More on the Valech Commission victim list

The Valech Commission’s recently updated list of human rights victims has a few names whose inclusion has upset many Chileans.  The panel’s former president, Maria Luisa Sepulveda, said that their mandate was to study these individuals’ treatment at the hands of the military regime, not judge their subsequent actions.  They include an accused assassin and two former leftists who collaborated with the Pinochet regime’s security forces after being tortured, and the backstories make compelling, if grim, reading.

Galvarino Apablaza had been an active member of Chile’s communist party when he was arrested in wake of the 1973 and tortured. Following his release, he went into exile, then returned  in 1986 to help found the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front, an armed leftwing group that attempted to assassinate Pinochet that year.  The return to democracy in 1990 did not cause Apablaza to lay down his arms and the following year a rightwing member of Chile’s senate, Jaime Guzman, was killed by the group.  Chilean officials have linked the killing to Apablaza, who was granted asylum in Argentina—and Argentine authorities have refused to extradite him.

Then there is Luz Arce, a former member of Salvador Allende’s paramilitary bodyguards, the Grupo de Amigos Personales.  She, too, was arrested after the military coup and subjected to a horrifying barrage of torture, beatings and gang rape before being brainwashed and coerced into collaborating with the DINA, the regime’s brutal security agency.  Arce later gave testimony to the first official human rights inquiry in 1990 and wrote a book about her experiences, offering a rare look at the inner workings of the DINA and its activities in Chile and abroad. El Infierno was published in Santiago in 1993 and in 2004 the University of Wisconsin Press brought out an English version, The Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile.  An excerpt:

“Sit down, Luz.  Untie her and take off her blindfold.  I can’t talk if I can’t see her eyes,” said a sickly sweet voice. “Ok, Lucecita, the two of us are going to talk. Bring some coffees! Lucecita, what sign are you?”


Of all the questions in the world, I would never have thought they would ask me that one at a time like that. He repeated it slowly, as if he were relishing each syllable.

“Y-O-U-R S-I-G-N, of the Z-O-D-I-A-C.”

Another leftist-turned-collaborator is Miguel Estay Reino, who also broke under torture and began working with the Chilean air force and police.  He was later indicted for his role in a notorious triple murder in 1985 and is currently in prison.  The inclusion of Estay and Arce on the list has outraged support groups for families of the disappeared, who were disappointed that many of the cases they have documented over the years were not added to the Valech Commission’s list and who are demanding the list be revised.




Still no justice for Boris Weisfeiler

On Friday the Valech Commission, the panel undertaking a further investigation into human rights abuses under the 1973-1990 Pinochet regime, published its final report online, listing additional killings and abuses committed during this period. An additional 30 deaths were added, raising the death toll to 3,095 and the total number of victims at just over 40,000.

Missing from this revised list is Boris Weisfeiler, the Penn State mathematics professor who disappeared while hiking in southern Chile in 1985 and the only American desaparecido. He was an experienced outdoorsman who had hiked alone in remote parts of Peru, Uzbekistan, Russia and Canada, but his trail in the Andean foothills brought him near Colonia Dignidad,  a secretive German colony used as a detention center by the regime’s secret police (see earlier posts on March 21 and 30). According to declassified U.S. State Department documents, Chilean witnesses reported seeing Weisfeiler at the compound.  His case has been under judicial investigation for years, but no indictments have been made, and the Valech Commission appears not to have found enough evidence to include the case in its report.

Olga Weisfeiler, who submitted her brother’s case to the Valech Commission in March of last year, posted a statement on her family’s web site expressing her extreme disappointment with the decision. “My brother is a victim of the political repression of the Pinochet regime, even if the Commission did not have the proof at its disposal to formally accept his case as a human rights atrocity,” she wrote. “I have waited over 25 years for both truth and justice in his case, and I will continue to wait for the government of Chile, and the Courts, to do what must be done to find him, and punish those who are responsible for depriving him of his life and liberty, and taking him from his family. It is also time for the U.S. government to make clear to Chile that the case of Boris Weisfeiler must be resolved and to provide all necessary investigative assistance toward that long overdue goal.”

The Weisfeiler case is still in the hands of a Chilean prosecutor, but it is unclear how the country’s judicial system will proceed. Earlier this year Olga made her tenth visit to Chile to meet with authorities in Santiago and U.S. Embassy officials, and came away with a somewhat more optimistic feeling that the case was being taken seriously. But now she told me in an e mail that she has “no idea what if anything will happen with the investigation now.”

Justice for an air force general

General Bachelet's letters were published in 2006.

