Erosions of democracy under authoritarian rulers happen through numerous channels, with an important channel being institutions. Institutions structuralize governance according to the vision of the authoritarian, often serving to increase the grasp of the ruler over governance. A hallmark of this structuralizing tends to include the reform or restructuring of the national intelligence agency, which is prioritized by the authoritarian due to its crucial role in facilitating information proliferation, leading to expansive control over the masses. A common form of this reform is forming a “secret police” organization, distinguished by its blurred lines of executive action, seemingly endless power, and vague bounds to legislature, from the former intelligence apparatus.
This separately formed or institutionally reformed intelligence agency often worked exclusively for the founding individual, the authoritarian, and served to increase his/her capacity for repression of opposition. They were important for the tacit compliance of the society, as their perceived constant surveillance into every facet of daily life served to deter individual uprisings and their culminations in groups. Moreover, their practical operations were instrumental in the repression of opposition, through such methods as assassinations, forced disappearances, and media suppression. I aim to highlight the Chilean case as an example to the effectiveness of the secret police, emphasizing their practical power; through pre-meditated, direct interventions, the secret police does more than ensure tacit compliance, as it significantly decreases the cost of repression for the authoritarian ruler. Additionally, their institutional structure dampens direct linkages of repression to the ruler him/herself, reducing the pact-liabilities of the authoritarian, if they ever exit the system.
In the case of Chile, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) was separately created from the former intelligence agency, the National Agency of Intelligence (ANI). Both were formed out of the military, with DINA being founded by Augusto Pinochet in 1973. DINA was later separated from the army and was made an independent administrative unit in June 1974. Its independence was legitimized under Decree #521, which gave DINA the power to detain any individual under a declared state of emergency, essentially granting it unlimited power during these periods.
Dedicated Black-Boxes: Villa Grimaldi
Villa Grimaldi was the property of a previous elite, Emile Vassallo. The estate was often utilized by its owners as the gathering place of left-wing and progressive political figures throughout the period of the previous incumbent to Pinochet, Salvador Allende. By mid-1974, after Pinochet came to power and founded DINA, the estate had become the most important detention complex of the secret police. Throughout 1974 to 1978, Villa Grimaldi housed an estimated 4,500 forcefully disappeared individuals, with at least 226 being presumed dead. Claimed to be an interrogation center by DINA, later accounts revealed methods such as torture and unlawful detainment as prevalent features during detainment.
The profile of the prisoners varied, however, opposing political figures seemed to be a target group; Carlos Tobar, the leader of the Socialist Party, Sheila Cassidy, a doctor who gave medical attention to Nelson Gutierrez, Juan Maino, the leader of the Popular Unitary Action Movement, and Michelle Bachelet, the future President of Chile between 2006-10 and 2014-18. Arguably, Pinochet, through the practical operations of DINA, aimed to deter or eliminate the previous elite, as they posed a threat to his authoritarian control. Parties such as the Popular Unitary Action Movement were in coalition with the previous Allende regime, which could constitute the detainee Maino to be a part of the ex-elite. Although the tacit compliance power that being a prisoner at Villa Grimaldi serves is significant in its own rights, the practical powers of DINA aims to outright eliminate opposition, often being successful. As such, not only the previous elite are out of the environment, new opposition actors and anyone who might aid them are deterred as well. The case of Sheila Cassidy highlights the extent to which authoritarian persecution may go, targeting not only the opposition, but actors who might aid them in any way.
Transnational Repression: Operation Condor
Operation Condor was a campaign of international authoritarian control, initiated in 1975 by 6 main Latin American countries, with Chile being one of them. With backing from the United States of America, the assembly was dedicated to alleged anti-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering. Condor provided the capacity to suppress opposition in countries other than the authoritarian’s, significantly expanding their zone of control.
Condor can be argued to have primarily practical power; across the 6 participating countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay), opposition was mainly dealt with through violent and direct interventions, with the most popular being car bomb assassinations for DINA. Perhaps the most famous case was of Orlando Letelier; holding multiple ministry positions and being the ambassador to the US during Allende’s regime, Letelier was one of the most prolific critics of Pinochet. Having suffered torture in Chile after Pinochet took over, Letelier moved to the US and continued his criticism of Pinochet. Through his work he was able to prevent a significant investment to the Chilean mining industry by the Netherlands, which resulted in his citizenship being cancelled by Pinochet.
