrera Jiminez, a former intelligence officer, escorted Berríos from Santiago on a clandestine trip through the Andes to Argentina. To hide Berríos, the old Condor network quickly reasserted itself. From Buenos Aires, Uruguayan counterintelligence chief, Lt. Col. Thomas Casella, coordinated Berríos's move to Uruguay. There, Berríos and Herrara holed up in a Montevideo apartment rented by Casella, who frequently trained with the Chilean military. But complications continued to arise. In February 1992, while on a trip to Buenos Aires, Herrara was arrested on an Interpol warrant connecting him to another assassination plot. That forced other Chilean agents to take charge of Berríos in Uruguay. Berríos was becoming a burden - as well as a risk - to Chile's intelligence services. Gen. Emilio Timmerman, a military officer at the Chilean embassy in Montevideo, assumed the Berríos duty. But Timmerman complained to an embassy cultural attache, Emilio Rojas, that it is costing us too much money. Timmerman, who is now second-in-command of the Chilean army, also was growing nervous. Timmerman ordered Rojas to keep his mouth shut about Berríos's whereabouts, the cultural attache said later.

By November 1992, Berríos realized that his Chilean superiors might want him silenced - as the safest and cheapest alternative to a long exile. He apparently overheard his captors discussing Pinochet's orders for them to eliminate the scientist. So, on Nov. 15, 1992, Berríos climbed through the window of the white bungalow and fled to the precinct station at Parque del Plata. He begged the police to protect him, but the escape was cut short by the intervention of Uruguayan troops. Berríos disappeared. Exactly what happened next remains a mystery. Senior Uruguayan officials only learned about the November 1992 police confrontation the next June from an anonymous caller.

The discovery touched off a political crisis inside the Uruguayan government where the army still wielded great power. Uruguayan President Luis Alberto Lacalle was in Great Britain when the story broke. He immediately ducked out of a reception at the Uruguayan embassy in London and flew back to Montevideo. There, Lacalle met with 14 of the 16 generals heading the armed forces. After four hours of tough negotiations and threats from 12 generals, Lacalle backed down to avoid a new military challenge to the civilian government. The president relented on his initial inclination to impose severe sanctions against the intelligence services. Lacalle did fire the police chief, Rivas, but agreed only to transfer the head of military intelligence, Mario Aguerrondo.

As for Berríos's fate, Col. Casella, who supplied an apartment for hiding Berríos, reported that Berríos had gone to Brazil. The colonel assured the government that he had talked to Berríos by phone at the end of November 1992, weeks after his disappearance. There were public doubts that Berríos was still alive. But another assurance about Berríos's well-being surfaced in Europe. The Uruguayan consulate in Milan received an anonymous letter supposedly signed by Berríos and a photo of him holding a recent issue of the Milan newspaper, Il Messagiero. Lacalle, seeking political peace with Uruguay's military, announced that Berríos is not in Uruguay. He is somewhere else. That made the Berríos mystery a Chilean matter again, the Uruguayan president declared.

At the end of the crisis, Uruguay's foreign minister Sergio Abreu met with the Chilean ambassador and bluntly admitted that Lacalle had no choice but to "doblar el pescuezo" - "let it go." If Lacalle pursued sanctions against powerful figures in the military, the 12 generals had threatened another military coup, the foreign minister said. Chile's ambassador cabled that news back to Santiago on June 11, according to a cable that I later obtained. For Uruguay, the Berríos case was closed - or so the authorities thought.

The Berríos case resurfaced, quite literally, in April 1995 when two fishermen found a man's decomposed body partially buried at a beach in El Pinar, another resort town about 25 kilometers from Montevideo. The body had broken bones suggesting torture, was wrapped in wire, and had two .45-calibre bullet holes in the back of the neck and head. Forensic doctors used new research techniques to reconstruct the victim's face. The face looked remarkably like Berríos. DNA tests were ordered on the remains with comparisons made against genetic samples from Berríos's relatives. In early 1996, forensic specialists concluded, with near certainty, that the dead man was Berríos. They also placed the date of his death as the first half of March 1993. The findings contradicted the June 1993 photograph - which presumably had been composed using computer graphics to insert a current issue of the Italian newspaper into the photo.

But the timing of Berríos's death added yet another side to the mystery. In March 1993, Pinochet had made a personal visit to Uruguay accompanied by 12 bodyguards and with Col. Casella joining his entourage. In Uruguay, there were suspicions that Pinochet might have used the visit to confront Berríos one more time about his knowledge and then eliminate him. But few observers in either Uruguay or Chile believe that those civilian governments are strong enough today - or determined enough - to follow the Berríos case and others to clear answers. The best chance for justice probably lies outside the countries that organized Operation Condor. Those nations are still gripped by the vulture's powerful claws.

Copyright 1999 The Consortium