Commentary Magazine

Hidden Terrors, by A. J. Langguth

Police Work

Hidden Terrors.
by A.J. Langguth.
Pantheon. 339 pp. $10.00.

The subtitle of this book, by a former New York Times bureau chief in Saigon, is “The Truth About U.S. Police Operations in Latin America,” but in reality it ranges far wider. In fact, it is three volumes in one: an account of the career of Dan Mitrione, a former Indiana police chief who, while on loan to the Uruguayan government, was kidnapped and murdered by urban guerrillas in 1970; a purported “insider’s” account of the overthrow of the Goulart regime in Brazil in 1964 and its aftermath; and a brief narrative of the decline of democracy in Uruguay, with special attention to those events which later figured in Costa-Gavras’s film, State of Siege (1973).

In Langguth’s opinion, all three of these stories are part of a larger tapestry of U.S. intervention in Latin America. His purpose, apparently, is to establish this country’s responsibility for the inhumane conduct of police forces in Brazil and Uruguay, and, in a larger focus, for the decline of democratic institutions in these (and presumably other) Latin American countries. As such, Hidden Terrors is another contribution to the growing literature of what might be called the Black Legend of American Foreign Policy.

The problem with the book is that its thesis can be sustained only by reading it very quickly and uncritically. Insofar as the recent political history of Brazil and Uruguay is concerned it shows so little knowledge (particularly of Uruguay), that one is bound to ask how long the author spent in either country, and under what circumstances. It would be ponderous for a reviewer to dwell upon all of the errors of fact (and of Spanish and Portuguese orthography) which blemish the account, but it must be emphasized that much of what the author would have the reader accept as fact is actually nothing more than someone else’s opinion, cleverly marshaled. Thus: The Archbishop of Sao Paulo “forbade his bishops to join in [an anti-Communist] march because he said it had been organized by McCann Erik-son, the U.S. advertising agency” (emphasis added). Or: “To some Brazilians, the foreign-aid program of the Eisenhower years, and even the Alliance for Progress, was a sham so long as five times more dollars were leaving Brazil in the form of earnings, dividends, and royalties than were entering the country as new direct investment” (emphasis added).

Other statements, made more categorically, are ripped out of their historical context. For example, we are told that President Vargas of Brazil (whom the author evidently wishes to represent as a right-wing dictator) came to power in 1930 “as the beneficiary of a popular rebellion led by coffee growers protesting a drop in world coffee prices.” As a matter of fact, the protest was over the failure of the Brazilian government to expand crop subsidies to less favored regions (including Vargas’s own state of Rio Grande do Sul), and the effect of the revolution of 1930 was to break forever the dominance in Brazilian politics of a handful of privileged coffee-growing areas. Also, while it is true, as the author says, that at a 1962 meeting with Richard Goodwin, Che Guevara “put forth a number of suggestions to ease relations” between the United States and Cuba, “including a promise to pay for the U.S. property that Cuba had expropriated,” this does not prove that Cuba “[was] not an intractable foe of the United States,” especially when the conditions which Guevara established (not mentioned by Langguth) are taken into account.

In his lengthy version of events leading up to the 1964 military coup in Brazil, Langguth refers to a number of sources, both official and unofficial, which he places at the back of the book. Unfortunately, he does not distinguish among them; moreover, they are not always brought to bear at critical moments. For example, no source whatever is given to explain the following statement: “Tentative arrangements were made for secret help if that became necessary: clandestine arms dropped in by air, tankers docking at Santos with U.S. oil if the Communists succeeded in seizing Petrobras [the state oil monopoly].” We are told that “Top Secret” communiqués from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington (now presumably declassified?) “indicated how much the Pentagon was relying on [U.S. Ambassador] Lincoln Gordon and his staff to direct the U.S. role in the coup.” And we are asked to believe that “during his stopover in Rio in early March, General Andrew O’Meara, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, had promised to fly paratroopers out of the Panama Canal zone and drop them into any pockets of resistance left”—on the credit of Robinson Rojas Sandford, a Chilean journalist whose reputation for mendacity is almost unequaled in Latin America.



The real centerpiece of Hidden Terrors, however, is not an exposé of the strings by which Washington purportedly manipulates Latin American politics, but the alleged systematic export of torture devices and practices through the training of Latin American security forces in Washington, Panama, and elsewhere by agencies of the United States government.1 This part of the book is not recommended for those with weak stomachs, for the descriptions of various interrogation practices are as detailed as any anatomical textbook (and a good deal more unsettling). I must say, however, that I was surprised at the incredible crudity of the methods in use—they hardly bespeak the last word in Yanqui technology.

