Juan Manuel Guillermo Contreras was born on 4 May 1929, son of a middle class military family.
After the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende by the Pinochet military junta on 11 September 1973, General Manuel Contreras was appointed, in 1974, chief of the Army’s Intelligence Service, DINA, set up by the junta on 15 June 1974 with the assignment to crush any opposition.
He held this post up until 1998, a period during which the greatest number of crimes were committed under the military dictatorship of Pinochet. As head of DINA, Contreras was in charge of the detention centres, and directed the break up and suppression of left wing groups by the use of torture, abductions and summary executions.
As a result of this more than a thousand people disappeared without trace. DINA held the major blame for the crimes committed during the dictatorship, particularly for its systematic use of torture; according to the report of the Special Commission on imprisonment and torture transmitted to President Lagos on 11 November 2004. Being the head of DINA, the name of Manuel Contreras appeared in numerous inquiries conducted by several Chilean judges into cases of human rights violations. For several years, these cases could not be brought to a close, due to the application, by the courts, of the amnesty law decree of 18 April 1978, which granted global amnesty for acts committed during the period from 11 September 1973 to 10 March 1978.
DINA and its head, Manuel Contreras, were also considered to be responsible for crimes committed abroad in the context of operation “Condor”. This operation was a coordinated effort, on an international level, against political opponents of the South American dictators. Its first target was the JCR, or Junta for Revolutionary Coordination, set up in August 1973 by extreme left wing organisations in four South American countries namely, Argentina (ERP), Chile (MIR), Uruguay (Tupamaros), Bolivia (ELN). Operation Condor also went after several former members in exile of the Allende government: Orlando Letelier, ex-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carlos Prats, General in Chief of the Armed Forces who preceded Pinochet in this position and Bernardo Leighton the ex-Vice-President.
It is estimated that 79 people were victims of “Condor” whose operations reached a peak in 1976-1977 and carried on through 1987. These operations involved, for the most part, the governments of Argentina and Chile.
Contreras was arrested on 22 September 1991 and subsequently was put on trial for various cases committed whilst he was chief of the DINA.