An Italian court on Monday sentenced 24 people to life in prison for participating in Operation Condor, a campaign of political repression and terror that gripped much of South America between 1968 and 1989.
The trial was the first of its kind in Europe and focused on the deaths of 43 people, including 23 Italian citizens. All but one of the 24 defendants was convicted in absentia, and they include former Peruvian President Francisco Morales Bermúdez and former Uruguayan Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Blanco.
They stood trial over the disappearance or death of 43 victims, but the total number of people who were disappeared or murdered during Operation Condor could be as high as 60,000. Hard evidence from government databases confirms that at least 496 political opponents were kidnapped and assassinated during Operation Condor.
Thanks to the declassification of documents, we now know that many victims were killed in shocking ways. Perhaps most chilling are accounts of so-called death flights, when victims were drugged and thrown from airplanes into the ocean, with their stomachs split open to ensure that they either sank or were eaten by sharks.
Justice at long last
But the families of the victims never gave up hope that justice would one day be served.
Prosecutors working the case did so under the precedent of “universal justice,” which was established in London in 2000 with the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet – a chief mastermind of Operation Condor.
Although the crimes took place during the 1970s and 1980s, newly available documents gave Italian prosecutors enough evidence to proceed with charges against the two dozen former high-ranking government officials.
I have to stress how much effort everybody involved put into the case,” said Arturo Salerni, a lawyer who worked on the case and the president of Liberties member CILD. “Primarily I’m referring to the Italian Ministry of Justice, the organizations of families of the victims, which made important contributions, and finally by many jurists and researchers. Thanks to these efforts the truth has been made public.”
After decades of impunity, the families of the victims now have some degree of justice, some sense of closure to one of recent histories darkest and most heinous periods.