Juan José Torres was a Bolivian general who later served as the 61st President of his country. He was not elected, but rather was handed the office by his predecessor, Alfredo Ovando. After serving only ten months, Torres was deposed by Colonel Hugo Banzer, who would go on to lead a military government until 1978. General Torres was assassinated in exile in Buenos Aires
, Argentina in 1976 in what is widely believed to be an Operation Condor mission.
Torres was born in 1920 into a poor family in the city of Cochabamba. He was barely in his teens when his father was killed in the Chaco War (1932-1935), fought between Bolivia and Paraguay. Young Juan José was therefore responsible for his six siblings and widowed mother. He joined the military and rose quickly in rank. He served as military attaché in the Bolivian embassy in Brazil and was himself named ambassador to Uruguay in 1965.
Entry into Politics:
Bolivia had been under military rule since 1964, and the intelligent, hardworking Torres was tasked with a number of jobs. He served as Minister of Labor and Chairman of all Bolivian Armed Forces. In 1969, General Alfredo Ovando seized power from the other generals. Ovando was a liberal who wanted to see many reforms in Bolivia, and the like-minded Torres became his right-hand man. Together they empowered unions of workers and miners and nationalized key industries.
Ovando and Torres:
Ovando held onto power for a chaotic 13 months. In September, 1970, liberals and conservatives fought in the streets, including different military units. Ovando decided to hand over the reins of power to the steady Torres, who continued Ovando’s efforts to create a socialist Bolivia. General Torres himself was only in office for ten months, when a coalition of rightist military commanders forced him to step down in August of 1971. These forces were led by Colonel Hugo Banzer, who went on to become dictator for several years. Torres was forced into exile in Argentina.
Torres in Argentina:
Torres was not idle while in Argentina. He worked to undermine Banzer on two different levels. First of all, he worked with politicians to put pressure on the military government to step down, creating a coalition of leftist parties and groups called the ALIN (Alianza de la Izquierda Nacional, or National Leftist Alliance). Meanwhile, he was working with the JCR (Junta Coordinadora Revolucionaria, or Revolutionary Co-ordinating Junta), a shadowy alliance of Marxist and left-wing insurgency groups, including the Tupamaros
in Uruguay and the Bolivian National People’s Army (ELN).
Torres Makes his Move:
While Torres stayed in Buenos Aires, his aide Major Rubén Sánchez slipped back into Bolivia to stir up the revolution. Sánchez, at the head of about 150 armed members of the ELN, was making progress among disgruntled miners in Cochabamba Province. As the rebel army grew, Torres decided it was time to go underground, return to Bolivia, and take control of the insurrection personally. In May of 1976 he was contacting Bolivian army officers to gauge support and making plans to smuggle his family back into Bolivia.
On June 1, 1976, Torres was walking through downtown Buenos Aires with a friend. They said good-bye and went their separate ways: Torres was on the way to his office. At this point he vanished. The next day, his body was found under a bridge outside of Buenos Aires: he had been shot three times, including once in the head. It is widely believed that his murder was carried out by Argentine security forces working for President Jorge Videla, although the governments of Argentina and Bolivia both denied any responsibility.
Although the governments of Bolivia and Argentina both denied any involvement in his murder, it is likely that the assassination of General Torres was an Operation Condor mission. Operation Condor was a codename for cooperation between the right-wing military governments of several South American countries, including Argentina and Bolivia. The administrations of Videla in Argentina and Banzer in Bolivia knew what Torres was up to, having captured and tortured insurgents working with the deposed General. It is likely that Banzer asked a favor of his Argentine counterpart and the troublesome Torres was eliminated.
With Torres gone, the revolution sputtered in Bolivia and Banzer was able to hold onto power until 1978, when he was forced to allow a return to democracy in Bolivia. The ELN fought on for a while, but without a viable leader to take Torres' place it, too, fizzled.
Although he ruled for a relatively short time, General Torres is still revered by many of Bolivia's poor, who saw him as a sort of political Robin Hood: a man who dared to go against the strong, entrenched wealthy class for the benefit of the destitute. When his body was sent back to Bolivia in 1983, the state funeral was attended by throngs of poor workers and miners.
Source: Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents New York: The New Press, 2004.