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The Technology of Terror – South America in the 70s and 80s

Terrorism the world over poses a threat to the lives of Foreign Service Officers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s terrorist groups threatened the safety of FSOs serving in South America. In Argentina, two such groups, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Montoneros, resorted to armed resistance 1969-1970 in response to the regime of Juan Carlos Onganía. The ERP was a Marxist group with the goal of establishing socialism in Argentina. Active in Tucuman and Buenos Aires, its members resorted to kidnapping people as well as sabotaging the police and military outposts. Like the ERP, the leftist Montoneros also operated in urban areas and were known for political kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings of police and military outposts. The Montoneros worked to bring about the return of exiled former president Juan Peron; ironically, upon his return, Peron distanced himself from the group. Peron proceeded to form close relationships with right wing groups which prompted the Montoneros to resort to political violence.

Colombia also has a long history of terrorism not only with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but also with narcotraffickers who conduct illicit drug trade throughout the country. These traffickers were constantly fighting the Colombian military as well as U.S. efforts to combat the drug trade during the 1980s. The United States fought to stop the flow of cocaine from the Medellin and other prominent cartels, into the U.S. by working with police in Colombia and bringing in Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. Actions to undermine American intervention in the drug trade included blowing up police stations and attacking U.S. buildings in Bogota.

Despite the danger present in Argentina and Colombia, U.S. Foreign Service Officers continued to do their jobs. John Edgar Williams, the Commercial Attaché for Buenos Aires from 1970-1975, was interviewed by Dr. Anne R. Phillips in April 1995. J Phillip McLean, the Deputy Chief of Mission, Bogota, Colombia from 1984 to 1987 was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in January 1999.

 To read more about countering drug trafficking, South America, serving at dangerous posts, or another account of the Colombian drug war, please follow the links.


“There were all kinds of other attempts, some successful, on both American diplomatic personnel and American business people”

John Edgar Williams, Commercial Attaché, Buenos Aires, 1970-1975

WILLIAMS:  I’ll begin with what I considered to be my principal mission in Buenos Aires. Despite the fact that… there was a lot of terrorism going on and we were possible targets of it… commercial work had to go on. As I mentioned, the Deputy Chief of my own section, my number two man was directly targeted, but fortunately we spotted it before anything serious could happen to him. There were all kinds of other attempts, some successful, on both American diplomatic personnel and American business people. Not just Americans either, but British, Italian, anybody who represented capitalism and the “evil multinationals”….

There were actually two terrorist groups. One of them was a Maoist and Fidelista group [the ERP]. I won’t give my political science lecture on the difference between them, but the other one was the Montoneros. It came out of a radical fringe of the Catholic Church. They were responsible for kidnapping a former Argentine president [Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, in office 1955-1958] in 1970. That was the first major act of terrorism in Argentina. It had already started in Uruguay and Southern Brazil.

The surveillance on this ex-president was conducted out of a Catholic monastery which was diagonally across the street from where he lived. There were monks and students there who were directly involved; they were the people who were doing this. It was all “liberation theology”. These people would go around saying, “If Christ were here among us today he would be out here with us with his backpack and rifle, fighting against imperialism and the multinationals.” Anyway, that made our work more difficult….Aside from the kidnaping of the former President…  [major terrorist activity] started really in ’72 I guess. It started getting got bad in ’72. So, from ’72, until after we left in ’75, it was pretty bad….

The Ambassador came down very heavily on the side of those that wanted permission to carry guns

Among other things, we were supposed to vary our routes and our times of coming to the office and leaving the office, but especially going to the office in the morning. In my office, I had to work up a little schedule. I’d say, “Tomorrow, Charlie, you come in late, and Jim you come in early. That kind of thing. And, I’ll be here about such and such a time.” But we had to vary it a lot so they would not be able to pick up on us so easily….

It [the terrorist threat] was always in the back of our minds. For four of my five years there, I carried a gun every day. There was a little dispute over that in the Embassy at first because the F.B.I. guy and a couple of the military people there thought that us civilians shouldn’t be carrying guns around, because we don’t know how to use ’em. I said, “I’ll take you fellows out on the target range any day and compete with you.”

Anyway, I felt, as did many of us, that we wanted to… have an option in case there arose circumstances in which somebody tried to get at us and we did have a chance to defend ourselves. The Ambassador came down very heavily on the side of those that wanted permission to carry guns.

