The Chilean capital can be downright gorgeous in September, with the beginning of spring weather while the snowy peaks of the Andes still gleam in the distance. It is a month of historic dates for Chile: the 11th marks the anniversary of the brutal 1973 military coup and the beginning of the Pinochet dictatorship, the 18th is the country’s Independence Day and the 19th is a day honouring the Chilean army, with a military parade. It is also the anniversary of one of the saddest incidents during the Pinochet years, the death of a brave French priest working in a poor area of Santiago. My colleague Tim Frasca, who blogs at http://bipedtwilight.blogspot.co.uk/ , was there when the killing happened, and has the following guest post:
Death of ‘Andrés de La Victoria’
I interviewed the French missionary priest André Jarlan at the parish house in La Victoria in Santiago’s southern zone sometime in the autumn or winter of 1984 (i.e., March to July in the southern hemisphere) to ask him about the community that he had been sent to serve less than a year before. La Victoria was a famous radical stronghold in Santiago as it had been formed through a land seizure some decades before. These seizures were typically led by leftist parties as a way for the rapidly growing numbers of urban poor to establish themselves in the city given that they had few other options for obtaining permanent housing. Often, the government would bend to the persistance of the occupiers and facilitate the creation of a new community on agricultural or idle lands. This was much more difficult to achieve during the Pinochet dictatorship but nonetheless still happened.
Jarlan, or ‘Padre Andrés’ as he was known, was cautiously forthcoming but not particularly interested in the overtly political aspects of the ongoing agitation against the military regime. He saw his role as essentially pastoral and worked under the guidance of the neighborhood’s senior priest, Pierre Dubois, another French missionary. They both lived in the two-story parish house on one of the neighborhood’s dusty streets.
La Victoria always participated in the regular protests called against the regime, and its residents were a constant target of beatings or outright killings. I once reported on how riot police took up positions in an empty lot across the main road bordering the enclave and fired live rounds at people gathered in small groups in the hours before a major protest. These sniper assassinations would then be described in the pro-regime newspapers as acts of ‘violence’ stemming from the protests or the result of ‘unclarified’incidents—never simply police bullets.
The night of September 4 was always a protest date because it was the anniversary of Salvador Allende’s election in 1970. I headed to La Victoria at dusk in 1984, almost exactly one year after I had arrived in Chile, knowing that getting into the area would be impossible after dark. A dozen other journalists were there in anticipation of the dust-up that inevitably would occur, including at least one other foreigner (another Frenchman).
As soon as night fell, the local kids dragged tires into the main intersections and set them on fire and scattered ‘miguelitos’ (tire-puncturing nails twisted into balls) on the streets to impede traffic. We loitered with the local youth and other residents to see what would happen.
Quite early in the evening, a cry went up alerting everyone to the arrival of the pacos or riot police. The residents, veterans of many protests, immediately scampered over roofs or ducked into alleyways to get away while two Chilean reporters stood their ground. I was in doubt about what to do and hesitated but eventually turned and ran down the street toward the parish house. Because of my moment of uncertainty, however, most of the others beat me to the gate and huddled in a small entryway with access to inside. Halfway to that point, I heard two faint popping noises that did not particularly alarm me nearly as much as the continuing sound of exploding tear gas grenades. However, they turned out to be rifle rounds; as my tape recorder was running, I captured the sound of the shots.
The riot police dismantled the barricade and roamed the streets looking for people, which we observed from the narrow passageway of the parish house. One Chilean photographer stayed on the corner and was not bothered by them. When the police withdrew, we filtered back onto the street. A short while later, a woman speaking for Father Pierre asked us all to move to another church building a few blocks away, and while we were en route, rumors began to circulate. A reporter whom I knew said she had heard that someone had been hit by a live bullet. As this was not unusual, we waited to hear more.
Once assembled in the other space, Father Pierre came to address us. He was highly upset and could barely speak but told us that he had gone upstairs to see Father André and found him slumped over his desk, dead. It was clear that he had been killed instantly by the shots fired over our heads just an hour before. Ironically, Andrés had remained in his room as he disliked the upheavals and was quietly reading the Bible when his life was cut short. The photo of his body slumped over the Bible with a tiny trickle of blood running down his neck from the bullet wound became the iconic image of the incident.
We were shocked but of course could not leave until the morning. I went straight to the Catholic Church’s human rights organization and gave the tape recording of the shots to a lawyer there, who turned it over to the judge assigned to investigate the death. I didn’t know that this would entail giving a statement at his office, which occurred some days later.
The Chilean legal system is built on a Napoleonic rather than Anglo-Saxon model,meaning that the investigation is carried out by a judge who then issues the verdict. There is no jury although the decision can be appealed to both an appellate court and eventually the supreme court. The first stage is the gathering of witness statements, which I assumed would be a low-key deposition-type procedure. Instead, I was quite taken aback to see that the courthouse was staked out by reporters. I answered all the judge’s questions and confirmed that the recording was of the shots in question. This was important as the tape was forensic evidence from which considerable data about the trajectory of the shots, and thus the location of the shooter, could be determined. Needless to say, the police had denied that any of its men was responsible for the fatal bullet.
The questions were fairly routine, and I then emerged to a barrage of questions from reporters, many from the pro-Pinochet media who were trying to find ways to obscure the obvious: that the police had fired the shots. There were a half-dozen witnesses to this fact, but these regime operatives looked for any way to muddy the waters. They asked me if I had actually seen the cops fire, and I said no since I was running in the opposite direction, away from them. That turned into a headline, ‘Foreign reporter did not see who fired fatal shot’. On the evening news on Catholic University television (which was considered the less embarrassingly Pinochetista station), this turned into, ‘The foreign reporter could not identify who had fired shots as he had already withdrawn from the spot’ (se había retirado del lugar). I thought, What a lovely euphemism for ‘running away from a cop shooting a rifle at me’.
The French reporter’s eyewitness testimony was downplayed similarly through his confusion about the proper Spanish word to describe the cops’ olive green uniforms. The two Chilean journalists who were standing right next to the cops and had not ‘withdrawn from the spot’ as they fired were never quoted.
I must say that one of the most remarkable moments of my 20 years in Chile occurred the next day when I went to the news kiosk for my morning papers and saw a full-length picture of myself on the front page of one. I was quite taken aback and said to the vendor,who saw me every day, ‘That’s me!’ He stuck his head out of the little window to look at the paper hanging there, looked up at me and replied, ‘Sí. Es usted! (yes, it’s you!)’
My mail stopped arriving for about six weeks after this incident and then started up again. When I later applied for permanent residency, the civil servant in the immigration office said that there were ‘political problems’ with my application. I said in response, ‘There are no political problems, only professional problems’. Eventually, whatever obstacles had existed were overlooked—I assumed they had bigger fish to fry. The whole process took a year instead of the usual three months.
My telephone also acted funny, but that was a constant of life in Santiago, and I can’t really say if anyone was listening in. I always assumed they were and if so, they learned a lot about my love life