SANTIAGO, CHILE — It is clear that former state-employed torturers have become emboldened since the electoral triumph of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. While last year’s presidential election illustrated the Chilean left’s disillusion with the center-left coalitions — resulting in a low voter turnout and a right-wing victory — for Chilean memory groups, the events now unfolding in the wake of that victory constitute a severe threat to Chile’s collective memory, the quest for justice, and the constant efforts to discover the fate of the disappeared. It also signals a new wave of impunity, in which the state and courts are collaborating to silence the ongoing memory struggle.
Memory groups are mobilizing against the current tide, which is seeking, politically and judicially, to eliminate the right of victim survivors and relatives of the Chilean disappeared to demand answers, or changes, to governmental decisions that affect the struggle for memory.
As a result of mobilization among memory groups, the past weeks saw the newly-appointed Minister of Culture Mauricio Rojas resign from his position within three days. Thousands of Chileans protested against his appointment, announced on August 10, on grounds of his comments made in 2015, revisited by Chilean newspaper La Tercera, in which he claimed that Santiago’s Museo de la Memoria (Museum of Memory) is a fabrication of history. By August 13, Rojas handed his resignation to President Pinera.
While the insults hurled against Chilean memory were the prime reason for the collective mobilization against Rojas, claims that he formed part of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) were also heavily disputed. In an interview published in El Desconcierto, MIR’s former secretary general, Andres Pascal Allende, spoke about Rojas possibly harboring some left-wing sympathies through the influence of his mother, who was a socialist. However, he refuted the claims that Rojas ever formed part of the militant movement.
Rojas’s transient stint as culture minister occurred at a time when right-wing President Sebastian Pinera was seeking to implement the late dictator Augusto Pinochet’s request that Chileans “forget” the crimes against humanity that happened during the U.S.-backed dictatorship. As Chile nears its 45th anniversary since the socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown, former National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) and National Information Centre (CNI) agents are being released from prison on parole, despite having been handed multiple lengthy prison sentences; while, on the other hand, investigative journalist and author Javier Rebolledo faced charges of calumny by a former DINA torturer who is currently imprisoned in the luxury prison of Punta Peuco.
There is a growing concern that all imprisoned torturers and agents involved in human-rights violation during the Pinochet dictatorship will be allowed to walk free by 2022 — the reason being that Chilean law does not distinguish between common crime and crimes against humanity. Behind this impunity lies a web of U.S. involvement, notably through the CIA, which intervened in Chile after coming to the conclusion that Allende’s presidency would succeed
U.S. and CIA involvement in Plan Condor
Chile voted calmly and knowingly to have a Marxist-Leninist state. The first nation in the world to make this choice freely and knowingly … There is no reason to believe that the Chilean armed forces will unleash a civil war or that any other intervening miracle will undo his victory.”
This is the first observation communicated, on September 5, 1970, by the former U.S. Ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry, who also commented in the same cable about how Salvador Allende had managed to achieve a revolutionary victory without the guerrilla tactics utilized by Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Within 10 days — by September 15, 1970 — former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Richard Helms and U.S.President Richard Nixon had drawn up the preliminary, covert plans to overthrow Allende’s democratically-elected government. A declassified memorandum shows how the U.S. planned to counter possible moves by Allende in ways that would isolate the country both diplomatically and economically. One planned strategy was to offer military aid and internal security assistance to South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay, “based on the threat of Chilean-exported subversion.” The group of countries, including Chile, participated in the U.S-backed operation known as Plan Condor, in which the group of South American governments collaborated to exterminate left-wing opponents.
In the region and within its frontiers, Chile was at the helm of unleashing horrors as a result of the U.S.-backed dictatorship. Collaboration among the Chilean military, the U.S. government, and the CIA resulted in the detention, torture, extermination and disappearance of left-wing adherents and militants. According to the Valech and Rettig Reports, 27,255 Chileans were tortured and 2,279 executed and disappeared. The latter — tortured detainees destined for extermination and disappearance — were usually packaged, weighted down with metal rails, and disposed of into the ocean from helicopters.
This method of disappearance was copied by Argentina during the Videla dictatorship. Research by Giancarlo Ceraudo, published in a book of testimony and photographs titled “Destino Final,” records Argentinian Admiral Luis Maria Mendia as having stated:
The political situation made it unacceptable to present firing squads to the international public eye, and that the experience of Chile’s military government and its reclusiveness indicated that this was the best method of execution.”
Last May, a Chilean retired military officer identified former DINA agent and torturer Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko as having disposed of three MIR militants from a PUMA helicopter flight that departed from Rocas de Santo Domingo.
