CNN Photos

The shadow of Operation Condor

During the Cold War, a new method of repression became favored by brutal military dictatorships in South America.

Those that the right-wing governments perceived as part of a communist threat were not just killed, but they were also made to vanish, denying their families any feeling of finality or closure. The term “disappeared” was coined to describe these missing victims.

Six countries that were ruled by military dictatorships in 1975 — Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay — together formed Operation Condor, a secret military plot for coordinated repression based on shared intelligence and military resources.

This dark past is something Portuguese photographer João Pina aims to capture with his series “Shadow of the Condor.”

“I sought to create a visual narrative of one of the darkest periods in South America’s history by returning to the places where torture and disappearances had occurred, portraying survivors and victims’ families today and using archival images taken by photographers and security forces from that period,” Pina said.

The brutality of the period is captured in one photograph of a skull with holes where bullets entered and exited. It is one of the pieces of evidence from the period being studied by an Argentine team of forensic anthropologists.

While the skull tells one story, Pina’s image of an expansive-looking La Plata River is even more foreboding. The Argentine military, during the dictatorship, would throw people into the river from airplanes while they were still alive.

The clandestine nature of Operation Condor means that its full extent may never be known, but researchers estimate that 50,000 were killed, 30,000 were "disappeared" and presumed killed, and 400,000 were jailed, according to The Center for Justice and Accountability.

“The number of victims may be much higher, but (it) cannot be confirmed both because of the secrecy in which the repression took place, and because many of the mass executions were carried out in ways that the bodies disappeared forever in jungles, forests, rivers and oceans,” Pina explained.

While there was always suspicion that the anti-communist dictatorships collaborated, the clandestine nature of the operation means that even today, new research about the period is coming to light.

The wall of secrecy began falling down in 1998, when a Spanish judge filed charges against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Journalist John Dinges, author of a book on Operation Condor, wrote that that secret military cooperation was created to chase down left-wing dissidents who fled their countries.

As repressive regimes came into power, some dissidents would flee to other countries. Through intelligence sharing under Operation Condor, those leftists were tracked outside of their home countries, interrogated and in many cases returned to their countries, only to be “disappeared,” he wrote.

Once democracy was restored in these countries, amnesty laws protected military authorities for decades in some cases. Some amnesty laws were only recently overturned, and several trials are now under way against those accused of human rights violations.

“Many relatives of the victims still don’t know what happened to their loved ones, and the majority of those responsible for their deaths and disappearances have never been brought to justice,” Pina said.

“From the Amazon jungle in Brazil to the cold open lands of Patagonia, thousands of victims remain buried in unmarked mass graves while survivors struggle to cope with their memories,” the photographer added. “I have witnessed survivors and families dealing with problems such as acute depression, paranoia and other psychiatric illnesses due to the immense traumas they underwent at the hands of the regimes that ruled 30 years ago.”

- Mariano Castillo, CNN