Documents Reveal Nixon Administration Urged Death Threats for Uruguayan Prisoners

In Response Uruguayan Security Forces Launched Death Squads to Hunt and Kill Insurgents

Documents posted by the National Security Archive on the 40th anniversary of the death of U.S. advisor Dan Mitrione in Uruguay show the Nixon administration recommended a “threat to kill [detained insurgent] Sendic and other key [leftist insurgent] MLN prisoners if Mitrione is killed.” The secret cable from U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers, made public here for the first time, instructed U.S. Ambassador Charles Adair: “If this has not been considered, you should raise it with the Government of Uruguay at once.”

The message to the Uruguayan government, received by the U.S. Embassy at 11:30 am on August 9, 1970, was an attempt to deter Tupamaro insurgents from killing Mitrione at noon on that day. A few minutes later, Ambassador Adair reported back, in another newly-released cable, that “a threat was made to these prisoners that members of the ‘Escuadrón de la Muerte’ [death squad] would take action against the prisoners’ relatives if Mitrione were killed.”

Dan Mitrione, Director of the U.S. AID Office of Public Safety (OPS) in Uruguay and the main American advisor to the Uruguayan police at the time, had been held for ten days by MLN-Tupamaro insurgents demanding the release of some 150 guerrilla prisoners held by the Uruguayan government. Mitrione was found dead the morning of August 10, 1970, killed by the Tupamaros after their demands were not met.

“The documents reveal the U.S. went to the edge of ethics in an effort to save Mitrione—an aspect of the case that remained hidden in secret documents for years,” said Carlos Osorio, who directs the National Security Archive’s Southern Cone project. “There should be a full declassification to set the record straight on U.S. policy to Uruguay in the 1960’s and 1970’s.”

“In the aftermath of Dan Mitrione’s death, the Uruguayan government unleashed the illegal death squads to hunt and kill insurgents,” said Clara Aldrighi, professor of history at Uruguay’s Universidad de la República, and author of “El Caso Mitrione” (Montevideo: Ediciones Trilce, 2007). “The U.S. documents are irrefutable proof that the death squads were a policy of the Uruguayan government, and will serve as key evidence in the death squads cases open now in Uruguay’s courts,” Osorio added. “It is a shame that the U.S. documents are writing Uruguayan history. There should be declassification in Uruguay as well,” stated Aldrighi, who collaborated in the production of this briefing book.

Uruguay, with a long-standing democratic tradition, entered a crisis during most of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The U.S. government feared the strongest Latin American insurgency at the time, the leftist Movimiento Nacional de Liberación (MLN-Tupamaros) would topple a weak Uruguayan government so they therefore supported the Uruguayan Government with economic and security assistance. The U.S. AID Office of Public Safety helped enhance the counterinsurgency techniques of a Uruguayan police renowned for the wide use of torture among prisoners. Under Dan Mitrione, the OPS consolidated the Uruguayan police’s National Directorate for Information and Intelligence (Dirección Nacional de Información e Inteligencia, DNII). It was right at this time that the Tupamaro insurgents kidnapped Mitrione on July 31, 1970, and demanded the release of 150 Tupamaro prisoners.

During the ten days Mitrione was kidnapped, the U.S. went to great lengths to secure his release. Nixon administration officials pressured the Uruguayan government to negotiate, offer ransom and, in the words of President Richard Nixon himself, “spare no effort to secure the safe return of Mr. Mitrione.”

Dan Mitrione was a policeman from Richmond, Indiana who later became an FBI agent. In the mid 1960’s, he was hired by the U.S. AID Office of Public Safety to train policemen in Brazil and Uruguay. According to A. J. Langguth in his book Hidden Terrors (Pantheon Books, 1978, p. 286) in Uruguay, as the U.S.-trained officers came to occupy key positions in the police, the claims of torture grew. Langguth believed Mitrione taught torture to Uruguayan officers. Mitrione’s activities inspired filmmaker Costa Gavras for his film “State of Siege” which portrays the U.S. support for a dictatorial government and the widespread use of torture by security forces in Uruguay.

The nine documents posted today by the National Security Archive contain evidence that the Government of Uruguay unleashed death squads activity in the wake of Mitrione’s execution, and that the United States was aware of these extra-judicial operations. While further declassification is needed to fully comprehend the development of death squad activities in Uruguay, the release of these documents is an important step in advancing international understanding of the Mitrione case and this chapter of U.S. and Uruguayan history.

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