Time Magazine and Chile

Chile’s young president, Gabriel Boric, is on the cover of Time Magazine, with a flattering profile of this “new kind of leftist leader.”

Now let’s travel back in time to September of 1970, with the Cold War raging. Here’s Time’s cover story on Salvador Allende and the “Marxist threat in the Americas.”

What a difference 52 years makes.

Full disclosure here: this blogger did her master’s thesis on Time and Newsweek coverage of the Allende government. Time was very critical; Newsweek less so. A few years later I became a Time stringer in Venezuela and after that, a Newsweek stringer in Chile.

Book review: The Condor Trials

The Condor Trials: Transnational Repression and Human Rights in South America, by Francesca Lessa.  Yale University Press.

During my last visit to Santiago I had lunch with a woman who worked at the Chilean Foreign ministry’s trade department. It was a warm spring day and we ate at an outdoor café near some of the city’s historic buildings. The setting was pleasant, but the conversation was grim as she told me something of her family’s history.

In the aftermath of Chile’s brutal 1973 military coup, they fled to Buenos Aires. But the Argentine capital was no safe haven. In early 1975 security forces arrested her father and interrogated him about his two sons. A year and a half later one son was arrested, along with his Argentine wife and sister-in-law, never to be seen again. The family moved to a different house while continuing to search for them, only to endure more terror: my lunch companion and another sister-in-law were arrested and taken to a secret detention site where they were held for eight hours and brutally interrogated by both Chilean and Argentine officers, who warned them to leave the country immediately or face the same fate as her missing brother.

Her family’s story is one of many discussed in Francesca Lessa’s new book on the long, long struggle for justice in South America’s human rights trials. The title refers to Operation Condor, a brutal campaign of cross-border arrests, murders and forced disappearances by military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia spearheaded by the Pinochet regime’s security forces.  Some of the best-known cases were the car bomb assassinations of former Chilean army commander Carlos Prats and his wife in Buenos Aires in 1975 and of former Chilean defense minister Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976.  And yet, these cross-border campaigns of terror and repression did not begin with Operation Condor. In the 1960s Brazil’s military government began monitoring and harassing Brazilians living in neighboring countries, actions which escalated as more South American governments came under military rule.

Lessa is a lecturer in Latin American studies at Oxford University, who studied human rights investigations and trials while based in Montevideo, conducting field research from 2014-2017 and analyzing over 3,000 documents from six different countries. In addition, she attended seventy-four hearings in Argentina’s Condor trials. Remnants of the old repressive apparatus endured—in February 2017 she and a group of other human rights researchers, activists, lawyers, public prosecutors and government officials received death threats from a Uruguayan group calling itself the “Comando General Pedro Barneix.”  In an e mail Lessa told me she then left Montevideo for Argentina, but the Uruguayans in the group remained in the country, where the government “never provided any protection and very limited support.” The Comando Barneix briefly resurfaced during Uruguay’s elections in late 2019, when it sent out threatening messages to Uruguayan voters in an attempt to sway the vote in favor of the right-wing candidate (who ended up winning).  Authorities eventually made one arrest, and investigations are continuing.

The book will be published in Spanish this September and here’s a link to an interview with Lessa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GA44sszBetY

The curious case of the globetrotting colonel

It’s been over three decades since the Pinochet dictatorship ended in Chile and by now, you’d think most of its surviving killers and torturers would be behind bars. Quite a few are, and Chile even has a special jail to hold such prisoners.

But every now and then someone manages to elude justice. Consider the case of former army colonel Walter Klug, charged with the forced disappearance and killing of a university student and of more than 20 employees at two hydroelectric plants in southern Chile shortly after the 1973 military coup. In 2015 he was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for the first crime, but Klug, who holds dual Chilean and German citizenship, managed to leave the country on his German passport. He took up residency in Germany but two years ago travelled to Parma, Italy with his wife, an engineer who was attending a conference. Italian police arrested Klug at his hotel and later extradited him to Chile.

Here’s where it gets murky. Klug’s legal team successfully appealed his conviction in the case of the missing university student, though why this didn’t happen back in 2015 is unclear. The case of the missing hydroelectric plant workers was still moving through the courts, and. presumably Klug was not supposed to leave Chile while this was going on. Nevertheless, Klug fled the country again, using his German passport and earlier this week a Chilean human rights group reported that he was in Argentina, awaiting a flight to Germany—which has no extradition treaty with Chile.

Stay tuned.

Update: On Saturday, June 12, Argentine police arrested Klug outside his hotel in Buenos Aires and at last report he was due to appear before a judge to begin the process of extraditing him back to Chile.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8hn-sYsvmI

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: https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB523-Los-Quemados-Chiles-Pinochet-Covered-up-Human-Rights-Atrocity/

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.

Judge Juan Guzmán, RIP

Juan Guzmán Tapia, the courageous Chilean judge who prosecuted Augusto Pinochet for the notorious Caravan of Death and other human rights crimes, died on January 22. He was 81. My last blog post was about him, and here’s a link to a piece he wrote several years ago for Le Monde Diplomatique about why Chile needs a new constitution to replace the one imposed in 1980 under the dictatorship: https://www.lemondediplomatique.cl/por-que-es-necesaria-una-nueva-constitucion-por-juan-guzman-tapia.html

At the Edge of the World: Memories of a Judge Who Indicted Pinochet

Judge Juan Guzman

Judge Juan Guzmán addressing the Center for Latin American Studies in Berkeley in 2007.

