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  • Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo march with a banner commemmorating the thousands of victims of Argentina's dictatorship.

    Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo march with a banner commemmorating the thousands of victims of Argentina's dictatorship. | Photo: Reuters

Published 17 February 2020
Opinion

The U.S. intelligence was aware of the systematic human rights violations committed by Latin American dictatorships.

The United States (U.S.) intelligence monitored secret communications during the second half of the last century in several South American nations using encoding devices by a Swiss company called Crypto AG, reports from U.S. newspaper the Washington Post, German broadcaster ZDF and Swiss channel SRF revealed.

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The company was secretly owned by U.S. intelligence and the West German intelligence BND. Both spy agencies rigged the machines in order to read the messages of the countries they were spying without their knowledge.

In the late 1970s, the dictatorial governments of South America including Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina acquired the Crypto AG machines to carry out the Operation Condor, a brutal campaign of political repression and state terror involving torture, assassinations, mass killings, and thousands of forced disappearances of perceived threats to those regimes.

The U.S. intelligence had thus a privileged position to know the atrocities and human rights violations committed by these dictatorships.

The reports also show how South American countries involved in the bloody regional plan tried to work together and find ways to share intelligence about people they wanted to be arrested or killed.

The security services of those countries established a communication network using crude Crypto encryption machines known as CX-52s. They upgraded to newer electronic models in 1977 when Crypto AG became the secret property of the CIA and the BND. 

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It was then that the devices were manipulated to easily crack the codes used by these states to send their messages.

In addition to the nations involved in Operation Condor, Crypto AG sold manipulated machines sold to more than 100 nations, including Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

U.S. intelligence was thus aware of almost all the major events occurring in other continents, including the massacres in Indonesia, the abuses under South Africa’s apartheid, the military coups in Chile and Argentina, the assassination of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington in 1976, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the Malvinas war, among other events.

The encryption machine was created in the 1940s by a Russian-born Swedish inventor called Boris Hagelin. ​​​​​​​After World War II, his technology became so highly developed that the U.S. government worried it would stop them from spying on the communications of other countries.

U.S. Army cryptographer William Friedman convinced Hagelin to sell the most advanced machines only to countries validated by the U.S. while older machines, which the CIA knew how to manipulate, were sold to other governments.

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