I understand there is some sort of election coming up but I'm still thinking that Uruguay in the 1970s is more interesting and has more to say about our grand democracy than whatever those fellas in suits are saying on the teevee set. So: more on Dan Mitrione. In my last entry, I mentioned a book written by a defected (not sure that's the right word, but it'll do) Cuban CIA operative/double agent. Pasaporte 11333, it's called, authored by Manuel Hevia Cosculluela in 1972. This one is also hard to find—my copy was published in 1988 by Túpac Amaru Editorial, Montevideo—and, shockingly, hasn't found a US publisher or even an amateur online translator. No volume I've encountered in English quotes (or, often, misquotes) more than a line or two, so I took the liberty of translating (quickly, inelegantly) a few of the longer sections dealing with Mitrione and the classes in interrogation that he offered to a select group of Uruguayan police and military officials. I’ll begin on page 239:
We had obtained a house in Malvín that met all the minimum requirements: basement adaptable into a mini-amphitheater, sound-proof insulation, garage with an interior door to the house, and distant neighbors.
From that moment on, Mitrione began to transform himself into a perfectionist. He would check everything personally, down to each part of the electrical installation! We returned once more to the house. I had to play a record player at high volume in the basement—he loved Hawaiian music—while he sat in the living room, satisfied that he couldn't hear anything. Even that wasn't enough. We had to fire a magnum too.
"Good, very good," he said. "That time I heard absolutely nothing. Now you stay here while I go down to the basement..." And on and on.
The classes began suggestively: anatomy and the description of the human nervous system, psychology of the fugitive and psychology of the detained, social prophylaxis—I never figured out what that consisted of and always considered it an elegant euphemism to avoid a more severe term.
Soon things took a disagreeable turn. As subjects of the first tests, he used three beggars (known in Uruguay as bichicomes), residents of the suburbs of Montevideo, as well as one woman, apparently from the area of the Brazilian border. There was no interrogation, just a demonstration of the effects of different voltages on human body parts, as well as an example of an emetic—I don't know why or for what—and one other chemical substance.
All four died.
... what gave it an air of unreality, of particular horror, was Mitrione's cold, composed efficiency: his vocation as a teacher, his attention to detail, the exactitude of his movements, the cleanliness and hygiene that he demanded of everyone, as if we were in the operating room of a modern hospital.
He insisted on economy of effort, as he called it. No useless expenditure. No movement out of place. That’s what the earlier softening session was for. So that every action might be directed toward the final goal of obtaining information. He was annoyed by the relish with which [Colonel] Buda manipulated male genitalia. He found the vulgar language used by [founder of the Uruguayan Office of Information and Intelligence José Pedro] Macchi shocking. “Commissioner,” he would say, “it is more appropriate if we refer to those parts by their correct names. I beg you to maintain the dignity and discipline of a good police officer."
As the classes continued, interrogations carried out by students at police headquarters were also discussed, and successes and errors pointed out. Gradually the classes on Calle Rivera reached a level of frightfulness within that atmosphere of clinical detachment. With time, they ended up carrying out real interrogations there. …
In the damp Uruguayan winter of 1970 I had the rare opportunity to break through Dan Mitrione’s laconic barrier. I had arrived in Maldonado a little late, so instead of heading to the embassy, I called him at his house. He asked me to come see him.
We sat across from one another in a little room in his comfortable home. I still don’t know what his motive was for asking me to come see him. For three hours we limited ourselves to drinking a few drinks and talking about his philosophy of life.
Mitrione considered interrogation a complex art. First one had to carry out a period of softening, with all the usual blows and taunts. The goal pursued consisted of humiliating the captive, making him understand his state of defenselessness, disconnecting him from reality. No questions, just blows and insults. Then exclusively blows in silence.
Only after all that came the interrogation. Here one must not produce any pain other than the one caused by the instrument that one is using.
“The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise proportion chosen to that end.”
During the session it was essential to prevent the subject from losing all hope of living, which might make him pig-headed.
“One must always leave them some hope, some remote light.”
“When the objective is attained, and I always attain it,” he told me, “it can be opportune to continue the session a little longer, or apply another round of softening, not to extract information anymore, but as a political weapon, a warning to create a healthy fear of meddling in subversive activities.”
Later he expressed to me how, on receiving a subject, the first thing that he did was determine their physical condition, their degree of resistance, by means of an exhaustive medical exam.
“A premature death,” he stressed, “would mean the failure of the technique.”
Another important question consisted in knowing for certain how far you could go according to the political situation and the personality of the prisoner. Dan went on, delusional. He needed an audience and had found one in me. And he continued: “It’s crucial to know in advance if we can permit ourselves the luxury of the subject dying.” That was the only time in all those months that I saw his flat, plastic eyes take on a little shine.
Finally, he concluded: “But above all, efficiency. Causing only the damage that’s strictly necessary, not an iota more. In no case letting ourselves get carried away by rage. Acting with the efficacy and cleanliness of a surgeon, with the perfection of an artist. This is a war to the death. That person is my enemy. This is a hard job, someone has to do it, it’s necessary. Now that it’s my turn, I’m going to do it to perfection. If I were a boxer, I’d try to be the world champion, but I’m not. Nonetheless, in this profession, my profession, I’m the best.”
It was our last conversation. Before I left, I saw Dan Mitrione one more time, but we no longer had anything to say.
Mitrione! His personal importance has been exaggerated. He represents the Uruguayan version of the process of Vietnamization. That is, training the native forces addicted to imperialism to assume the defense of the system, so that the dirty work, the bloodiest aspects, fall on them. That way they evade criticism, minimize the loss of prestige, and the dead don’t turn up in Chicago, Hartford, or Denver, but among the local lumpen. With Mitrione the training policy reached its culmination. … This wasn’t an isolated case of peculiar perversity but, as he himself admitted, the routine labor of a specialist. Any other advisor would have done the same. It was part of the program. This is what should be emphasized. This is what is especially repugnant.