I’ve come upon this a bit late, but a memoir by Juan Guzmán Tapia, the courageous Chilean judge who prosecuted the late dictator General Augusto Pinochet, has been translated into English by my friend and colleague Lezak Shallat and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley has published an excerpt.

Early in 1998 Guzmán accepted a petition from relatives of five Chilean Communist Party members who were arrested and never seen again. Their cases, and other similar instances of forced disappearance, had been documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 1990 report. But a 1978 amnesty law imposed by the dictatorship had thwarted many previous human rights cases presented in Chilean courts.  Guzmán thought of a different legal approach: such arrests could be considered kidnappings, in legal terms, and since the detainees’ bodies had never been found their cases could be viewed as continuing violations (secuestro permanente) and thus prosecuted.

Guzmán’s work opened the way for dozens more lawsuits from Chileans whose relatives had disappeared during the the dictatorship. Some of the missing were believed to have been killed during the Caravan of Death, an infamous series of mass executions shortly after the 1973 military coup.  He interviewed retired military officers who had been on duty in the regions at the time of the killings, and while many denied everything others provided chilling testimonies and confessions. Guzmán was also the subject of a 2008 documentary, The Judge and the General.

This blogger had the privilege of interviewing Guzmán as part of my research for my second book.  His original memoir had been recently published, and he autographed my copy, which is sitting on my desk as I write this.

And now for something different

This blogger recently had her very first piece published in a literary magazine. The spring issue of Slightly Foxed has my article, Gone Fishing, about my late father’s love for the works of British-Canadian poet Robert Service.  His favorite was The Cremation of Sam McGee, a ballad about a prospector in the Yukon who honors his dying friend’s request for cremation in the wild rather than interment in an icy grave.

And there is a Chile connection.  I was living and working in Santiago at the time of his death, which just happened to occur the day after gunmen made an assassination attempt against dictator Augusto Pinochet.  I was up all night filing stories, began a full day of reporting in the morning and had just collapsed into bed that evening when I got the phone call of his death.  Some bitter irony here.

I flew back to the U.S. a few days later and at the reception following my father’s funeral I read The Cremation of Sam McGee.  And then returned to Chile, and the dictatorship’s crackdown.

A short Chile round up

Spain’s El Pais has an excellent piece on the social prejudice underlying Chile’s recent unrest, citing a recent United Nations survey which showed that four out of every ten Chileans has suffered some form of discrimination for their social class, dress, neighborhood or job. An excerpt:

At a shopping center located in an affluent area of Santiago—a site which until recently would have been an unlikely venue for protests—a furious man confronts one of the demonstrators, who recorded the confrontation. “Go back to your shitty slum,” he ordered her.”

My colleague Odette Magnet has this column on Chile’s journalist association web site, noting that her country’s civil society is now “more alert and more empowered.”

And here’s a good story  from The Guardian on how a Chilean protest song, “The Rapist in Your Path,”  is spreading across the world.

Chile, enraged



This blogger’s heart is breaking as the news from Chile keeps getting worse. For the past several days Santiago has been rocked by protests over an increase in public transportation fares, and these protests have given way to rioting and looting. Which in turn has given way to the government imposing a state of emergency, sending the army into the streets and imposing a 7 pm to 6 am curfew.  It seems like a flashback to the dark days of the dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Three people were killed when a supermarket in Santiago was set on fire, and some airlines are cancelling flights to the Chilean capital–airport and airline employees can’t get to work.  And the unrest has spread to other Chilean cities.

My friend and colleague Odette Magnet sent me this report from Santiago:

“Friday afternoon, 4 p.m.  I am on the corner of Tobalaba and Providencia avenues, trying to get home in the La Reina municipality of Santiago.  Hundreds of people are on foot, walking calmly and in silence.  It was hot, but people were not complaining.  The buses were not stopping because they were full to capacity. I counted 40 taxis passing by, all filled. Dozens of cars with no passengers, only their drivers, passed by.  I tried to make eye contact. Nothing. No one stopped to offer anyone a lift. I was shocked. The slogan that we’re a solidarity country seems like a joke. Another popular myth.

Santiago awoke on Saturday the 19th with tanks and soldiers in the streets, under a state of emergency.  Along with thousands of my compatriots, I found the scene painful, and in a split second we were back in the dark days of the military dictatorship. As if that weren’t enough, that same day President Sebastián Piñera declared a curfew.

For 17 years Chile was an armored country, with successive states of exception: the state of emergency, the state of siege, of disturbance to the internal peace. Cruel dictatorship. This is the  first time a state of emergency has been imposed since Chile returned to democratic rule, with the brief exception of the 2010 earthquake.  Chile’s digital newspaper El Mostrador bore this headline: “The day after black October 18, the military controls Santiago,  as it did in the 1980s.” But despite this people beat saucepans and honked car horns throughout the capital. The city was under a state of emergency, but it was not asleep. As the hours passed the protests grew and Piñera was forced to suspend the fare increase in the Santiago metro.

