Pinochet's Mad Scientist
July 12, 2006 (First published Jan. 13, 1999)
Editor's Note: In a court document filed in early July 2006, Gen.
Manuel Contreras, former chief of Chile's feared intelligence service,
implicated the country's ex-dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and one of
his sons in a scheme to manufacture and smuggle cocaine to Europe and
the United States, explaining one source of Pinochet's $28 million
Contreras alleged that the cocaine was processed with Pinochet's
approval at an Army chemical plant south of Santiago during the 1980s
and that Pinochet's son Marco Antonio arranged the shipments of the
processed cocaine. [NYT, July 11, 2006]
At the time of the alleged cocaine smuggling, Pinochet was a close
ally of the Reagan-Bush administration, providing help on a variety of
sensitive intelligence projects, including shipping military equipment
to Nicaraguan contra rebels who also were implicated in the exploding
cocaine trade to the United States. [For details on the contra-cocaine
scandal, see Robert Parry's
Contreras said Eugenio Berrios, a chemist for Chile's secret
police, oversaw the drug manufacturing. Berrios also has been accused of
producing poisons for Pinochet, now 90, to use in murdering his
political enemies. Known as "Pinochet's Mad Scientist," Berrios
disappeared in 1992. In 1999, Consortiumnews.com published the following
article by South American journalist Samuel Blixen about the Berrios
On Nov. 15,
1992, a terrified scientist -- trapped inside a white bungalow in the
Uruguayan beach town of Parque del Plata -- broke a window to escape.
Chubby, in his mid-40s, the man struggled through the opening.
Once outside, furtively and slowly, he picked his way through the
town's streets to the local police station.
"I am a Chilean citizen," the scientist told the police. He pulled a
folded photostatic copy of his identification papers concealed in his
right shoe. "I have been abducted by the armies of Uruguay and my
country," he claimed.
The scientist, rumpled with a graying beard, said he feared for his
life. He insisted that his murder had been ordered by Gen. Augusto
Pinochet, then the chief of Chile's army who had ruled as a dictator
from 1973 to 1990.
The motive for the execution order was the man's anticipated
testimony at a politically sensitive trial in Chile, a case that could
have sent reverberations all the way to Washington, D.C., potentially
embarrassing the man who in November 1992 still sat in the White House,
President George H.W. Bush.
The scientist had worked as an accomplice in a terror campaign that
included the bombing deaths of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and an
American co-worker Ronni Moffitt as they drove to work in Washington in
1976. That terrorist attack in America's capital had occurred when
George H.W. Bush was CIA director, despite prior warnings to the CIA
about the plot.
The police in Parque del Plata, a beach town about 30 kilometers from
Uruguay's capital Montevideo, weren't sure what to make of the man's
An Uruguayan army officer had alerted them earlier that an
"unbalanced" Chilean prisoner was on the loose. The scientist, who had
escaped from a house owned by an Uruguayan army officer, apparently was
But the issue was quickly taken out of the hands of local
authorities. A half an hour after the man's arrival, armed and uniformed
Uruguayan army troops burst into the police precinct station and seized
control. At their head was the district police chief, a retired army
colonel named Ramon Rivas.
Rivas ordered that the Chilean scientist be turned over to the
soldiers. The police were told that two Uruguayan army officers would
then escort the scientist out of Uruguay to Brazil. Faced with soldiers
brandishing rifles, the police relented. The scientist was led away.
From that moment, the scientist's fate became a complex kidnap-murder
mystery, with improbable twists and turns, an apparent disinformation
trick, raw political power, a grisly discovery and, finally, forensic
The disappearance of the scientist, a biochemist named Eugenio
Berrios, also has relevance to ongoing legal battles seeking to hold
Pinochet accountable for thousands of human rights cases during his
reign as Chile's dictator and for an international terror campaign that
hunted down opponents of the dictatorships in Chile and other South
American countries in the 1970s.
The case also underscores the enduring power of right-wing military
officers within the fragile democracies of South America -- and the
difficulty of bringing Pinochet to justice in Chile.
The mystery of Eugenio Berrios starts in 1974 when he began doing
scientific research for Chile's feared intelligence service, DINA.
Berrios worked closely with an American-born DINA agent, Michael
Townley, in a clandestine unit known by the name “Quetropilla.” The base
of operations was a sprawling, multi-level house -- registered to
Townley but purchased by DINA -- in Lo Currro, a wooded, middle-class
neighborhood of Santiago, Chile.
One of Berrios's assignments was the development of sarin gas that
could be packaged in spray cans for use in assassinations. DINA
officials thought the nerve gas could create lethal symptoms that might
be confused with natural causes while giving time for the assailants to
The need for sophisticated murder devices grew more important for
Pinochet's intelligence teams when they turned their sights on political
enemies living abroad in 1975.
In September 1975, DINA chief Manuel Contreras launched an
international assassination project called Operation Condor, named after
the powerful vulture that traverses the Andes mountains from Colombia to
the Strait of Magellan.
The theory behind Condor was that enemies of South American military
dictatorships should be hunted down wherever they sought refuge, whether
in the nations of participating governments or elsewhere.
In October 1975, after soliciting $600,000 in special funds from
Pinochet, Contreras chaired the organizational meeting of Operation
Condor with military intelligence chiefs from Argentina, Uruguay,
Paraguay and Brazil.
After the meeting, the intelligence services stepped up their
trans-national coordination. More than 100 Chileans were rounded up and
returned to Chile for execution. Others were gunned down where they were
According to later testimony by DINA agent Townley, Berrios made a
major contribution to the cause in April 1976 by recreating sarin, a
poisonous nerve gas first invented by the Nazis during World War II.
Townley said the original plan for assassinating Orlando Letelier --
who had been foreign minister under Chile's leftist elected government
of Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and killed in Pinochet's 1973
coup -- was to use a female operative to seduce the debonair former
diplomat and then administer a liquid form of sarin concealed in a
Chanel perfume bottle. But Berrios also supplied the operation with
explosive devices in case the nerve gas proved unworkable.
In September 1976, Townley entered the United States on an official
Chilean passport with a false name. He contacted anti-Castro Cubans and
recruited their help in hunting down Letelier, a vocal critic of
When the Cubans refused to participate unless the Chileans had a
direct role in the assassination, Townley switched from poison to a car
The assassins traveled to Washington where the exiled Letelier lived
and worked at a left-of-center think tank, the Institute for Policy
Studies. They concealed the bomb under Letelier's car and followed
Letelier as he and two American associates drove to the IPS offices on
Sept. 21, 1976.
As the car proceeded past the ornate buildings of Embassy Row on
Massachusetts Avenue, the assassins detonated the bomb. Letelier and one
American, Ronni Moffitt, died in the blast. Moffitt's husband was
Despite official requests, George Bush's CIA provided little help
unraveling the mystery. Only later would authorities discover that the
CIA director's office received a warning about the Townley operation but
failed to stop it. [For details, see Robert Parry's
Secrecy & Privilege.]
Still, the FBI and federal prosecutors managed to uncover Operation
Condor and break the Letelier case. Extradited to the United States,
Townley agreed to plead guilty, serve a short prison sentence and enter
a federal witness protection program.
But progress in bringing to justice the architects of the terror
campaign was much slower, given Pinochet's continued hold on power
through 1990. Long-term U.S. pressure, however, finally led to criminal
charges in Chile against former DINA chief Contreras.
Berrios, who continued to work on assassination schemes even after
Townley's arrest, emerged as a prospective witness. In October 1991, a
Chilean judge called Berrios to testify. The move sent chills through
the Chilean military establishment.
It became important for DINA to get Berrios beyond the reach of the
Chilean court. That month, Capt. Carlos Herrera Jiminez, a former
intelligence officer, escorted Berrios from Santiago on a clandestine
trip through the Andes to Argentina.
To hide Berrios, the old Condor network quickly reasserted itself.
From Buenos Aires, Uruguayan counterintelligence chief, Lt. Col. Thomas
Casella, coordinated Berrios’s move to Uruguay. There, Berrios and
Herrara holed up in a Montevideo apartment rented by Casella, who
frequently had trained with the Chilean military.
But complications continued to arise. In February 1992, while on a
trip to Buenos Aires, Capt. Herrara was arrested on an Interpol warrant
connecting him to another assassination plot. That forced other Chilean
agents to take charge of Berrios in Uruguay. Berrios was becoming a
burden -- as well as a risk -- to Chile's intelligence services.
Gen. Emilio Timmerman, a military officer at the Chilean embassy in
Montevideo, assumed the Berrios duty. But Timmerman complained to an
embassy cultural attache, Emilio Rojas, that "it is costing us too much
Timmerman, who later became second-in-command of the Chilean army,
also was growing nervous. Timmerman ordered Rojas to keep his mouth shut
about Berrios's whereabouts, the cultural attache said later.
By November 1992, Berrios realized that his Chilean superiors might
want him silenced -- as the safest and cheapest alternative to a long
exile. He apparently overheard his captors discussing Pinochet’s orders
for them to eliminate the scientist.
So, on Nov. 15, 1992, Berrios climbed through the broken window of
the white bungalow and fled to the precinct station at Parque del Plata.
He begged the police to protect him, but the escape was cut short by the
intervention of Uruguayan troops. Berrios disappeared.
Exactly what happened next remains a mystery. Senior Uruguayan
officials only learned about the November 1992 police confrontation the
next June from an anonymous caller.
The discovery of the abduction touched off a political crisis inside
the Uruguayan government where the army still wielded great power.
Uruguayan President Luis Alberto Lacalle was in Great Britain when the
story broke. He immediately ducked out of a reception at the Uruguayan
embassy in London and flew back to Montevideo.
There, Lacalle met with 14 of the 16 generals heading the armed
forces. After four hours of tough negotiations and threats from 12
generals, Lacalle backed down to avoid a new military challenge to the
The president relented on his initial inclination to impose severe
sanctions against the intelligence services. Lacalle did fire the police
chief, Rivas, but agreed only to transfer the head of military
intelligence, Mario Aguerrondo.
As for Berrios's fate, Col. Casella, who had supplied an apartment
for hiding Berrios, reported that Berrios had gone to Brazil. The
colonel assured the government that he had talked to Berrios by phone at
the end of November 1992, weeks after his disappearance.
There were public doubts that Berrios was still alive. But another
assurance about Berrios's well-being surfaced in Europe. The Uruguayan
consulate in Milan received an anonymous letter supposedly signed by
Berrios and a photo of him holding a recent issue of the Milan
newspaper, Il Messagiero.
President Lacalle, seeking political peace with Uruguay's military,
announced that "Berrios is not in Uruguay. He is somewhere else." That
made the Berrios mystery "a Chilean matter" again, the Uruguayan
At the end of the crisis, Uruguay’s foreign minister Sergio Abreu met
with the Chilean ambassador and bluntly admitted that Lacalle had no
choice but to “doblar el pescuezo” -- “let it go.”
If President Lacalle pursued sanctions against powerful figures in
the military, the 12 generals had threatened another military coup, the
foreign minister said. Chile’s ambassador cabled that news back to
Santiago, according to a cable that I later obtained.
For Uruguay, the Berrios case was closed -- or so the authorities
The Berrios case resurfaced, quite literally, in April 1995 when two
fishermen found a man's decomposed body partially buried at a beach in
El Pinar, another resort town about 25 kilometers from Montevideo. The
body had broken bones suggesting torture, was wrapped in wire, and had
two .45-calibre bullet holes in the back of the neck and head.
Forensic doctors used new research techniques to reconstruct the
victim's face. The face looked remarkably like Berrios. DNA tests were
ordered on the remains with comparisons made against genetic samples
from Berrios's relatives. In early 1996, forensic specialists concluded,
with near certainty, that the dead man was Berrios. They also placed the
date of his death as the first half of March 1993, just four months
after his abduction.
The findings contradicted the June 1993 photograph -- which
presumably had been composed using computer graphics to insert a current
issue of the Italian newspaper into the photo. But the timing of
Berrios's death added yet another side to the mystery.
In March 1993, Pinochet had made a personal visit to Uruguay
accompanied by 12 bodyguards and with Col. Casella joining his
entourage. In Uruguay, there were suspicions that Pinochet might have
used the visit to confront Berrios one more time about his knowledge and
then eliminate him.
But few observers in either Uruguay or Chile believe that those
civilian governments were strong enough -- or determined enough -- to
follow the Berrios case and others to clear answers.
The nations of Operation Condor remained in the grip of the vulture’s
to Home Page