An old crime, now a film

It was one of the most horrifying crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship, two young Chileans deliberately set on fire by soldiers during a protest in Santiago in 1986.  One died, the other was scarred for life, but the case made headlines around the world, in part because the dead teenager, Rodrigo Rojas, had grown up in Washington, D.C. This story is now a feature length film, La Mirada Incendiada, due to be released April 9th.

Here’s a link to the trailer:

And a link to the National Security Archive’s collection of declassified U.S. Embassy documents on the case detailing witness intimidation and how the Posta Central hospital, where the victims were initially treated, offered them “archaic and insufficient” treatment. There is also an account by a trusted contact within the Chilean uniformed police, the carabineros, who prepared a report on the case–which Pinochet refused to accept—and shows a growing rift between the carabineros and the Chilean army:

Rojas was a 19-year-old photographer who accompanied a group of University of Santiago students to one of the Chilean capital’s poorer neighborhoods. Some civilians, possibly vigilantes, began shooting at them. The young people were running away when one of the group, Carmen Gloria Quintana, stumbled and fell. Rojas was helping her up when the two were surrounded by army troops, who beat them, sprayed them with a flammable substance and set them on fire. The soldiers then wrapped them in blankets, threw them into their vehicle and drove them to a town north of Santiago and dumped them in a ditch.

The case received extensive coverage in the U.S. media, with a segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. The U.S. ambassador, along with a handful of European diplomats, attended Rojas’ funeral, where they were eyewitnesses to the police attacking the crowd of mourners with tear gas and water cannon. There were even attempts to seize Rojas’s coffin.

Chilean journalists covering the case were also threatened. My friend and colleague Odette Magnet, who for eight years wrote about human rights for the weekly newsmagazine Hoy, recalls receiving phone calls after midnight in which security agents played a recording of a typewriter and machine gun fire. In another incident, she and an American colleague were riding a bus which two security agents boarded and accompanied them to their destination.

Carmen Gloria Quintana was later moved to a specialist burn unit at a Montreal hospital and Hoy magazine published a cover photograph of the ambulance taking her to the airport.  She underwent multiple surgeries, months of treatment, but eventually graduated from university, married, had children and later served as science attaché at the Chilean Embassy in Canada, where she still lives. She visits Chile from time to time.

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