They broke me from within. I found myself with comrades from the Chilean air force, whom I had known for 20 years, students of mine, who treated me like a criminal or a dog.” –General Alberto Bachelet, in a letter to his son, October 16, 1973

He refused to go along with the coup and was arrested at his office in the Chilean defense ministry on September 11, 1973. He was released that night, but a few days later his home was raided and he was brought to the Chilean air force academy where he was interrogated and tortured over a 30-hour period by some of his former colleagues.  He was moved to the air force hospital and held incommunicado.  A few weeks later he was sent home and placed under house arrest, then on December 18 authorities arrested him again and brought him to Santiago’s public jail.

Four months later a war tribunal began against “Bachelet and others.” But General Alberto Bachelet was already dead, having suffered a fatal heart attack while in prison.  This blogger received an eyewitness account of Bachelet’s death from Nelson Morales Leal, a former army reserve officer so disturbed by the abuses committed in wake of the coup that while on a day pass he deliberately got himself arrested for disorderly conduct in order go get out of the army. Morales ended up in the same jail with Bachelet and other political detainees.  He described how on March 12, 1974 he and his fellow prisoners were being herded out of their cells for lunch when Bachelet collapsed. Morales and other prisoners brought the general back to his cell, where he died. A sympathetic prison guard notified Radio Balmaceda, one of the slightly more independent radio stations still operating after the coup, and the subsequent broadcast prompted authorities to shut down the station.

Bachelet might never have imagined that his daughter Michelle would one day become Latin America’s first female defense minister, and later Chile’s first woman president.And now an investigation has opened into the circumstances of his death, led by the same judge who led the recent inquiry into the death of former president Salvador Allende (which was deemed to have been a suicide). Judge Mario Carroza told Radio Cooperativa that he would review the case, which was presented by a group of relatives of political prisoners who died during the 1973-1990 military regime.


Chile did not come to a halt during this week’s two days of protest, despite student and labor groups’ efforts to call a national strike.  A 16-year old boy was shot and killed, over 200 people arrested and government authorities and protest organizers offered different figures on the number of Chileans taking part: 175,000 vs 600,000. There were several incidents of looting and vandalism by encapuchados, the masked youths who seems to turn up at every demonstration. Are they petty criminals?  Provocateurs working for the other side?  No one seems to know, but Arturo Martinez, president of Chile’s largest labor organizations, complained that “the encapuchados sully our movement.”

The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent background piece on the protests:


Chile faces a two-day national strike this week called by student organizations, labor unions and several center-left political parties who are demanding a new constitution, education and labor reforms and increased health care spending.  The last time any civic or political groups called for a national strike was during the Pinochet regime in 1983, and for obvious reasons today’s protesters are less easily intimidated.

But things are already getting ugly.  One student protester on a hunger strike is in critical condition, and Chile’s Supreme Court has ordered police protection for Camila Vallejo, president of the University of Chile’s student federation, and her family. Vallejo has received death threats through social networks and earlier this month a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Culture sent a Twitter message with a phrase used by General Augusto Pinochet: If you kill the bitch, you get rid of the litter. The official was quickly removed from her post, though she denied the message was referring to Vallejo.

Inflammatory language has also surfaced in statements by some in the protest movement.  The president of Chile’s teachers union, Jaime Gajardo, compared police measures to control demonstrations to “Zionist methods of apartheid” and that they were typical of “Zionist movements.” Gajardo’s comments were interpreted as reference to Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who is Jewish, and came under heavy fire from both conservatives and protest organizers.  The president of the Catholic University student federation said Gajardo’s statements “did not represent the student movement,” while a right-wing congressman said the statements demonstrate why Chile’s public education system is so bad. Gajardo later apologized.

Stay tuned.



The slow pace of truth and justice

First there was the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (, which in 1991 reported that 2,279 persons were killed for political reasons under the Pinochet regime, with another 641 cases which researchers could not conclusively determine were politically motivated murders.  And there were another 449 cases of individuals who had disappeared, but no information other than their names could be determined.

Then there was the Valech Commission report of 2004  which documented arrests and torture under the regime, with testimonies from 35,865 people, of which 27,255 were deemed to be credible ( The commission’s work was criticized for being too limited—witnesses’ statements were taken for only six months and could only be given during office hours—but it prompted Chilean army commander General Julio Cheyre to publicly acknowledge the military’s abuses during that period.

And now comes the second Valech report, presented this week to President Sebastian Pinera. Shortly before she left office outgoing president Michelle Bachelet reopened the commission, which identified another 9,800 people arrested and tortured.  This brings the total of officially recognized victims to just over 40,000, with the number of those killed raised to 3,065. Survivors will be eligible for a modest state pension of about $260 per month.

There are still dozens of former regime officials facing prosecution for human rights crimes, with about 70 currently serving prison sentences. But the Chilean judicial system is so overloaded that the country’s prosecutors went on strike August 17, complaining of massive backlogs and insufficient funding.

