The Perfectionist

Among the documents released by Wikileaks in 2011, a cable from the American embassy in Montevideo describes a certain “delicate matter” involving a major US corporation:

Medical student Henry Engler was arrested in 1972 and spent the next thirteen years in a Uruguayan prison, including eleven years in solitary confinement. He then moved to Sweden, renewed his studies, and has since become a distinguished researcher and professor in the field of nuclear medicine, with a special interest in the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.

About his involvement with the Tupamaros, Engler recently stated, “As medical students, we were not able to help patients. When we tried to get more resources, the police shot and killed students.” Asked specifically about Mitrione, he said “This information comes from [members of] the military dictatorship in Uruguay, who are in prison today condemned for the disappearing of 200 persons, kidnapping of children, raping and violation of human rights. Which information can you trust?”

Engler was never charged nor convicted of implication in the execution of Daniel Mitrione; evidence supporting the accusations was extracted through torture administered by Uruguayan police officers, often in collaboration with extremist death squads.


So who was Daniel Mitrione, and what was he doing in Uruguay? At the time of his death, White House spokesperson Ron Ziegler said that Mitrione’s “devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere.” Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis performed a concert in benefit of the family, and his widow later told writer and former New York Times reporter A.J. Langguth that her husband was “the perfect man”.

A police officer from a small town in Indiana, Daniel Mitrione joined the FBI in 1959, and soon became a specialist in counter-insurgency while assigned to a branch of the Agency for International Development with the Orwellian designation Office of Public Safety. First in Brazil and later in Uruguay, Mitrione instructed policemen in advanced anti-subversion and torture techniques, while also directly supervising and participating in the extraction of information from high value prisoners and detainees.

Much of what we know about the specifics of Mitrione’s activities comes from a Cuban double agent named Manuel Hevia Cosculluela, who published a memoir in 1978 titled Passaporte 11333, Eight Years with the CIA. Hevia recounts how Mitrione established his interrogation academy in a soundproof cellar. The first course dealt in descriptions of anatomy and the central nervous system. Test subjects were then introduced into the classroom: homeless beggars from the streets of Montevideo, and a woman kidnapped from the Brazilian border. Mitrione demonstrated the effects of different voltages on different parts of the body, techniques he had practiced and refined during his previous assignment in Brazil. According to Hevia, the test subjects all died as a result of these demonstrations; instructional homicide executed by el maestro within the context of a lethal pedagogy.

Hevia also reconstructs in considerable detail an evening in the winter of 1970, a half year before Mitrione was kidnapped. The two met at Mitrione’s house, over drinks. Mitrione considered Hevia a skilled colleague to whom he could confide his fundamental philosophy and passion for perfection in the art of torture. Detailed quotes from this conversation are translated and published in A.J. Langguth’s well researched Hidden Terrors. We submit them for consideration below as a continuous monologue, without any of the intervening commentary from Hevia:

Interrogation is an art. The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount to achieve the effect. Always leave them some hope, a distant light. 

When you get what you want, and I always get it, it might be good to keep the session going a little longer with more hitting and humiliation. Not to get information now but as a political instrument, to scare him away from any further rebel activity. 

When you receive a subject, the first thing to do is determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, through a medical examination. A premature death means a failure of the technician. 

Another important thing to know is exactly how far you can go, given the political situation and the personality of the prisoner. It is very important to know beforehand if we have the luxury of letting the subject die. 

Before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers, in any case. 

You have to act with the efficiency of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist. This is a war to the death. Those people are my enemy. This is a hard job, and someone has to do it. It’s necessary. Since it’s my turn, I am going to do it to perfection. 

If I were a boxer, I would try to be the world champion. But I’m not. But though I’m not, in this profession, my profession, I’m the best.

To be sure, Daniel Mitrione did not introduce the practice of torturing political prisoners to Uruguay, which had been used by the police since the early 1960s, if not before. Yet according to the former Uruguayan Chief of Police Alejandro Otero, in a 1970 interview for a Brazilian newspaper, Mitrione and other US advisors are responsible for making torture more routine, more scientific (based in anatomy and neurology) and more psychologically refined.

“No touch” innovations for inclusion within the Uruguayan Total Theater included playing an audio recording of women and children screaming in an adjacent room, and then telling the prisoner that it was his own family being tortured, and that only he could stop their suffering. An article in the British journal The New Scientist also refers to a device called “the Mitrione vest” which slowly inflates, constricting the breathing of the subject. We have been unable to find any corroborating evidence for the invention or application of this device, which would seem to deliver the same effect as water boarding, but without the inconvenience and sloppiness of the water.

In contrast to Daniel Mitrione’s achievements in the art and science of torture, the distinguished CV for the “nefarious” Dr. Engler is available here.


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