A former officer in Uruguay's naval intelligence was in jail in southern Italy yesterday after Roman prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 140 South Americans accused of involvement in Operation Condor, the plan agreed by half a dozen Latin American governments in the 1970s and 1980s to hunt down, kidnap and murder their left-wing opponents.
The arrest of Nestor Jorge Fernandez Troccoli, 60, in Salerno, southern Italy, was the first result of a new push by Italian authorities who have been trying for years to prosecute former leaders and officials from Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay who collaborated with each other in running death squads to eliminate their common enemies.
Those named by the Italian prosecutors include the former leader of the Argentine junta Jorge Videla and Uruguay's ex-dictator Juan Bordaberry.
Among the thousands of deaths of which they are accused is the assassination of Orlando Leletier, a former minister in Salvador Allende's Chilean government, in a 1976 car bomb in Washington.
Other legal efforts, in Italy and elsewhere, to bring people involved in the plot to justice have ended at best in convictions in absentia for ex-officials who were not extradited. The former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, arrested in London in 1998, was eventually released on the grounds that he was too infirm to stand trial. Pinochet, who died last year, was also on the list of the Italian prosecutors published this week, along with five other deceased conspirators.
A prosecutor in Uruguay who is investigating human rights cases said there was a chance Mr Troccoli could be put on trial in Italy as he holds dual Italian and Uruguayan citizenship.
The investigation against former officials who allegedly conspired in Operation Condor was launched several years ago by Giancarlo Capaldo, the Roman prosecutor behind this week's arrest, after he received reports that Italian citizens had been among those murdered during the long-running attempt to eliminate left-wing opponents to military rule in South America.
The plot between the six countries, details of which have emerged only slowly since the collapse of the military regimes, is said to have been cooked up in Santiago in 1975 when leaders of the military intelligence services from each of the countries met to co-ordinate their extra-legal efforts to wipe out their Marxist and socialist opponents. It was a bid to systematise efforts already under way to bolster and cement in power right-wingers whose first success had been the overthrow and murder of Allende, the first Communist to be elected head of state of a western country, by Pinochet in 1973.
Like the Chilean coup d'etat that preceded it, Operation Condor enjoyed at least the tacit support of the US. The enemies were ostensibly armed left-wing guerrillas, but in fact a wide range of opponents were "disappeared", ranging from activists and trade unionists to intellectuals and artists, often with their families. At least 30,000 people are believed to have been eliminated in the Argentinian Dirty War alone.
Operation Condor was wound up in 1983 after the collapse of the Argentine military junta.
Italian news agencies reported that Mr Troccoli will be moved from Salerno to Rome "in the near future" for questioning. Despite the sudden avalanche of arrest warrants, no one expects them to lead swiftly to trial and conviction.
In remarks presented in 2001 to an American legal seminar on international crimes, Mr Capaldo, said there were only certain special circumstances in which people accused of committing crimes outside Italy could be prosecuted within Italy.
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