A road, a park, a controversy

You can’t drive all the way to the southern end of Chile, where the lakes give way to an archipelago and the narrow mainland becomes even narrower.  About 45 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, the overland traveller must take two ferries to reach Chaiten,  the town adjacent to a volcano that erupted in 2008 and forced the evacuation of its 3,000 residents.

There are plans to extend the Carretera Austral (formerly known as the Carretera General Augusto Pinochet) to connect the remote towns in Chile’s far south, but the land on this narrowest stretch of mainland territory is covered by the Parque Pumalin(, a nature reserve created by American businessman and environmentalist Douglas Tompkins. The park’s defenders argue that building a road would damage the area, which supports small organic farms and eco-tourism. According to its website, the project “is aware of the need to include neighbours of the park to create a shared feeling for the need to protect wildlands and biodiversity, often a consciousness that is lacking due to the cultural and historical conditions.”

This week the Chilean minister of public works Laurence Golborne (former mining minister who oversaw last year’s rescue of 33 trapped miners) met with Tompkins to inform him the government was going ahead with the road extension and was confiscating the first six miles of territory inside Parque Pumalin.  Judging by Tompkins’ and Golborne’s statements following the meeting, the encounter was relatively civil.

The story in the Santiago Times:

Unequal schooling

It was five years ago that Chilean secondary students launched a protest movement that mobilized schools up and down the country and as far away as Easter Island.  The students wanted more equitable funding for elementary and secondary school education; the government of Michelle Bachelet made a few concessions but no deep reforms were made, even as the protest movement seemed to die out. (Bachelet did expand nursery school coverage, from 12 to 38 percent, during her four years in office).

This month the student protests returned with a vengeance, with additional demands for a more affordable higher education system. Over the past three decades private universities—of varying quality—have multiplied in Chile and the country now has an estimated 25 public and around 50 private universities. The number of university students has increased from 150,000 students in 1981 to 1.1 million today and two Chilean universities—the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and the Universidad de Chile—rank among the top ten higher education institutions in Latin America.The Chilean educational picture might not look too bad when compared with that of other Latin American countries, but Chile now belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and sets a far higher bar for itself.  It has the worst income inequality of any OECD member country and the organization also notes corresponding high levels of mistrust among Chileans. Only 13% of Chileans express high trust in their fellow citizens, much less than the OECD average of 59%. The education system is not providing much social mobility, it seems.

The OECD report notes improvements on Chilean students’ scores on standardized tests, but that outcomes “still need to catch up with OECD standards and equity problems should be addressed.”To read the full report:

A good background piece on Chilean education was published a few months ago in the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce magazine:

Pinera and his changing cabinet

The Economist has a piece on its Americas blog about Fernando Echeverria’s three-day stint as Chile’s energy minister and wonders why no one noticed the conflict of interest—that the state oil company owed money to his construction company—before he took office. The article is entitled “A stubbornly persistent old boys’ network.”

In Calama, an old wound

Leonilda Rivas spent decades looking for her son's remains, but died three years ago before lab tests identified his bone fragments. Photo by Paula Allen

Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal has identified the remains of five men executed in the northern mining town of Calama during the aftermath of the 1973 military coup.  The bone fragments were discovered in the Atacama Desert and sent to a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria for testing. Last week officials finally turned the remains over to the families.

The case is part of the notorious Caravan of Death, a series of summary executions ordered by a visiting army delegation from Santiago that toured five provincial cities. The delegation suspected that local military officials were dealing too leniently with leftists and even went so far as to arrest, imprison and torture a military judge who had presided over the trials of political prisoners but whose prison sentences were deemed not severe enough. In Calama, 26 prisoners were taken from their cells and executed “in total disregard for the law in a cruel and barbarous manner,” according to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.

The victims’ bodies were never returned to their families, and quickly buried in the desert outskirts of Calama. A few years later the army attempted to hide the evidence of these and other killings by removing the bodies from makeshift graves in various parts of the country and dumping them into the sea. But the hasty removal still left fragments of bone and clothing behind.  Some of the bereaved wives and mothers began their own search, going out into the desert with shovels.  In July of 1990 a former soldier, now living outside the country, revealed the site’s location near Calama, and the remains of 13 of the men were later delivered to their families.

Other families were left in limbo, but continued searching the Atacama. Leonilda Rivas, pictured above, never gave up hope of finding the remains of her 23 year old son Manuel Hidalgo and giving him a proper burial. Her son’s remains were among those delivered to their families, but Rivas was not present at the Servicio Medico Legal’s brief ceremony–she died in 2008.

Chilean film director Patricio Guzman incorporated the Calama women’s search into his prize-winning documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, a meditation on science, history and human rights in the world’s driest desert, whose clear skies attract astronomers from around the world.

“I wish that the telescopes didn’t just look in the sky but also see through the earth so that we could find them,” one of the widows tells Guzman.

A link to the trailer for Nostalgia for the Light: