A special prison for special prisoners

Alvaro Corbalan, former official in the Pinochet regime's secret police, is serving a life sentence in a prison specially built for human rights violators.

Alvaro Corbalan, former official in the Pinochet regime’s secret police, is serving a life sentence in a prison specially built for human rights violators.

It was 20 years ago that Chile opened the Punta Peuco prison north of Santiago, a special facility to hold prisoners convicted of human rights violations. Why not send them to the regular prisons? Well, at the time the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet was still army commander, still rattling his sabre and issuing not-so-veiled threats that he would launch a coup against the new civilian government if authorities acted too hastily against human rights violators. He claimed that his former officials would be in danger from other inmates, as well as from socialist prison guards. After protracted negotiations, the government built the Punta Peuco prison to hold those convicted of human rights abuses. Its first prisoners were the former head of Pinochet’s security apparatus and one of his top agents, both wanted in the United States for their role in the 1976 car bomb assassination of a Chilean exile leader and his American co-worker in Washington.

Since then, the Punta Peuco prison has added more inmates, as Chile’s judicial system slowly works its way through the backlog of human rights cases. One of the more notorious prisoners is Alvaro Corbalan, currently serving a life sentence for several killings, including the 1982 murder of a trade union activist and that of a carpenter whose body was later found in a staged suicide tableau with a forged letter confessing to killing the trade unionist. But it seems that Corbalan has been rather busy while in prison, and Chile’s Television Nacional program, Informe Especial http://www.24horas.cl/programas/informeespecial/informe-especial-los-archivos-secretos-de-alvaro-corbalan-1725221 , reports that a recent search of his cell turned up “over 50 file folders of classified information from the dictatorship, over 30 identity documents and state-of-the-art electronic equipment.” The identity documents included some with false names Corbalan used while working for the secret police.There was also a cell phone, a new notebook computer and two modems giving Corbalan broadband access within the prison. According to officials, the confiscated file folders contained detailed personal information on two former justice ministers as well as the prison’s entire management staff, plus files containing information on 18 cases involving the Pinochet regime’s security forces which may be of interest to several human rights investigations currently underway. But how was all this stuff smuggled into the prison?

Corbalan has left the prison on a number of occasions, sometimes for medical checkups at the Hospital Militar and sometimes on day passes—several years ago he was spotted at a yacht club on the Chilean coast, accompanied by family and friends. Will prison officials now keep him on a tighter leash? Stay tuned.

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