Our lives were on the line and we had a request in — the Administrative Officer and I put in a request for a danger pay differential… which Washington sat on for three years. It finally came through after I left. They approved a twenty-five percent differential…. We’d send a reminder every time there was an incident involving one of our people, the Air Attaches house gets burned down or whatever. You see, this was the kind of danger we were exposed to. They would ask whether anybody got hurt. More often than not, nobody actually got killed or hurt. Anyway, that was the kind of thing we faced from Washington….

Every day you just had to — not put it out of your mind — I wouldn’t say put it out of your mind. I would say at certain times of the day you had to be thinking about it very carefully, but when you got to the office, try to put it aside. We had to be very aware of our surroundings at all times. That’s what I always tell people now, especially women who live alone or who travel alone a lot. You need to be aware of your surroundings….  Be alert to what’s going on around you. If you see somebody that’s suspicious, don’t think, “Oh well, I’m just being too sensitive or I’m being paranoid.” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you….

We had to be alert. Then one time I remember, we got an intelligence report that one of the gangs, I forget whether it was the E.R.P. or the Montoneros, was going to try to infiltrate the Embassy, and shoot somebody or do something like that, or perhaps kidnap somebody, through either the consular section or the commercial section because we had to be open to the public. If a business man or someone wanted to come in to my office, I couldn’t just refuse to receive him.

So, for a while there, we took it seriously. I had a .45 automatic under my desk. I had it fixed up with a little nail brace so that it was under the desk where it couldn’t be seen from the front, but where I could get at it easily if it turned out that somebody was trying to do something to me. Again, it would give me an option, you know, if all of a sudden I looked up and I saw myself gazing down the muzzle of an Uzi or something.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily try to shoot it out with him, but if I saw something to indicate that something funny was happening, I could get my hand on the gun fairly easy and unnoticeably. Fortunately, I never had to use that. In fact, only one time did I ever have a gun pointed at anybody that I thought that I was going to have to shoot. But it turned out that I didn’t have to shoot him.

I had an M-1 Carbine very handy. So, I grabbed it and I aimed at that guy’s back

My wife and I lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building overlooking a park. Right below us, there was a T-junction. A street came down the side and T’d at the park. I wasn’t driving to the office. What I would do was to walk down to a main street which was just about a block away and take a bus there, well usually take a bus to the end of the metro line, the subte they call it, and then take the subway from there on in.

Anyway, my deputy lived about a half a block up the street from me in another apartment building. After the terrorism got bad I made a habit of going out on my balcony every morning before leaving for the office and I’d just look around. I’d take my field glasses with me and just look around the area to see if I saw anything unusual. I had some shrubbery around so I wasn’t all that highly visible, I could get behind the shrubbery and do a little surveillance.

So, one morning, I saw right down on the corner below me a guy standing there reading a magazine. Reading a magazine at 7:45 in the morning, standing here on this corner? There was no taxi stand, no bus stop, no nothing right there. So, I thought this was very strange. I watched him for a while and then all of a sudden he put the magazine under his arm and took off across the street.

I saw my deputy walking down the other side of the street and the man fell in about ten yards behind him. I had an M-1 Carbine very handy. So, I grabbed it and I aimed at that guy’s back, because I thought what was going to happen was that a car was going to pull up beside Peter and this guy was going to try to force Peter into the car, in which case I would have killed him.

But, fortunately that did not happen. He followed Peter on down to the corner…. [Peter] normally did… the same thing I did: took the bus, the fifty-five bus. That morning, however, he hailed a taxi and I could see the guy looking around waving and desperately looking for another taxi. He wanted to follow Peter, obviously. But, he didn’t find another taxi. Taxis were hard to come by at that time of morning. So, he turned around and came back up the street and there I was with my seven power field glasses and I got a good look at him.

I subsequently picked him out of a mug book. He was a member of the ERP. So, I told Peter to take two weeks leave, go somewhere, [and] break this up. The CIA guys who were in contact with Argentine Intelligence said this sounded like about the second week of a three-week surveillance, because that was their normal practice, a surveillance lasting about three weeks on somebody whom they had intended to kidnap. This sounded like about the end of the second week. So, fortunately it wasn’t the end of the third week, because if I’d had to kill that guy then of course I’d [have] been in danger….

“To sit there and know you are targets for these people is infuriating

Anyway, that was the only incident — actually — no, I just thought of another involving this same guy, Peter. This was months later. Peter called me up and said, “Ed, take a look from your balcony and look out in front on the grass bank of the park, in front of my apartment building and see what you see.” So, I went out with my field glasses and parted the shrubbery and looked over there and there were about a half dozen university-age people sitting on that grass bank. It looked like they were just sitting there not doing anything.