Up till then the government had managed to evade the source of the conflict, it only reinforced police action and applied the State Security Law. As we Chileans put it, he threw gasoline on the fire.

For a week now the Chilean capital has been witness to daily demonstrations by students protesting the fare hike.  Saturday’s tally: 308 arrests, 500 soldiers in the streets and reports of 11 people injured.  41 of the nearly 140 Metro stations were damaged, and some were burned. 16 buses were also burned. Police officers injured.  There was looting in some parts of Santiago and a building belonging to the state energy corporation, Enel, was burned.

What happened over the past few days is the unmistakeable scream of a country that can’t take any more. There are millions with pent up rage who feel they have nothing left to lose.  The underlying reason is not the Metro fare hike but the scandalous inequality in our society. Chile is the most unequal country in the region. This malaise was always going to erupt: people feel defenceless in the face of the rising cost of utilities, education, health care and the mismanagement of pension funds.

In the face of despair, extreme actions. Students began fare jumping in the Metro and a group of vandals did the rest, looting stores, banks, burning buses and destroying traffic lights.

Meanwhile, Piñera was writing his official speech and giving assurances that our country, in comparison with the rest of Latin America, “is an oasis.”

Something is very wrong here. Chile’s soul is rotting.”



Father Jose Aldunate, RIP

Father Jose Aldunate at a human rights demonstration in Santiago during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet

He was born into one of Chile’s oldest families but spent most of his life working for his country’s poor and campaigning for human rights during the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Jose Aldunate passed away at the age of 102 on September 28.

This blogger had the opportunity to interview Father Aldunate, known simply as Pepe to many, in the 1980s when he was a parish priest in a poor Santiago neighborhood.  I wanted to pick his brains about living conditions for low income Chileans and what social services, if any, they could access. I expected to hear some kind of political speech, but Aldunate was thoughtful and deliberative. There was a foundation for malnourished children, he said, and some of his parishioners had taken their children there, receiving good care. But unemployment was high, and many of those who did have jobs worked in harsh environments.

He told me of one young man who worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, operating a factory machine. When he finished for the day, another worker arrived to begin the day’s second shift. The machine was only shut down on Sundays.

Aldunate had spent part of his boyhood in the United Kingdom (“I had an English nanny!”), attending a Jesuit boarding school in northern England where he played rugby and did very well academically. Back in Chile he followed his older brother into the Jesuits, later dividing his time between teaching and ministering to poor communities.  And he didn’t just minister: Aldunate sought jobs as a laborer in order to better understand his parishioners’ worlds. At the time of the 1973 military coup he started working alongside construction workers in the city of Concepcion, in southern Chile. His residence was raided by soldiers, who confiscated issues of the Jesuit magazine.  People were being arrested around him, but he was spared, and he later speculated it was because his prematurely gray hair made him look like a harmless elderly bystander. He spent five years in Concepcion, working half the year teaching and the other half as a construction worker.

Back in Santiago he worked in a neighborhood which became the site of one of the dictatorship’s most egregious abuses: the case of los quemados, the burned ones. In 1986 two teenagers, one a photographer who had grown up in Washington, D.C., were arrested by soldiers during a demonstration and set on fire.  The case drew international attention, with CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace bringing a film crew to the neighborhood.  What would happen, he asked Aldunate, if anyone from the area who witnessed the attack offered to testify?

“It would be dangerous for them,” Aldunate told them.

I obtained a copy of the 60 Minutes segment and invited him to my house to see the program.  He arrived, smiled at my infant daughter sleeping in her bassinet, and watched the video without comment.

I later interviewed him for ABC radio on the anti-torture movement he had helped organize. It was a small group that included many Catholic priests and nuns, who staged brief demonstrations near police stations and any other sites where prisoners were interrogated. At the end of the interview I asked him if he could imagine a time in the future when the movement would no longer be necessary.  He broke into a big smile.

“Oh, I hope so,” he said. “I hope for the day when we can happily dissolve the group because it is not needed.”

That day came the following decade, when Chile returned to democracy. A notorious detention site, Villa Grimaldi, was converted into a peace park and open-air museum and Aldunate participated in the inauguration ceremony.  A group of former prisoners and their families walked through the double metal gate they had entered as detainees, and then the gate was locked securely behind them. The gated entrance was to never be used again, and Aldunate was appointed guardian of the keys.

“These walls which hid death and torture today will have signs of life,” he said.

I last saw Aldunate in 2007, when I visited him in a residence for retired priests in downtown Santiago.  Most of his vision was gone, he walked slowly but was as lucid as ever and was still writing occasionally for the Jesuit magazine. I introduced myself as one of the many foreign journalists who had interviewed him back in the 1980s and mentioned our last interview. He recounted how, with democracy re-established in Chile, members of the group met and decided it was no longer needed. Nine years later he was awarded a national prize for human rights.

One of the board members of the converted Villa Grimaldi made a comment to me that seemed to perfectly sum up this extraordinary man:

“I think Pepe is not of this world.”