Shielded for decades, Pinochet thugs now face justice

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has called for an end to the “pact of silence” that for more than 25 years has protected those who conducted the reign of terror during the 17 years of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Bachelet herself had been imprisoned and tortured by the Pinochet junta. She said, “There are people who know the truth about many cases that are still unsolved.” She urged those who know to come forward “and help to repair so much pain.”

Encouraged by Bachelet’s words, some people are, indeed, coming forward and recently several of those responsible for torture and murder have been indicted by Chilean courts.

On September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet, then army commander-in-chief, took control of Chile. He led a U.S.-sponsored coup that murdered popularly elected President Salvador Allende and overthrew the governing coalition headed by the Socialist Party. Pinochet ruled Chile until 1990, when he went back to being the commander-in-chief of the army.

To run the economy Pinochet installed “the Chicago boys,” trained by right-wing economist Milton Friedman. Among other things, they restricted labor unions and privatized Social Security. A few corporations made billions, but the standard of living of most Chileans plummeted.

To enforce his rule, Pinochet instituted state terror. Some 3,200 people were killed, 80,000 people were kidnapped and about 30,000 were tortured.

Carmen Quintana, an attaché of the Chilean Embassy in Ottawa recently said, “There is an entire system to cover up human rights crimes of the Pinochet era.”

In 1986, Quintana, then 18, and Rodrigo Rojas, 19, were captured by Chilean soldiers while observing a workers’ strike in Santiago against the Pinochet dictatorship. Rojas, a budding photographer, had been born in Chile but grew up in Washington, DC. He had returned to see the land of his birth.

The soldiers severely beat Rojas and Quintana, doused them with gasoline and left them for dead. They were found by local workers and taken to a hospital.

Quintana was severely disfigured. Rojas died within four days.

The case of “los quemados,” the “burned ones,” brought outrage from human rights groups around the world, but no one was held accountable until two weeks ago.

De-classified papers recently posted by the National Security Archives show that Pinochet, the U.S. State Department, the CIA and President Ronald Reagan knew almost immediately what had happened to Rojas and Quintana.

Nevertheless, Pinochet and his subordinates concocted the story that the two teen-agers had been “terrorists” carrying a Molotov cocktail that accidently blew up. No U.S. official publicly questioned this account.

However, Rojas’ mother, Veronica De Negri, would not let the matter rest. Aided by human rights groups, she kept the case alive for almost 30 years. She herself had been imprisoned, tortured and expelled from Chile by the Pinochet regime. She had settled in Washington in 1977 with her two sons, Rodrigo and Pablo.

De Negri was gratified when Fernando Guzmán, a former soldier, told a judge about a year ago that he saw Julio Castañer a lieutenant in Pinochet’s army, set fire to Rojas and Quintana. Castañer was indicted June 21, along with six former soldiers. At the time of his arrest, Castañer was serving as an assistant chief of staff in a division of Chile’s army. The judge refused to indict 17 other soldiers who had participated in the crime.

Meanwhile, a Chilean court has indicted 10 former army officers for the 1973 torture and murder of Victor Jara, a world-renowned singer-songwriter and poet. The officers had cut off Jara’s fingers and beaten him.  What’s more, a U.S. court has ruled that the man identified as the killer, former lieutenant Pedro Barrientos, could be prosecuted in the U.S. under a suit brought by Jara’s family. For many years, U.S. courts had protected Barrientos from having to stand trial in Chile. He had moved to Florida in 1989 and was immediately given U.S. citizenship.

Furthermore, a Chilean court has ruled that “the military intelligence services of the United States had a fundamental role in the creation of the murders of the two American citizens in 1973, providing Chilean military officers with the information that led to their deaths.” The Americans were journalist Charles Horman and student Frank Teruggi. The court ruling paves the way for new trials.

Despite all these measures aimed at bringing Pinochet’s thugs to justice, fear of retribution for speaking out is still strong. Fernando Guzmán, the former soldier who gave evidence against those who killed Rojas and maimed Quintana, says he is afraid for his life.

Veronica De Negri says that although the pact of silence has been cracked, it remains very strong. “Some who participated in these events continue to lie today,” she said, “and continue to blame the victims of crimes.”

De Negri  has announced that “after we finish with the case of Rodrigo, I’m going to start pushing my own. The soldiers who hurt me have never been punished.” 

She is currently in Chile to make sure that the wheels of justice continue to turn.

Photo: Those involved in and responsible for the military takeover of Chile in 1973 are facing justice.  |  AP


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.