Then, I went back to the phone and I said, “Yeah, I see a bunch of people, a bunch of university types. They’re sitting out on the bank there.” He said, “Now look, watch what happens when I come out on the balcony.” So, he went out on his balcony and immediately they all started chatting with each other and smiling and joking and everything and then he went back in and all of this stopped. They sat there and just looked.

So, I said, “Peter, they may be planning something, why don’t you come down here?” He didn’t have a gun. I said, “Come down here and I’ll give you a gun.” So, he walked down and by the time he got to my place, they had vanished. We didn’t see them anymore in that particular place. Anyway, I gave him a gun and I got my gun and we put them under our jackets and walked out just to see if we could get a little closer look at some of them to see if we could identify them.

We walked over into the park, keeping a close eye out and we didn’t see any of them. All the ones we had seen there had disappeared. Apparently, they still had some kind of designs on him but, why HIM, we couldn’t figure out. Why him and not me? I was the Commercial Attache and he was the Assistant Commercial Attache. So, I really couldn’t figure out why him specifically, rather than me or someone else. Shortly after that, his tour of duty was up and he left the country….

Anyway, we told this to somebody and they said, “You fools, you’re going out there in a park with guns looking for terrorists.” Well, I guess maybe we were foolish. But, we just felt — I mean psychologically to sit there and know you are targets for these people is infuriating. They want to get you. I just felt like I wanted to do something. I’m not exactly an amateur with a gun. Peter was, but he knew enough about how to use one so that he could have defended himself. I just felt like I didn’t want to sit there and see these people just getting away with this.

“We were out playing tennis and suddenly guns went off”

Phillip McLean, Deputy Chief of Mission, Bogota, Colombia, 1984-1987

MCLEAN: The security problem had already been building up in previous years. By the time I got there, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] himself was already much more highly protected than most ambassadors were. It’s something that bothered me as a newly single person a little bit, but after a while I got used to it, and it was part of our life. I had bodyguards with me at all times. My apartment had bodyguards. We trained continuously so I would make sure I knew how to use the guns that I had at the apartment, and we trained also on the road and how we would handle ourselves.

I had an armored car. When I first got there, my armored car was painted yellow, and I said, “That’s very strange. Why is it painted yellow? That would draw a lot of attention.” They said, “Oh, we repainted it. It used to be painted red.” I had it painted sort of cream color. We were very interested in everyone in the embassy’s security….

I had drummed into myself the ideas of varying your routes and times and all that. But a big problem was making sure that the embassy, which was beginning to grow… [Knew] how to get… [The new personnel] to take care of themselves, so we involved it in training, we involved it in having regular security meetings. I adapted a security style…. I adopted a system that said, “Let’s spend the first half of this meeting discussing what is the threat. What are we being threatened by?” And each of these meetings usually was because we had some new threat information. And then we would discuss it until everyone got comfortable that they understood what we were being threatened with.

Then I took the second half of the meeting to discuss how… you design a response to those particular threats…. And that worked pretty well. It worked both in terms of being able to have out of each of those meetings a telegram that showed Washington that we were looking hard at each and every threat and all the possibilities that were coming up, but it also showed programmatically what we were doing, which was changing our profile, getting DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) not always to go to the same bar every night.

We adopted a system where my people were driven to and from work, and their pick-ups in the mornings were randomly chosen. We had a computer program that would generate on a random basis the schedule for each person so that they weren’t picked up at the same time every day, and design the routes for the vans to pick people up. At various times we had additional guards that we put on to our people. We built up the diplomatic security unit. I think it had 12 people at the maximum.

I think most of the things were basically trying to drum into people to be aware of it without trying to scare them. We limited travel. At that time nobody could go to Medellin…. There was at least a minor exception or two that was unauthorized by certain agencies, but by and large we kept to it…. We even had a live fire exercise one time. We were out playing tennis and suddenly guns went off. I thought that was a bit extreme. We all hit the grounds and we did an exit, just to make sure we knew what we were doing. One of the more interesting and effective things I think we did was the Department of State would send down teams that would do fantasize exercises and crisis exercises that I think were very useful in terms of getting us to work together.

“I can remember twice hearing very major explosions and … and seeing these big mushroom clouds rise up

Eventually we did counter-surveillance teams because we were getting so many [threats]… we actually… had two rocket attacks. One was not effective at all; it was a made-up piece, broke some windows. But one was an anti-tank rocket that luckily went off after hours and hit a piece of concrete up on the top side of the building. We dismissed it at the time, but the next morning when people went into that area of the upstairs, they discovered that there was a small hole but it had blasted, like anti-tank weapons do, through the inside and would have killed people….

We had a counter surveillance team we brought in one time. I was a little reluctant to have that, but… you’ve got to do everything. There was a tendency, if security people told you [that] you had to do things, there was a tendency to say, “Okay, we’ve got to do that.” It’s hard to pull them back a little bit. But I will say in that particular case, after they had been there for several days, they brought the camera to me, and rewound the camera so you could look in and see what the camera had seen, and they showed me how the ambassador had been surveilled, and you could see people at certain places looking and taking notes and the rest of it.

And then they said, “Look here. Here’s your car. See what happens. Your car comes in. See this guy over here. He walks up, and the next day when you come by and see that same person walks up,” and I said, “Yes, yes.” I remember I put down the camera and I began to talk, and yet no sound came out. My voice is very light anyway, but I had no liquid in my throat anymore. But you recognize the fact that these things you’re always thinking of, in fact they’re very real, something was taking place. So it was a constant concern….

The narcotics traffickers had decided to launch a reign of terror to scare the government and to get them to stop the policies of extradition. So there were periods when you would wake up in the night and hear bam-bam-bam-bam as the bombs went off in various parts of the city. I can remember twice hearing very major explosions and going to the curtains–I had a penthouse apartment that looked over the city–and seeing these big mushroom clouds rise up.

One of them was the newspaper, a major newspaper, El Espectador; and another was one that was on… the principal route you used on the way to the embassy just below my apartment. I later met a lady whose father was blown apart in that bombing. And there was a third one in which the secret police’s, Colombia’s FBI’s, headquarters had blown apart leaving a hole greater than the size of this room in the pavement, breaking the back of the building….

So the next day I went over to see the chief of police who was determined that he was going to stay in the building. So he stayed in this building, locked in. It was like walking into a building under construction. The plaster and tiles from the halls and stairways had just been torn off. We walked up, and way in the back of the building we found this guy seated and determined to hold on and to give us a sign that he wasn’t going to be threatened by this.

The explosion blew up and blew away and destroyed other buildings nearby including a piece of the debris [which] landed [on] and destroyed a warehouse where we were at that time working on armoring vehicles for the judges. It was one of the programs that we were doing, and we were secretly putting this armory together, but it was one of the ironies that this debris landed on the very building and we had to start all over again.

 “I watched the technology of terror increase during the time I was there”

I think we did pretty well. Clearly we didn’t get on the ground as much as we would have in a place like Medellin, and I think that threw off a little bit our interpretation of events, but we traveled pretty widely through the country. You know, you only had volunteers there. It was a constant question I was always being asked by the press… ”Aren’t you putting people in danger?” In fact, I remember one night CBS stood in front of the embassy and said, “The people in this building are in danger,” and that night my daughter calls me from Seattle saying, “Daddy, are you all right?”

But, no, we tried to function pretty normally, and I think we did…. Generally I think we tried to show that we could do the job but we were prepared to take people out, prepared to shut the embassy down if that was what it came to. As I say, there was always this tension on the diplomatic security side of things to always want to take a further step. I would often have to say, “Well, okay, are you ready to take these consequences? If you are not, then you have to put it against what are the dangers, because we’re not going to lose anybody in this operation,” and in fact I’m proud to say that in the whole time that I was involved in it from Andean Affairs to the time that I left being Deputy Assistant Secretary, to have anything to do Colombia, there were no Americans killed or kidnapped even though the threats were continuous….

They [the terrorists] were aiming at those of us who were somewhat more visible. That was the threat information we had at the time. But I never denied that it could happen. It was just that we tried to take all measures that would keep it from happening. You had some people in the embassy who chose to be there for the wrong reasons. We had danger pay, so they stayed basically in their apartments and didn’t do anything.

But the majority of them, vice consuls particularly… [were] very eager… to do the job but also to protect themselves. I’d let them go to all sorts of parts of the country. There was a vice consul in Barranquilla. When she did get picked up on, we were threatened and we pulled her out. But by and large, people went out and tried to do their jobs…. I think the people understood that this was serious… and we kept reminding people to think about what they were doing…. It was dangerous.

I watched the technology of terror increase during the time I was there from bombs that would go off as people passed to finally we had these types of ANFO, ammonium nitrate fuel oil combinations, the type of thing that went off in Oklahoma City. We had two of those that went off and one that didn’t go off but was identified and defused before it happened. I guess the fuse didn’t work, the dynamite that was supposed to set it off. That one, which was a truck bomb parked inside of the neighborhood, would have hurt some of our people if it had gone off, so you can’t say it couldn’t have happened, but you try to lower the possibility as much as possible.