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:

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