As a part of the previous elite and due to his insistence on opposition, Letelier was assassinated in Washington, via a car bomb placed by DINA operatives. Many opposition figures were targeted in the same way by DINA; ex-Chilean Christian democrat Guzman, Allende-period military Chief of Staff Gonzalez, and the Chilean Socialist Party leader Altamirano. Some were lucky to survive the botched assassination plans, but most detainees were not so lucky. On top of deterring opposition of the regime, DINA’s practical operations were instrumental in removing the existing opponents altogether, their fates symbolic to any potential opposition figures. Furthermore, the Condor frame was expansive and transnational; not only the opposition was in danger in Chile, but also was under grave threat outside of it. The US backed the Condor initiative well into the 1980s through the cooperation of the CIA and additional organization, financial, and technical assistance to the efforts. As such, not only the involved 6 countries of Operation Condor were death sentences to the opposition, but also US soil.
Operation Condor and the backing of the CIA of the initiative are critical in highlighting the practical power that secret police organizations hold in democratic erosion cases; political assassinations were the bread and butter of DINA in suppressing domestic or international opposition. The practical part of DINA’s power stems from its ability to not only deter or threaten the current and future opposition, but from its capability for the removal of such figures altogether. Authoritarian rulers tend to mobilize against the previous elite, especially if the previous elite is on the critical side of the regime; DINA allows expansive capabilities for Pinochet through its practical power.
1977 saw the Central Agency of Information (CNI) replacing DINA, however, by that time, DINA had accomplished much of its major political repression goals. The leader of the Revolutionary Left Movement was assassinated in 1974 and the previous elite belonging to the coalition of Allende, the Popular Unity initiative, were assassinated throughout 1973-1977. The practical powers of DINA afforded room for Pinochet to outright remove the opposition and deter any newcomers.
The main head of the DINA operations was Manuel “Mamo” Contreras. The fall of the Pinochet regime inflicted upon Contreras a 12-year sentence on the charge of forced disappearances; he would later be charged with the assassinations the previous Chief of Staff Gonzalez and his wife, and sentenced to 2 life sentences, dying in 2015 without being able to serve them. Contreras would accuse Pinochet of giving the orders for the assassinations in 2005, however, Pinochet also died one year later, without serving a sentence.
The responsibility for the crimes against humanity under DINA largely went unpunished. The formation of the secret police partly affords the authoritarian to shift the blame to the leader that he/she most likely appointed, reducing his/her direct liability after losing power. While not qualifying for the practical powers category, this quality of secret police organizations is crucial in the pact-making stage for the authoritarian; Pinochet being a coup-brought leader, would likely be concerned about his exit of the political system, especially after the extreme measured that DINA carried out. His measures succeeded in a sense, as he did not face the crimes he was responsible for. Additionally, Contreras only party served his sentence, which did not include every crime that DINA committed during its operations.
The vagueness of responsibility afforded both Contreras and Pinochet the capacity to delay their sentences. In a democratic system, such crimes against humanity must be addressed by the following regime, as popular resentment mobilizes the masses; the succeeding governments were only partly able to charge the ones responsible. As a hallmark of a democratic regime, responsibility is blurred in the Chilean case, giving chance to the perpetrators to escape after inflicting pain on those they are supposed to represent.
Democratic erosion is a major concept with numerous stages to understand. The formation and the operation of secret police organizations are arguably in the earlier stages of an erosion process. Their capacity for tacit compliance of the society through constant surveillance and fear campaigns is invaluable for an authoritarian regime, which aims to disable the opposition, control the masses, and attack horizontal accountability measures. The erosion of democracy is partly initiated through the capacity of the secret police.
The practical powers such as assassinations and forced kidnappings of such organizations should be emphasized in this regard; outside of tacit compliance, the removal of political opposition is an absolute measure that outright attacks anyone who dares to criticize. The operations of DINA in this regard were instrumental to the Pinochet regime, especially given the area of operations that CIA and the Operation Condor space provided. The cost of opposition was radically high for any newcomers and the cost of repression was rather low for Pinochet, as the shift of blame could afford time. The events that took place in Villa Grimaldi were symbolic in their message to the opponents and anyone who might aid them, while also serving as a monument to the death of the old elite, as it was their political and cultural hangout.
The Chilean case emphasizes the practical power of the secret police organizations in the erosion process of a democracy, the suppression and removal of political opposition, and the repression of alternative information. Virtually unlimited in reach, DINA was crucial to the Pinochet regime in establishing and maintaining authoritarian control and damaging democratic principles. The vagueness of responsibility born from DINA having numerous agents, being led by Contreras, and being controlled by Pinochet, helped the authoritarian circle to shift the blame until their crimes went largely unpunished. As such, these practical powers should be explored in depth to develop countermeasures especially for their capacity for executive efficiency.