The return to democracy has failed to support Chilean collective memory
Lissette Fossa, a journalist from Londres38, spoke to MintPress about how subsequent governments after Chile’s return to democracy remained tied to the dictatorship’s legacy:
The Concertacion governments generated a transition pact with the dictatorial regime and its allies, resulting in an inability to pursue truth and justice. In the words of former President Patricio Aylwin, ‘to do justice to what extent is possible.’”
Fossa noted that the Valech commission has been required, by law, to keep victim testimonies as classified information for 50 years. Meanwhile, most court sentences for human rights violations are not proportional to the committed crimes, while the imprisoned perpetrators receive many benefits in prison. She added:
We have information that only about 10 percent of dictatorship-era state agents have been tried and detained. This has made it easier for Pinera’s government to release criminals under the guise of benefits or parole.”
One major demand from the Chilean left-wing public was to close down Punta Peuco — the luxury five-star prison that houses convicted torturers from DINA and CNI. Despite pledging to close the prison and transfer inmates to ordinary jails, former President Michelle Bachelet — who was herself a torture victim and whose father was murdered by the Pinochet dictatorship — ultimately reneged on her promise, which she had made to Carmen Gloria Quintana. During a protest against the dictatorship — on July 2, 1986 — seven Chilean military officers doused Quintana and Rodrigo Rojas de Negri with petrol and set them on fire. Rojas died of severe burns while Quintana remained heavily scarred for life.
Last July, the Chilean Supreme Court granted provisional liberty to seven former dictatorship agents imprisoned in Punta Peuco. Two agents, Moises Retamal Bustos and Manuel Antonio Perez Santillan, were students at the School of the Americas (SOA), a U.S. army facility that trained thousands of Latin American personnel whose names have surfaced as torturers and assassins over the years. The facility is now run by the U.S. Defense Department and known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Santillan was sentenced two years ago for his role in covering up the murder of former DINA biochemist Eugenio Berrios, who was tasked — along with U.S. citizen, CIA and DINA agent Michael Townley — with the production of sarin gas.
Another of the released agents, Emilio De la Mahotiere Gonzalez, formed part of the Caravan of Death squads under the supervision of Sergio Arellano Stark, by which at least 75 Chileans were brutally murdered between September 30 and October 22, 1973 — the aim being to terrorize Chileans and thus prevent revolt against the dictatorship.
According to the conducted psychological and behavioral analysis, none of the seven inmates has demonstrated any remorse or acknowledgement of their crimes against humanity.
In October 2017, it was reported that DINA’s worst torturer, Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko, as well as CNI chief Alvaro Corbalan, had petitioned the Santiago Court of Appeals for parole. In the wake of the released inmates from Punta Peuco, which is also Krassnoff’s current location, defense lawyer Raul Meza, who represents Punta Peuco’s inmates, stated: “I am convinced that Miguel Krassnoff is innocent.” Krassnoff is currently serving 642 years for crimes against humanity.
Fossa emphasised the repercussions of such a possibility:
Londres38 considers the possible release of Krassnoff as extremely serious. He is responsible for hundreds of killings and disappearances. His image is symbolic due to the calculated cruelty and coldness in his crimes, apart from never showing the slightest remorse or the intent to collaborate. Releasing Krassnoff would have severe implications for Chile’s justice system — it would constitute an undeniable advancing of impunity. The current court decisions reflect a vision that does not take into account the severity of crimes against humanity and their consequences.”
More than a year ago, Londres38 launched the campaign “Toda la Verdad, Toda la Justicia” (All Truth, All Justice). Fossa explains:
We launched this campaign because we believe that impunity is a phenomenon that affects all of society in many ways, not only the families of the detained, disappeared and executed. The campaign aimed to raise awareness about the fact that only 10 percent of the dictatorship criminals are in prison, while we do not know the whereabouts of many of the disappeared.”
Other crimes in Chile have gone unpunished, such as the case of the three detained and disappeared during democracy — the case of Jose Huenate, Hugo Arispe and Jose Vergara, as well as other crimes against the Mapuche in Southern Chile. Allowing past crimes to remain unpunished generates a society where new crimes are not investigated and where popular power is obscured and repressed in favor of the most powerful.”
Francisco Estevez, the Director of Museo de la Memoria, explained to MintPress how the decision to release the seven former torturers and agents affects “the international commitment of the State of Chile to comply with seeking full justice with regard to crimes against humanity committed during the Pinochet dictatorship. When the state is involved in violating the rights of its citizens, it must be treated with different criteria than if it were a common crime.”