But even here we find that Langguth wants us to reach the “right” conclusions without himself taking full responsibility for the evidence. Much of what we are told on this subject in the case of Uruguay comes from two discharged police inspectors, who even the author admits are unsavory characters. One of them “understood that [torture] equipment came to Montevideo inside the U.S. Embassy’s diplomatic pouch” (emphasis added). Langguth immediately adds that former CIA agent Philip Agee (Inside the Company) “could have informed [the police inspector] that the CIA routinely sent its equipment through the pouch. Even a lie detector, large as a suitcase. . . . Audio equipment and bugging equipment came the same way.” But we are still searching for the torture device in the bag—and even Langguth and Agee have not yet found it for us.

What Langguth does supply is a series of statements which establish beyond doubt that a number of people in Uruguay and Brazil believe (or, in the case of the discharged policemen, choose to believe) that the United States is responsible for the export of torture to their countries. In Brazil, “prisoners compared notes, and some told of seeing U.S. markings on the field telephones and the electric generators used for electric shocks. . . . All of them attributed the new Brazilian efficiency [in interrogation] to the United States government.” “She [a revolutionary] would never forgive the United States for its role in training and equipping the Brazilian police.” Langguth also provides some provocative non sequiturs: “In Portugal [intelligence officers] were boasting to their victims that a grade-school education was no longer sufficient for their work. The new interrogation methods were too complicated. The source of [their] improved technical expertise seemed clear enough. U.S. officials from the Lisbon Embassy called regularly at [police] headquarters” (emphasis added). Or a Brazilian journalist purportedly learned that Dan Mitrione “had bestowed [unspecified] technical equipment on the [Uruguayan] secret police; that the U.S. had introduced a system of nationwide identity cards. . . . ; that torture had become routine at the jefatura [police headquarters]” (emphasis added).

When it comes right down to cases, however, Hidden Terrors can make only two claims: that torture is widespread in both Uruguay and Brazil, and that its increasing use in recent years coincides chronologically with the arrival of U.S. police-training missions in both these countries. It also coincides chronologically with a good deal else, which Langguth does not dwell upon. Even so, he concedes that torture “was not a total novelty in Uruguay” before the U.S. missions. And he admits that no one ever saw Mitrione torture a prisoner. He also grants that at the U.S.-run International Police Academy instructors deplored the use of torture in interrogations, but quickly makes his own judgment that “this was less because it was morally indefensible, than because they considered it self-defeating.” Then, however, he adds, “their students sometimes had different opinions.” Just so.

Torture is an important topic in today’s news. Langguth could have made a more meaningful contribution had he been willing to admit that Latin American police do not need to come to Washington, or to receive emissaries from the United States, in order to oppose Marxism (or what they perceive to be Marxism) and to employ against it extremely forceful, often brutal, methods of interrogation. Much of Langguth’s problem resides in an ideological reluctance to recognize the profoundly conservative strains at work in Latin American societies. For its part, Amnesty International, in its 1972 report on torture, carefully skirted the question of U.S. responsibility and insisted that many offenses against human rights in Latin America were, regrettably, embedded within the historical and cultural context of the area. Precisely what one does about this is difficult to say, but it should not be supposed that electrical generators and field telephones are obtainable only in the United States, much less the will to use and misuse them.



Hidden Terrors also raises another question of increasing importance—the issue of terror and counter-terror in non-Communist societies. It is all very well for Langguth to rehearse the secular inequalities of Uruguay and Brazil, and to conclude that those who rebel against them are inspired by a moral principle which he prefers to liken to primitive Christianity. But in the societies these revolutionaries establish once they gain power, one will look in vain for the saintly qualities which so impress Langguth. This does not, of course, justify the use of official torture against such persons under any circumstances. But the cases of Italy, Israel, and Northern Ireland—to go no further—suggest that communities with a more deeply-rooted democratic tradition and a far more equitable social structure are every bit as vulnerable to urban guerrilla warfare as the dark bastions of Iberian culture to the South. To what degree civilian control of the police (and hence, the prohibition of torture) can be sustained in environments increasingly sundered by “romantic” bombings, kidnappings, and acts of historic vandalism is an open question. It is a problem which ought to disturb us every bit as much as Langguth’s melancholy tale of the doings in the police commissaries of Rio, Montevideo, and Belo Horizonte.


1 I have questioned the veracity of this charge elsewhere: “The Uruguay That Never Was: A Historian Looks at Costa-Gavras's State of Siege,” Journal of Latin American Lore, II, 2 (1976), pp. 239-56.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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