Family members hold photos of people who disappeared during Operation Condor, in Santiago, Chile, in 2004. Photograph: Ian Salas/EPA
An Italian court has sentenced 24 people to life in prison for their involvement in Operation Condor, in which the dictatorships of six South American countries conspired to kidnap and assassinate political opponents in each other’s territories.
The trial, the first of its kind in Europe, began in 2015 and focused on the responsibility of senior officials in the military dictatorships of Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina for the killing and disappearance of 43 people including 23 Italian citizens.
Those sentenced on Monday included Francisco Morales Bermúdez, who was president of Peru from 1975 to 1980, Juan Carlos Blanco, a former foreign minister in Uruguay, Pedro Espinoza Bravo, a former deputy intelligence chief in Chile, and Jorge Néstor Fernández Troccoli, a Uruguayan former naval intelligence officer.
Exactly how many people died as a result of the conspiracy is unknown, but prosecutors in South America and Italy provided evidence that at least 100 leftwing activists were killed in Argentina, including 45 Uruguayans, 22 Chileans, 15 Paraguayans and 13 Bolivians.
“Operation Condor spared no one,” said Francesca Lessa, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Latin American Centre. “Refugees and asylum seekers were especially targeted, while children – illegally detained with their parents – had their biological identity stolen and replaced by that of adoptive families.”
According to a database recording the crimes of the coordinated regional repression, at least 496 people of 11 nationalities were kidnapped under the auspices of Operation Condor.
Declassified documents suggest some victims were drugged, their stomachs were slit open and they were dropped from planes into the Atlantic Ocean. Other victims’ bodies were cemented into barrels and thrown into rivers.
Monday’s verdict was the result of years of pressure from the families of those who disappeared. “For decades, the victims’ relatives have been seeking justice,” Lessa said. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, impunity dominated South America, with former politicians and military officials involved in Condor Operation still enjoying immunity. Bringing them before a judge to take responsibility for their crimes was not a simple undertaking.”
The crimes took place in the 1970s and 1980s. “Many of the perpetrators were growing old and may never be brought to justice,” said Jorge Ithurburu, a lawyer for 24 Marzo, a Rome-based NGO. “The more time passed the more the witnesses of those atrocious crimes aged or died.”
Aurora Meloni, 68, whose husband, Daniel Banfi, was kidnapped and murdered in Buenos Aires in 1974, told the Guardian: “We’ve never given up and today we all won. Today’s ruling is not only for my husband … today’s ruling is dedicated to all the people killed and kidnapped under Condor.”
Prosecutors in the case drew on the precedent set in 2000 by the arrest in London of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”.
In 2016, Argentina’s last military dictator, Reynaldo Bignone, and 16 other former military officials were sentenced to years in prison, marking the first time a court had proved the existence of Operation Condor.
Last April, a newly declassified CIA document showed that European intelligence agencies sought advice from South America’s 1970s dictatorships on how to combat leftwing “subversion”.
“Representatives of West German, French and British intelligence services had visited the Condor organization secretariat in Buenos Aires during the month of September 1977 in order to discuss methods for establishment of an anti-subversion organization similar to Condor,” the document stated.
According to the human rights prosecution office in Buenos Aires, 977 former military officers and collaborators are in jail for crimes relating to Argentina’s dictatorship.