The UN Human Rights Commission, Estevez states, requires of states the responsibility and duty to remember situations of systematic human-rights violations. The Chilean Supreme Court’s decision “clearly runs contrary to these international guidelines, since there are more than 2,200 victims of forced disappearance and the remains of only 100 have been discovered.”
Building upon the slogan “Never Again,” the Museum for Memory seeks to build social and cultural awareness. Estevez explains that is is not enough to confront threats coming from “negationist behavior and the denial of truth.” Rather, he says:
Education is the spirit behind the museum that teaches the values of tolerance and non-violence, because the sacrifice of the victims, and the people’s collective pain, can only be repaired if justice — through a culture of peace and human rights — becomes permanent in our country.”
Estevez suggests linking the slogan “Never Again” with the sense of urgency to combat the prevailing impunity:
More than ever, ‘Never Again’ needs to open a dialogue within society. This is because there is an ethical consistency in defending human rights violated during the dictatorship and defending those same rights if they are violated in times of democracy.”
On August 19, Chilean media reported Pinera announcing the creation of a “Museum of Democracy” to showcase Chile’s democratic history and its return after Pinochet. According to Pinera, Chile has lost the “capacity for dialogue — hence the establishment of a Democracy Museum, “because democracy is a fundamental value that should not be taken for granted, because there are countries that have lost it.”
Given the recent developments in safeguarding impunity, however,Chile is still far from embodying democratic values.
Chile: where torturers seek the prosecution of investigative writers
For Javier Rebolledo, who has dedicated his work and writing to uncovering and documenting dictatorship crimes, justice has proved to be nothing but a travesty. In July, El Desconcierto reported that former DINA agent Raul Pablo Quintana Salazar, who is serving a prison sentence in Punta Peuco, pressed charges of calumny against Rebolledo for information included in his book Camaleon. If the court rules in Quintana’s favor, the author faces a sentence of up to three years in prison.
The purportedly injurious information relates to court testimony in which a former officer, Gregorio Romero Hernandez, witnessed Quintana inserting a carrot into the vagina of Nelsa Gadea Galan during a torture session at Tejas Verdes. To this day, Gadea, who is from Uruguay, is one of the disappeared.
It is the first time in Chilean history that a journalist has been prosecuted for reporting and making public the crimes committed during the dictatorship. Quintana’s daughter is appearing in court on behalf of her father. The former DINA agent is legally represented by Juan Carlos Manns, who was also the lawyer for the late DINA Chief, Manuel Contreras Sepulveda.
Rebolledo told MintPress:
My trial could affect Chilean journalism. The punishment becomes a weapon against journalism, to deter journalists from doing their job. It is not only threatening the media but also all citizens. Throughout the whole world, even in Latin America, the crime of of calumny has been removed from the criminal courts. Prison sentences have been replaced with economic fines and punishments that are decided in the civil court.”
The court will issue its verdict on October 9. During his hearing on August 16, it was suggested that Rebolledo serve 541 days in prison. In comments to the press after the hearing, he insisted, “I am not going to retract or correct anything, and I do not accept the prison sentence that they are offering.”
Rebolledo believes that his case must raise two important questions: “What kind of journalism is wanted in Chile? And what role should journalism play within Chilean society?”
There is a general feeling in Chile among those involved in the struggle for memory that Chile’s judicial system is influenced by the right wing and is thus becoming a politicized tool. Rebolledo explains why:
The judiciary is appointed under the influence of the executive. Therefore, there is political influence when a judge is appointed — influence that is well known by the media. Each political party introduces its candidate for the judiciary, within a political balance that has been consented to by parliament. So the judiciary is not independent.”
Rebolledo’s concluding remarks focus on the discrepancies in the Chilean justice system:
Former military officers convicted of human-rights violations are allowed to press charges and sue. Someone like Raul Pablo Quintana, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, can request that a journalist who is honestly doing his job, be prosecuted and sentenced to prison. All I did was to quote a judicial sentence that is written in a judicial report and that describes a crime that was committed by Quintana.”
Top Photo | Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera, speaks to journalists on the mount of olives overlooking Jerusalem’s Old city, March 4 , 2011. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. She writes about the struggle for memory in Palestine and Chile, historical legitimacy, the ramifications of settler-colonialism, the correlation between humanitarian aid and human rights abuses, the United Nations as an imperialist organisation, indigenous resistance, la nueva cancion Chilena and Latin American revolutionary philosophy with a particular focus on Fidel Castro, Jose Marti and Jose Carlos Mariategui. Her articles, book reviews, interviews, and blogs have been published in Middle East Monitor, Upside Down World, Truthout, Irish Left Review, Gramsci Oggi, Cubarte, Rabble.ca, Toward Freedom, History Today, Chileno and other outlets, including academic publications and translations into several languages